Robert Griffin served in the House of Representatives with President Gerald R. Ford. He served as the Congressman from Michigan’s 9th District from 1957 to 1966. Griffin went on to serve as U.S. Senator from Michigan from 1966 until 1979.
Robert Griffin was interviewed for the Gerald R. Ford Oral History Project on October 30, 2008 by Hank Meijer.
Meijer: Had you been active in politics before that year in Traverse City?
Mrs. Griffin: Oh yes. You were county chairman, Republican chairman. Bill Milliken had been the…
Griffin: Bill Milliken and I were good friends from the time we first came to Traverse City. In fact, he had been the local chairman of the Republican Party and then I got to know him. Then he needed somebody to take over, and I took over and got into it.
Meijer: When would you have met President Ford for the first time, or I should say, Congressman Ford for the first time?
Mrs. Griffin: During that campaign in 1956.
Griffin: Was Jerry in then?
Mrs. Griffin: Oh yeah.
Meijer: Yes, he’d been in since ’48.
Griffin: That’s when we would have first met him.
Meijer: Did he come up here, do you recall?
Griffin: Yeah, that’s right. Didn’t we get Nixon up…?
Mrs. Griffin: I think we went down to Grand Rapids. I don’t remember him coming to our district.
Griffin: I guess that’s when I first met Nixon and Ford was running.
Meijer: Nixon would have been vice president then, of course.
Meijer: What was your impression of Jerry when you first met him?
Griffin: Well. Great. I knew him in Congress, we were good friends. Everybody liked Jerry Ford.
Mrs. Griffin: We really didn’t know him until we got to Washington. We knew of him, but not personally, until we became very good friends in Washington.
Griffin: But in Washington we were good friends, and I was pretty instrumental in getting behind him when we made him the leader.
Meijer: Absolutely. If I’m remembering right – and maybe you could talk a little bit about – you were part of a group of young Congressmen with Charles Goodell and Mel Laird and Don Rumsfeld.
Mrs. Griffin: And they met in our living room and decided on Jerry Ford – to back Jerry for the leadership.
Griffin: Who was the other guy that we pushed aside?
Meijer: Hovan from Iowa?
Meijer: He was a Republican conference committee.
Griffin: He’s not the one I’m thinking. Do you know who I’m thinking of?
Mrs. Griffin: Mel Laird.
Griffin: Mel Laird, I think it was.
Mrs. Griffin: I think it came down to – Mel wasn’t part of our group.
Griffin: It was between Mel Laird and Jerry Ford.
Mrs. Griffin: And Ford was very, very popular and Mel had some people who didn’t like him, and so this little gang of four or five, whatever it was, in our living room decided to go after Jerry Ford and ask if he would run. He was a little reluctant at first. But he agreed.
Meijer: Why was he reluctant?
Griffin: He hadn’t been a leader before that, at least in Congress.
Mrs. Griffin: And to run against Charlie Halleck, who was the good old boy.
Griffin: We were unseating a guy from Indiana, Charlie Halleck.
Mrs. Griffin: And these were Young Turks who were quite new in the Washington scene.
Meijer: You were taking quite a risk to mount that challenge.
Griffin: Right. It was kind of a revolt, a revolution. And we put up Jerry Ford. Everybody liked Jerry.
Meijer: And you were successful.
Meijer: And then you survived the LBJ landslide in ’64, and it was time to put him up again. Well, that was when you went after Halleck.
Mrs. Griffin: Then Bob was the floor manager when Jerry came up for the nomination for president in ’76.
Mrs. Griffin: In Kansas City?
Meijer: That’s right.
Mrs. Griffin: So he was the floor manager and that was when Reagan put forth an effort against Ford in the convention. We maintained Ford’s…
Meijer: And that, obviously, was a very serious challenge for Ford, as a sitting president. What was Ford’s feeling? Did you think he was going to survive and that you were going succeed?
Mrs. Griffin: Sure.
Griffin: Sure. We were determined. We worked hard at it.
Meijer: Had you known Reagan at all before that?
Griffin: Oh, not really.
Meijer: What did you think of him?
Griffin: He was the governor of California, wasn’t he?
Griffin: He came into Washington – we all had to get acquainted with him. It took a long time for me to know him. We were much more interested in Jerry Ford.
