Henry Ford: A life of fierce contrasts

Lots of lists came out last month, offering TV's 10 best shows. They had the usual suspects -- cable dramas, mostly, plus (on the wiser lists)  "Big Bang Theory." What they overlooked, however, were three PBS shows that are consistently top-quality -- "American Masters," "Frontline" and "American Exprience."

Now "Experience" is off to a great start. Its good, three-part "The Abolitionists" is followed by two really great documentaries -- "Henry Ford" on Tuesday (Jan. 29) and "Silicon Valley" a week later. Here's the story I sent to papers about the Ford film:


A swirling life was summed up
concisely: “There's no such thing as not-fascinating in Henry
Ford,” biographer Douglas Brinkley said.

That becomes clear in an “American
Experience” portrait on PBS. “He was kind and generous at times,”
filmmaker Sarah Colt said. “But then he could be cruel. He was a
complicated person.”

Here was someone who retained the
values of growing up on a Michigan farm. “He could live with Clara,
his wife, in a small quarter and be just as happy as to have had a
huge mansion,” Brinkley said.

Ford was a tinkerer, Brinkley said,
toying with watches as a kid and vehicles as a young man. “He was
known as Crazy Henry, because he had his contraption … and it was
scaring all the horses.”

He was working on something, Colt said,
that others thought was a luxury. “The automobile was considered a
plaything, like yachts.” Instead, this small, mass-produced car
could be bought by the working man – including Ford employees, who
received a then-impressive $5 a day.

At a time when many places were
segregated, Brinkley said, the Ford factory was integrated. “Detroit
today is heavily African-American, because (of) Henry Ford …. If
you listen to old blues songs from the 1920s, they'll say, 'I'm going
up to the promised land and work for Henry Ford (for) $5 a day.'”

Other minorities prospered in his home
town, Brinkley said.. “Dearborn today is like 90 percent Arab
because Henry Ford paid all of the Arabs, particularly people from
Persia or Lebanon, equal wage.”

And for a time, Colt said, Ford seemed
to work well with everyone. “It would have been absolutely so
exciting and stimulating to have been in Henry Ford's creative team
in those early years.”

Then came the dark side. “Like
everyone else starting a business, he's beholden to his investors,”
said Mark Samels, the “American Experience” chief. “He has some
very rough run-ins. (That) sets off a lifelong anger and resentment
toward anybody controlling him …. And he starts to generalize

Like Walt Disney, Ford disliked
bankers; unlike Disney, he turned that into anti-Semitism.

“Here was a guy who was a genius at
machinery,” Brinkley said, “and suddenly, we're asking his
opinion on world events … and he was an ignoramus about it, a
bizarre ignoramus … He bought the Dearborn Independent and was
starting to promote the worst kind of anti-Semitism.”

Ford considered himself an expert on
everything, including how his workers should live. .This was,
Brinkley said, “a warped version of the Puritan work ethic ….
You're not allowed frills. You're not allowed to have … alcohol or
tobacco …. He became a bit of a scold.”

This was, Colt said, “what happens to
somebody when they sort of gain too much power and control.”

When executives started a project on
their own, he smashed a prototype and dumped the idea. When his son
started construction of a building, Ford halted it … and kept the
hole in the ground, as a reminder.

Gradually, Ford retreated. “He spent
a lot of his later decades trying to (go) back to a rustic, rural
beginning,” Brinkley said. “The only time he went to Congress was
to testify on behalf of birds.”

After spurring an industrialized world,
he re-created the past with Greenfield Village.

“Ford would buy Stephen Foster's home
and move it there,” Brinkley said. “Or a laboratory of Edison or
the Wright Brothers' (bike shop). So he created this kind of
Disney-like village of history.”

That's still thriving in Dearborn,
nestled alongside the Henry Ford Museum, which ranges from early
gadgets to symbols (including Rosa Parks' bus) of the civil rights
era. Combine them, add some nasty edges, and you have the life of a
man who was never not-fascinating.

– “American Experience: Henry
Ford,” 9-11 p.m. Tuesday (Jan. 29), most PBS stations