GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- You have to drive all the way to the banks of the Grand River -- and travel back four decades -- to get the full meaning of the national furor over electronic surveillance. For here, within the walls of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum, are the artifacts that transformed the lawmaker from Michigan's fifth congressional district into the 38th president of the United States -- and that provide the evidence from 1972 that explains the importance of the debate in 2013.
The Ford Museum is a metaphor for the understated nature of the Grand Rapids congressman who was catapulted into the presidency during the gravest constitutional crisis of our history.
The implements that began that crisis, its raw materials, are in a glass display case here. They are a pair of long-nose pliers, a Phillips-head screwdriver and some crude listening bugs placed in two tubes of Chap Stick. Later, a Sony four-speed Servo Control tape recorder, also on display here, with a red button emblazoned "REC," helped bring down Richard M. Nixon. Watergate was about many specifics, but its spirit was secret surveillance.
Now, the 44th president, Barack Obama, 10 years old when the burglars entered the Watergate suite, is engulfed by questions about secret surveillance of an entirely different magnitude.
Our world today is one in which the electronic and digital capabilities of our age have both promise and peril, and only now is the peril clear.
The capacity to link information and to share it widely also is the capacity to learn what information individuals possess, what links individuals have, what communications individuals conduct. It is the capacity, in the language of a long-ago age, to look at people's library cards, to ransack their garbage and to make guilt-by-association a federal crime. It is the capacity to give companies, governments and individual citizens the tools J. Edgar Hoover sought -- and the megaphone that Joseph R. McCarthy possessed.
There is no going back, of course. We cannot un-invent the computer, nor the cellphone, nor the capacious abilities we have to communicate -- and to be surveilled. But we can be aware that we are living in a perilous age where our tools are also our minders and, sad to say, where our leaders see threats to our civil liberties in the narrowest possible way, when they should instead see those threats in our laptops, thumb drives and iPhones.
Linger long enough at the Ford Museum in Grand Rapids and a tape of an entirely different sort will cycle through, and if you listen carefully you will hear the president say: "There will be no illegal tappings, eavesdropping, buggings or break-ins by my administration."
Who dared during his term in the 1970s to think President Ford might someday be a figure of nostalgia, and wisdom?
David M. Shribman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.