Mrs. Griffin: We never felt as close than we did to Ford with his Michigan – and Jerry was always very active and very considerate of the Michigan Republican congressmen. The four who were elected when Bob was elected, they were all in the 40s, under 40, in their 30s, and so when we went to Washington we had this little group of Michigan congressmen, headed by Jerry Ford, of course. And all his life he was very, very supportive of this little group of Michigan congressional people.
Meijer: Did you become friends as couples, also?
Mrs. Griffin: You know like El Cederberg, Charley Chamberlain, Bill Broomfield, and Jack McIntosh was the other one.
Meijer: And then would you have seen a lot of each other socially as well? Did you spend time with Betty as well and Jerry?
Mrs. Griffin: Yes.
Griffin: Yes, honey. Socially, we didn’t go out a lot with them.
Mrs. Griffin: Well, no, but we went to the White House for Jerry’s birthday party upstairs. We went to the Kennedy Center with them.
Meijer: I was thinking, too, when you were back in Congress, though, as young…
Mrs. Griffin: That’s when we were in Congress.
Meijer: Okay. And what was Betty like back then? What was your first impression of her?
Griffin: Very nice.
Mrs. Griffin: Oh, wonderful. And she was very active in the Republican wives club, and so we were quite close.
Griffin: Because she was very active, too.
Mrs. Griffin: But they lived in Virginia and we lived over in Maryland, so we didn’t see each other day by day.
Meijer: And you were both raising children at that time.
Mrs. Griffin: And we were both busy with our families. But very congenial, and back and forth on the telephone.
Meijer: When you were setting up your Congressional office, Jerry was still a relatively new Congressman, too. He was only what, four terms in when you arrived.
Griffin: A couple of terms, yeah.
Meijer: How did your offices compare? Did you get any ideas or thoughts from him on how to set things up?
Griffin: Oh yeah. When Congress was in session, we sat next to each other quite often, and had lots of time to talk. And we talked about Michigan politics or anything else. Of course when Jerry was put up for leader, I worked very hard for that. He was easy to work for because everybody liked him, he didn’t have any enemies. Democrats liked him as well.
Meijer: He always said all he wanted to be was Speaker of the House. Was that an ambition that he would have shared with you, as you talked?
Griffin: We didn’t talk about it. I don’t think so.
Mrs. Griffin: We were aware of it, though.
Griffin: But I don’t think that was something – that was just kind of in the future.
Meijer: What were your own, as you went to Washington as a young Congressman, had you thought ahead? Did you ever imagine you’d be going to the Senate, or coming back to the Supreme Court? What did you think your life would look like in 1956?
Mrs. Griffin: I thought he was crazy. We had a new baby and two other children, a six and a four year old, and a new baby and he came home and said he was going to run for Congress. We were quite new in Traverse City in the law business, and I thought he was absolutely out of his mind. But then you get into it, and of course you want to win, and you work hard. I think a lot of the Michigan delegation who were elected at that time…
Griffin: There were four of us. New Congressmen – Republicans from Michigan at that time – we were all in our 40s.
Mrs. Griffin: They didn’t intend to make it a lifetime job. They thought they would go and serve a few terms and do the best they could.
Griffin: Let’s see, there was McIntosh…
Mrs. Griffin: And Cederberg and Broomfield.
Mrs. Griffin: And Jerry was sort of our elder advisor.
Meijer: And so you help him become Minority Leader, and then how was he as a Minority Leader?
Griffin: Good. Everybody liked him. Even the Democrats. That’s true, though.
Meijer: I think you’re right. And there must have been a much greater sense – I see this in my own work , too – in research on Vandenberg of being able to have friends across the aisle much more easily than you hear about. Could you talk a little bit about how Democrats and Republicans got along then?
Mrs. Griffin: Well, for instance, Danny Inouye was one of your good friends. And, in fact, that went way, way back. They were two of the outstanding young men of the nation way back – I can’t even remember the year now – but you’ve always been friends with Danny.
Griffin: A Democrat.
Mrs. Griffin: I’m sure there are others.
Griffin: I feel like I was in that category, too – getting along with Democrats. But Jerry did shine better – everybody liked Jerry.
