|Henry Ford, bronze, by Hans Wollner (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)|
Henry Ford had his good qualities: he revolutionized manufacturing. He was a populizer. He didn't invent the assembly line, but took the idea from the overhead trolleys carrying carcasses through the Chicago stockyards and applied it to automobiles. He didn't invent the car, but made it affordable, cutting the cost by 2/3. He paid his workers more—$5 a day, double the going rate, he said so they could afford cars themselves, but also because the assembly line work was seen as so mind-numbingly dull that he had trouble keeping workers. He didn't coin the term "mass production," but put it on the nation's lips after using it as a title for his 1926 Encyclopedia Britannica article.
Ford tried to end World War I, chartering an ocean liner and sending it to Europe stuffed with peace activists.
The good parts, of course, must be balanced by the bad. He blamed that war—all wars really—on the Jews. Ford was a foaming anti-Semite, his Dearborn Independent a Jew-hating rag. As bad as it is to admire Hitler, Ford was worse: Hitler admired him, and gives Ford a shout-out in Mein Kampf—the only American mentioned in the book—as the "single great man" in the United States for standing up against "the Jews." Ford also received the German Eagle, the highest Nazi honor for non-Germans, in 1938 and it was displayed for decades at his museum, Greenfield Village. I saw it there.
Do they balance out, the good and the bad? I don't think so. It only takes a little spit to spoil the soup. Nobody cares if John Wayne Gacy was a good clown.
However ... this is awkward, and I'm still thinking through it, so let's just explore together.
I was researching comic strips, preparing my new book, and was looking at strips created in the Chicago area, such as "Little Orphan Annie," dreamed up 100 years ago by Harold Gray, who was living in Lombard and cartooning for the Tribune. And whenever the subject of what a huge success the strip became, it's mentioned how, in one adventure, Annie's dog is lost, causing national consternation, which is always demonstrated by the same story: a telegram from Henry Ford in Detroit pleading, "Please find Sandy for us. We are all concerned."
Awww, right? A single resonating pluck on a heartstring. Although the "interesting if true" reflex kicks in. That does get told in a lot of legitimate histories, though I never saw a photo of the telegram, which Gray supposedly kept. It does have what I call "the tang of veracity." Anti-Semites like to speak in the third-person plural, as a kind of verbal backup, to make them seem like more of a crowd. I can't tell you how many emails from bigots begin, "We were chuckling over your 'column'..." or words to that effect. Like pufferfish trying to blow themselves up to seem more intimidating. Now that I think of it, Charles Lindbergh titled his autobiography, "We." Lindbergh was talking about himself and his Ryan airplane, "The Spirit of St. Louis." But still...
So an anti-Semite who likes dogs. Put that in the pot. And then, in another part of the book, I reached out to the archivist at the Ford Motor Company. Companies and organizations are notoriously spotty about their own histories. Some are active and involved and interested. And some just don't care, since it's not the news they're pushing at the moment. I reached out to the National Confectioners Association, founded in Chicago in 1884, and asked about their origins. Their flack said, in essence, nobody here has any idea about the history of the organization we all work for nor are we interested in finding out. Which struck me as just so lame.
The Ford Motor Company's archivist sent me a color photocopy of the information I was looking for, a hand-written ledger from 1903. Extraordinarily helpful of them. And while that, coupled with the possibly real telegram, doesn't of course wipe away Ford being a foul bigot who did real harm to the world, if only by serving as a beacon to Hitler, I did feel ... well ... less condemnatory about the man.
Is that bad? Does that matter? Perhaps the key is that Ford is dead and history over and fixed, so a passing smile in his direction neither harms nor helps him. But what about more current situations?
As the days clicked on, and January melted to February, with Trump barred from Twitter, and not constantly vomiting forth his noxious worldview on Fox News, or Newsmax, or whatever state cable channel is currently in his favor. Well, I felt ... okay, I'll say it ... grateful for his silence. Not that I now like the man, any more than I like Henry Ford. But his odiousness was mitigated, just a little, but the gift of his not spewing his self-pitying seditious BS everywhere. I appreciate it. Yes, he's scheduled to start speaking again, and will no doubt fill every corner of the media universe like a fart in a broom closet. And yes, that gratitude has a note of the pathetic, like an abuse victim happy that the beast is having a good day. But for the moment, sweet relief.
There, I said it, deliberately on my blog, where only a few thousand people will read it, instead of the wider sweep of the newspaper. And I'm glad, in a way, because I don't want to be a hater. First, because I sincerely believe the line about hating is like taking poison and expecting someone else to die. But also because if Trump is in Mar-a-Lago, stalking the halls like Richard III, face screwed up in miserable grievance, soliloquying, spittle flying off his lips, plotting revenge against Republicans who aren't sticking with him as he sails off on future treasons, I like the idea of being the exact opposite, that to decent people he is not only fading, but the stark truth about him becomes suffused with a slight rosy hue.
Then again, I'm a nice guy—shhhh, it's a secret. I can't rightly say I hate anybody. I'm too sympathetic. I pity Trump, a poor broken kitten, and his ridiculously, eternally-duped followers, standing in the street, advertising their gullibility on banners.
Anyway, this has gone one too long. No mas. I've got a column to write this morning. Thanks for reading.