Betty Ford was a great first lady. She had courage when Presidents’ wives kept their personal views under wrap, and their views were mainstream and beyond, with the exception of Eleanor Roosevelt. Ford, who died last week at the age of 93, was remarkable for her honesty and defiance of the conventions for official wives.
The first month after her husband, Gerald Ford, took the oath of office in 1974, in the aftermath of President Richard Nixon’s resignation as a result of the Watergate scandal, Betty discovered she had breast cancer. The night before her surgery, she told her grieving family to go home.
After the operation, she rallied American women to seek early detection for possible cancer, and they did so in a hurry. They had a celebrity leader.
Betty also wore the required white dress and marched in the parade for the Equal Rights Amendment. The proposal for equality for women, especially in the workplace, failed to win approval by a few states, needed for ratification of the amendment. But the movement also lost stamina, and women seemed to give up their drive for legitimate rights.
Betty never gave up for what she believed. She was fearless, much to her tolerant husband’s chagrin. When she was interviewed on 60 Minutes one Sunday, she was asked how she might react if her teenage daughter, Susan, had an affair. She replied, “I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.” Betty added to her comments that Susan is “a perfectly normal human being. … I would certainly counsel and advise her on the subject.”
Her unorthodox comment caused a national uproar. Her husband said it would cost him 10 million, maybe even 20 million votes. But soon the country settled down and appreciated her refreshing honesty. Her polls shot up from 50 percent to 75 percent, and she became the nation’s most admired woman.
Betty’s predecessor, Pat Nixon, was also a free thinker, but more restrained in the face of Nixon’s conservative Republican supporters. Once at a reception, we women reporters were watching Mrs. Nixon. She reached for a small glass of sherry, then looked at us and withdrew her hand. I told her, “Go ahead – we won’t report it.” At the time we let the first lady have her sip in privacy.
When Betty’s family confronted her with an intervention about her medicine addiction, with her typical courage she faced the problem and dealt with it – as her family knew she would.
As a result of the leadership and personal efforts, the Betty Ford Memorial Hospital was established for those who had drinking problems and drug addictions. The patients included several prominent Hollywood stars. Ford did not just give the facility her name, she worked to establish the good reputation of the hospital.
Betty also had to fend off reports that her children smoked marijuana. “Probably,” she told an interviewer. Again proving that she could not be anything but truthful.
The former first lady also took a stand on the controversial question of abortion. She told Barbara Walters in an interview that she was delighted that abortion had been taken out of the backwoods and put in the hospitals. She was responding to a question regarding the 1973 Supreme Court ruling of Roe vs. Wade, which essentially legalized abortion.
Betty Bloomer was a fellow Michigander, hailing from Grand Rapids. She had been a fashion model and an outstanding dancer.
When her husband was a butt of jokes for bumping his head and general awkwardness, her response was, “So what else is new.” Actually, he had been a football star at the University of Michigan.
Mrs. Ford’s death brought condolences from President Obama, George W.H. Bush, George W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, Nancy Reagan and many other world leaders. In her condolence letter, Mrs. Reagan said, “She was Jerry Ford’s strength through some very difficult days in our country’s history.” Mrs. Reagan added, “I admired her courage in facing and sharing her personal struggles with all of us.”
Mrs. Ford was a true down to earth mid-westerner, who showed the way for future first ladies to get involved in the nation’s huge problems. I hope more first ladies will follow Betty Ford’s bold and courageous path in politics.