Meijer: And some people say it has more to do with the fact that the Fords and the Griffin’s would have lived in Washington and raised their families there, where so often today people are flying back and forth every weekend and there isn’t the sense of sharing the same community as much.
Mrs. Griffin: It’s true, although we came home in the beginning – we came home every summer, and the children would start school in Traverse City in September and go until Christmas. Then we moved down, first to Virginia, and then to Maryland. And I think the Fords did the same – I’m not positive.
Meijer: I don’t know – that’s a good question. Now we talked about 1964 and Ford becoming Minority Leader, then in 1966 and 1968 George Romney is coming on strong as our favorite son candidate for president. What was your relationship with Governor Romney as he was becoming a candidate for president?
Mrs. Griffin: Well, he nominated him for president at the convention, for one thing.
Meijer: Now was Ford – did he work hard on Governor Romney’s behalf, too? Or what was their relationship?
Mrs. Griffin: I don’t know.
Griffin: I can’t remember too much about it. I’m sure they got along well. Jerry got along with everybody. He was always that way, I think. Everybody liked him.
Mrs. Griffin: We were very much involved with Romney and Milliken during that campaign. I don’t know how much Ford got involved.
Meijer: Of course, at that point he would have had a longer relationship with Nixon, being in Washington over the years.
Griffin: Yes. Oh, yeah. Yeah, he was pretty close to Dick Nixon.
Meijer: How often were you and Congressman Minority Leader Ford seeing each other?
Griffin: Well, everyday on the House floor we would see each other.
Mrs. Griffin: And you went to the White House after he became president a lot.
Meijer: One of the things that I hear people talk about was his command of the budget process. Besides being such a good guy that everybody liked, what particular skills do you remember that he had as a Congressman?
Griffin: Well, I think he watched the dollars pretty closely and I’m trying to think – didn’t he veto some of the bills when he was president? I think he did.
Griffin: He was pretty strict looking after the dollars, as I recall.
Meijer: He seemed to have just a real knowledge of the budget – a lot more than a lot of people have.
Griffin: Oh, yeah. He did.
Meijer: With Agnew’s resignation, and Nixon’s decision to appoint Ford, is that something that took you by surprise, or were you involved in discussions about that?
Griffin: I think I was a little bit involved.
Meijer: I bet you were. How did that come about?
Griffin: I don’t know how much I can remember about it, but…
Meijer: But this is where, as you try to remember, if you remember differently, you can read the transcript and change or delete anything. So please feel free to…
Griffin: What do you remember about it?
Mrs. Griffin: Well, I was just trying to remember.
Meijer: Nixon would have had a decision to make. You would have had powerful feelings.
Griffin: Nixon had a decision to make. What was it?
Meijer: Who should be vice president.
Griffin: Oh, okay.
Meijer: Agnew’s gone.
Griffin: Okay. Yeah, I do remember that, although and I worked hard for Jerry on that. It wasn’t hard, though, because Jerry was so popular. He really was.
Mrs. Griffin: You keep coming back to that.
Griffin: Well, it’s true.
Meijer: Well, it’s a theme.
Mrs. Griffin: You know, that was his really strong…
Griffin: They were looking for somebody that would be not too…
Mrs. Griffin: Controversial.
Griffin: Controversial. And that was Jerry Ford.
Mrs. Griffin: As clean as a whistle and as honest as could be.
Griffin: And was real good friends with the Democrats.
Mrs. Griffin: And well qualified, and you couldn’t do any better.
Meijer: Now, would you have had a meeting with Nixon at all to talk about this?
Griffin: Yeah. Sure.
Meijer: Who would have been with you?
Griffin: Charlie Goodell and, who else?
Mrs. Griffin: Was Hugh Scott still in the leadership?
Griffin: Hugh Scott a little bit. It really was Goodell and I. We were kind of a twosome.
Mrs. Griffin: That was to get Jerry into the leadership position.
Mrs. Griffin: But to get to be vice president…
Griffin: I can’t remember.
Mrs. Griffin: I can’t remember, except you must have lobbied very hard for Ford.
Meijer: I bet you did. And you were successful. You accomplished it. And now, all of a sudden, here he’s been a Congressman for most of his career and now he’s part of the administration. That must have been…
Mrs. Griffin: It was hard to remember to call him Mr. President and not Jerry, publicly. We tried very hard not to – to remember that he was the president of the United States. I remember one instance, one party at the Capitol Hill Club where I came in and patted the president on the back, and the Secret Service grabbed my hand and said, “You do not touch a President.” And Jerry turned around and kissed me.
Meijer: Ah, that’s great.
Mrs. Griffin: I mean, that was the type of thing that Jerry Ford would do that made him beloved.
Meijer: It must have been awfully hard on him then to become vice president, and now he’s in the position of defending the administration and defending Nixon when all his friends are growing more and more skeptical and uncomfortable with the situation.
Mrs. Griffin: Right.
Griffin: I think there was quite a bit to that.
Meijer: And how soon after he became vice president did you have a sense that maybe he was going to be president – that Nixon would have to go?
Griffin: I can’t remember any particular mark of time or anything, but that gradually did develop. It’s pretty hard for me to say it.
Mrs. Griffin: One interesting sideline is that when he was vice president, he was going to move into the vice president’s house. They didn’t have a home for the vice president before.
Griffin: So somebody had to do something about that, and I did.
Meijer: Oh you did? Was that the Naval Observatory – was that your work?
Mrs. Griffin: Yeah. He was driving down Pennsylvania Avenue one morning and Admiral Zumwalt was retiring who had lived in this house. It was a very, very nice old house up on Pennsylvania Avenue. Anyway, Bob thought, well, this is a perfect time to appropriate it for the vice president because it is already owned by the government. Hubert Humphrey used to complain and Jerry complained, that when they became vice president, they had to come in and redo the windows and do all kinds of renovations on their own house – and it disrupted the neighborhood and everything else, and that they really needed a residence for the vice president. And so here was the opportunity. The house was there. Zumwalt was leaving and Jerry was the vice president, and so Bob went down to Congress and talked to Mansfield and some of the others and got them all aboard, and they made that the official residence.
So, let me see – how did it go – Betty was up in New York buying dishes or drapes or whatever it was for the new vice president’s house.
Griffin: Drapes, I think it was.
Mrs. Griffin: When suddenly, he became the president and Nelson Rockefeller moved into the house. The only trouble was, Nelson had a beautiful home of his own in Fox Hall Road, and so he never really moved into the new vice president’s house. So the first people who lived there were the Mondales.
Meijer: Oh my goodness. Okay.
Mrs. Griffin: Which is just sort of a sideline.
Meijer: No, that’s fascinating.
Mrs. Griffin: So Ford never got to move into the vice president’s house.
Meijer: So you thought you were finding a home for him, but…
Griffin: It’s still there as a vice president’s house.
Mrs. Griffin: It is perfect. It’s up on this hill and it’s all surrounded with fences, and well protected. A beautiful old house.
Meijer: So, Betty is picking out drapes and you’re getting the house approved and at some point, were you part of the delegation with Hugh Scott and Barry Goldwater calling on Nixon?
Mrs. Griffin: Oh, yes.
Meijer: That must have been quite a meeting.
Mrs. Griffin: Yup. Right.
Meijer: How did he receive you?
Griffin: Actually, I was in a group that met and, I’m trying to think who went with Scott. I didn’t go with him to the White House. But somebody else did.
Meijer: I was thinking – did Barry Goldwater go?
Mrs. Griffin: I think he’s talking about the night when he went on television and Nixon said he was resigning. You had been at a meeting with Hugh Scott and you came home and said that he had gone to pieces and that you didn’t think he could possibly go on television in an hour’s time. But he did – and announced that he was leaving.
Meijer: Had he gone to pieces in front of you?
Meijer: Wow. That had to be a moving moment.
Griffin: It was.
Mrs. Griffin: Traumatic. Terrible. Terrible.
Meijer: How many of you were in the room?
Griffin: Oh about a dozen. Can’t remember – it was some kind of a meeting that we had.
Meijer: Would President Nixon have looked at you as – in some ways because you were so close to Jerry Ford – would Nixon have seen you as kind of Ford’s agent a little bit?
Mrs. Griffin: A traitor.
Meijer: In trying to…
Griffin: I suppose. Yeah.
Mrs. Griffin: I think so.
Griffin: To some extent, anyway.
Meijer: When you say, “Fall to pieces,” just in tears? President Nixon.
Mrs. Griffin: That’s what you said.
Meijer: And then Jerry Ford becomes president. How soon after he was sworn in did you chat with him or did you hear from him? That must have just been such a whirlwind.
Griffin: I can remember the day when that happened, that’s for sure.
Meijer: Did he call you, or you call him?
Mrs. Griffin: Well, you were on the transition team, weren’t you?
Mrs. Griffin: That Ford…
Griffin: When he went into the White House, he had a lot of things he had to do. And I was on a small group that was finding and making suggestions about who could do what. When he needed help on something.
Mrs. Griffin: Change of staff.
Meijer: Do you recall what were you suggesting, or what kinds of things would have come up?
Mrs. Griffin: Well, when Rumsfeld came in as chief of staff…
Griffin: Yeah. That was one of our recommendations.
Mrs. Griffin: And Rummy had been one of the Young Turks who had helped to get Jerry into the leadership and he was quite new in Congress, Rumsfeld at that point.
Meijer: Did you recommend him to President Ford?
Griffin: The little group that we had did. But I think he already knew Rumsfeld, anyway. I’m not sure how much we had to do with it.
Meijer: But President Ford must have felt very comfortable having you work so closely with him.
Mrs. Griffin: All I can remember is that it seemed like Bob was at the White House very, very often during those days.
Meijer: And there were some people like Kissinger and Connally who were around after Ford left, weren’t they? You were having to deal with making decisions about new people, but also about keeping some of the other folks around during the transition.
Mrs. Griffin: It was a very interesting time.
Meijer: Never been another quite like it. I’ve heard some people talk as though there were almost a kitchen cabinet that you would have been a part of in that kind of tough transition time with the president.
How did Betty adjust? Here she is, a Congressman’s wife for many years and then…
Mrs. Griffin: Oh Betty was wonderful. She was just herself, as always, and I think the press loved her because she was genuine.
Meijer: Were you surprised at all with that famous 60 Minutes interview that got her in a little bit of hot water, I guess, but that everybody loved?
Mrs. Griffin: I think we wives were very supportive of her when she was having some of her problems and we all liked her very, very much. What else can you say?
Meijer: Some people criticized President Ford because he’d been a Congressman, he’d only represented one Michigan district his whole life, that he didn’t have a broad enough scope to be president. A leading question, but, some people said it took him too long to outgrow Grand Rapids. How did you feel about that?
Griffin: I would say that that would be very unusual and limited people that would say that. No, I think Jerry had a broad support.
Mrs. Griffin: Grasp of world affairs.
Griffin: From Democrats as well as Republicans.
Mrs. Griffin: He was underestimated, I am sure, by the press and by some other people. But not by people who knew him.
Griffin: That’s right.
Meijer: In the same way that people would say, well, he’d spent too long in Congress. That he was a creature of the Congress.
Mrs. Griffin: Just like saying when he stumbled, and here he was the best athlete they probably ever had in the White House, but…
Meijer: When it came time to pardon Nixon, did Jerry talk about that with you?
Griffin: No, he didn’t. And that was a little bit of a surprise.
Meijer: How did you feel when you heard the news?
Griffin: I had mixed feelings, but I went along with it.
Meijer: And part of that same time was when he granted the amnesty program, too, to the draft dodgers. That didn’t go down well with some people in the party, either. Did you talk with him at all about that?
Griffin: No, I can’t say I was part of that.
Meijer: And I can’t remember, were there occasions like that when you would have publicly disagreed with him at all on his decision?
Griffin: No. I don’t recall any.
Mrs. Griffin: No, I don’t think so.
Griffin: I may not have said anything, but I don’t recall being out there fighting him or anything like that.
Meijer: Now, Richard Norton Smith was mentioning that with the amnesty, some of the other Republicans publicly denounced it, but kind of privately – both with the pardon and the amnesty – signaled to President Ford, you probably did the right thing. Did that go on, do you think?
Griffin: I think so. Yeah, it’s pretty much a good description of it.
Meijer: One of the moving moments I’ve heard President Ford talk about was the fall of Saigon and just having to preside over all the evacuation and everything. I’m curious if that is something that you talked about with him or had an impression of how that would have affected him.
Griffin: I can’t say that I did, but I remember that period of time and how I thought he did such a great job. Doing the best he could with a very difficult situation. But, no, I wasn’t very close to the decision making or anything like that.
Meijer: You talked about, Mrs. Griffin, about when he turned around and kissed you and he always had that wonderful sense of humor, and did the presidency change any of that?
Mrs. Griffin: No, I don’t think so.
Meijer: What do you remember about his sense of humor?
Mrs. Griffin: What do I remember about his sense of humor? Well, I don’t remember him being particularly funny, but he was fun to be with, and an interesting acquaintance, but I don’t remember him being funny, particularly. Serious. One of my fond memories of the Fords was spending the last weekend at Camp David before he left office. He had invited two other couples and the Griffins up to Camp David. We had a wonderful weekend up there with the dogs and just relaxing and talking about old times and so forth. Kind of nostalgic because it was their last trip to Camp David.
Meijer: Oh sure. Who else was with you?
Mrs. Griffin: Cederbergs and Wrights – what was his first name? Some old friends from long, long ago.
Meijer: When he lost the election to President Carter, what did he say to you? How do you think that affect him?
Mrs. Griffin: I think he was hurt, and unhappy.
Griffin: I don’t think we were close to him right after…
Mrs. Griffin: I thought we were.
Griffin: Well, do you?
Mrs. Griffin: I remember at Camp David – bemoaning the fact that Carter was going to take over and be the next residents up there.
Meijer: Did he resent Reagan, do you think, for not campaigning harder for him?
Mrs. Griffin: We did. I don’t think he did.
Griffin: At least we don’t know that he did.
Mrs. Griffin: At least he didn’t vocalize it.
Meijer: But you had a sense of that?
Mrs. Griffin: His friends, his close friends never really got over that. But then we weren’t close to the Reagans.
Meijer: I recall President Ford saying that if Reagan had campaigned a little harder in a couple of districts in southern Ohio, in Cincinnati or something, that might have made all the difference.
Mrs. Griffin: Or if the election had been a couple weeks later, maybe. If they’d had just a little bit more time.
Meijer: Well, after he left office, and I’ve just got a couple more here, he said that raising money for the Foundation, which you were also very involved in, was about the hardest thing he’d ever done. Do you recall talking to him about plans for the museum and the library?
Mrs. Griffin: Oh, you organized the first…
Griffin: I was the first chairman of the Foundation.
Mrs. Griffin: You worked very hard at setting it all up. You were a lawyer then.
Griffin: I did the legal work of organizing it and getting it going.
Mrs. Griffin: Bob was out of Congress then and he was associated with a firm in Detroit. It was before he went on the Court.
Meijer: I was trying to remember, when did you go to the Senate?
Mrs. Griffin: ’66.
Griffin: See how she’s got all that on her mind?
Meijer: Well, that’s very helpful.
Mrs. Griffin: Pat McNamara died, and George Romney – Bob was already running. He had announced that he was going to run for the Senate, so George Romney appointed him when Pat McNamara died. And so he was in the – but he had to run for the election again in November.
Meijer: That’s right. When did you first go to the Senate then?
Mrs. Griffin: ’66.
Meijer: That was in the spring?
Mrs. Griffin: That would be about January, wasn’t it?
Griffin: Yeah, I think so.
Mrs. Griffin: So he was there from January – so he did have the Senate designation when he ran in November, and he ran against Soapy Williams and defeated him. Which is quite something.
Meijer: You bet.
Mrs. Griffin: Because he was a formidable, formidable candidate.
Meijer: That was a special time for Western Michigan when Jerry was Minority Leader and you were in the Senate. Did you ever campaign – well, he probably didn’t need you to campaign for him in the Fifth District, but did he ever campaign for you in any of your elections?
Griffin: Oh, I’m sure he did. We would have big events, and he would be there. It wasn’t day after day or anything like that.
Mrs. Griffin: Coming up to Travers City in ’75 and being in the Cherry Festival Parade and they rode together and waved at the crowds.
Griffin: He came out here at that time. We had a big…
Mrs. Griffin: If you mean that kind of campaigning, yes. I don’t remember him going door to door with you.
Meijer: No, I didn’t mean that.
Mrs. Griffin: He was always supportive.
Meijer: When was the last time you saw him?