In ruminating over the times I spent with Betty Ford over the years, on the record and off, be it during interviews, casual meals, a museum tour, work on a ghostwriting project, and backstage at her appearances, I shouldn’t be surprised that today my flight was cancelled, my car radiator exploded, a cabbie got stuck on a freeway I told him not to take, and that her sparkling and sage energy is now gone. “You can’t count on a day ending the way it began,” she quipped in one 1993 interview, when she was 75 years old. After the bit of practical wisdom, she saw the bigger picture: “Controlling anything is really an illusion. But people don’t always like to hear that.”
I recall more than a few times how she simply shrugged in response to annoyances other public figures might have gone nuts over. “Well, as long as they spell your name right,” she said once when I asked how she felt about a false story that was published about her. Another time we were walking through a museum exhibit showing off some of her predecessors and paused at the squat figurine of Julia Grant with ugly Victorian clothes, shrugged, and raised her eyebrows. “Personal choices, ehem,” she quipped with a trademark twinkle in her eye.
It’s easy to label her having one great claim to fame, as the leader of the national movement for substance abuse recovery because of the famous southern California treatment center which bears her name. Given the celebrity-soaked media, the actress Lindsay Lohan now seems to have more association with the name “Betty Ford” than does the woman whose name it was. In reality, alcohol and drug treatment is but one in a number of issues that Mrs. Ford became a world-recognized trailblazer of by simply being herself – which is to say, speaking out honestly and rationally.
With her death at 93 on Friday, Betty Ford should command respect not for the coincidence of being married to the only President who was never even elected as a Vice President, or that she survived cancer, alcoholism and chronic osteopathic pain to become the third longest-living First Lady in history (Bess Truman died at 97, Lady Bird Johnson at 94) but rather for what she did with the public role she was thrust into and the values of justice and compassion she lived with all her years.
It would also be easy to label her a middle-American middle-class political housewife on the mere face of the facts. As a child, however, she told me that Eleanor Roosevelt, with her frank public opinion on a variety of political issues, was as important a role model for her as her mother, who’d introduced her to the needs of disabled children. Volunteering as a young teenager in local clinics and hospitals where those with disabilities were treated, she taught them confidence and grace through the movement of dance, which she’d already had considerable training in. It also led her to learn rudimentary sign language to communicate with the hearing-impaired. That passion drove her to pursue the rigor of training with the then-radical theories of modern dance with the legendary Martha Graham herself. She supported herself in a Greenwich Village walkup by working as a print ad model. Later she saw to it that the modern dance movement leader was given the respect shown the traditional performing arts with a Presidential Medal of Freedom.
In the brief sweet spot of the so-called “Me Decade” that marked her tenure as First Lady, an era that also saw the mainstreaming of “personality” and traditional gossip columns with the creation of People magazine, Betty Ford deftly managed to shape her public persona directly from her private person, drawing on real experiences from a life never intended to be nationally broadcasted. It was her luck that she burst onto the national stage as the mass media was striving to validate personalizing the presidency. When she had breast cancer and a mastectomy, she went against tradition to publicly disclose the details because she recognized the visibility of her persona might save the lives of millions of other women who were living with it undetected until it was too late. She spoke openly about the value she’d gained from seeking the professional services of a mental health therapist and broke another taboo, hoping to reduce some of the stigma that had been socialized against it. She discussed her first marriage and divorce.
Her support on a variety of other women’s health-related issues, including lupus and a woman’s right to make decisions about their own bodies (she was careful to never endorse or criticize abortion but to instead support a woman’s right to that choice) was at the core of her conscience, stemming from an ironclad belief in the equality of women and men. This conviction also emerged from personal experience. Before during and after her first marriage, she had earned her own living, from a women’s clothing buyer for a large department store to an assembly-line frozen food factory worker.
Like her role in the public issues of breast cancer, the value of therapy and substance abuse recovery, the issue of women’s right to full legal equality emerged from her own personal life. When her first husband had fallen ill with what threatened to be a lifelong illness, she realized that her ability to financially support him was compromised by the lack of equal pay for equal work among the genders. Thus, when she became First Lady she quickly rose as the national leader of the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and lobbied state legislators and governors in hopes they’d at least permit floor votes in the statehouse and thus move the debate closer to passage. She continued that fight as a former First Lady and even when it was defeated in 1982, raised the value of an effort to try again in later years.
On the historic night after she’d been thrust into global headlines on August 9, 1974 when her husband Gerald Ford assumed the presidency upon the resignation of Richard Nixon, she went home and made lasagna for her husband, four kids and daughter-in-law, as she began sorting through the stuff in their den and bedrooms, figuring out what they’d take from their suburban Virginia home across the Potomac River to the big white mansion they’d call home for the next three years. Her close-knit family was an important part of her as a person and persona as well. Instead of dismissing personal questions on whether her sons used marijuana or her daughter was likely to have an affair, Betty Ford spoke of the natural curiosity kids had for weed – as her generation did for beer, and suggested that living together before marriage might help couples decide whether they’d work as spouses.
She also offered her opinion on other hot-button issues of the era which hadn’t affected her, supporting strong gun control laws, anti-discrimination against gay men and women, and later, a compassionate understanding of those with AIDS. Some of this may have shocked the nation, but it never shocked her husband or kids, all of whom knew and loved her because she was frank – and complex.
Betty Ford proved that labels are for cans. She was as deeply a traditional Episcopalian as she was a revolutionary feminist. She was as proud of raising four children into adulthood who remained devoted and respectful of her as she was of introducing modern dance to her conservative hometown of Grand Rapids on the steps of the local Baptist Church. She could put on the white gloves and hat – and some dramatic and colorful evening gowns for state dinners, but also enjoy a night at Studio 54 with the chic and fashionable, a chat with truck-drivers with her own CB radio handle of “First Mama.” She could tour Europe in conservative capes, mood ring on her finger or kick off her heels in a dance class in China or to softshoe on the Cabinet table. She was a Republican of the type now vanished, whose first loyalty was to the old Lincoln principal of civil rights for African-Americans and equal rights for women but never go blind as a partisan. Among her closest relationships with those few who numbered the world’s most exclusive sorority were Democrats Lady Bird Johnson and Rosalynn Carter.
She was a slender and petite woman who moved smoothly and quietly, never losing the poise she’d learned as a dancer in her youth. She never lost a bit of the upper-Midwestern twang that suggested her Chicago birth and deep roots in Michigan. The personality trait of Mrs. Ford’s that lingers with me most is a sense of irony or sense of the ridiculous about the inexplicable quirks of human nature – her own included. She never really cracked guffawing jokes with me, but I can’t help recalling her twinkling eye as she mused over why people do what they do, often with humorous poignancy. The other quality which marked her was a deep humility. She took her role as a symbol seriously, but not herself personally. She once explained that for a person like herself in recovery from alcohol and prescription drugs, it was crucial to never let her head swell. I think that sometimes she wearied of the adulation that never ceased to come her way, even some three decades after leaving the White House. Once, in Palm Springs restaurant, she sensed immediately when a group of three women were hovering behind her. She sighed deeply and by the time she’d turned around to look at them, she had a genuine smile on her face. They approached and she stood to shake their hands. They didn’t want to interrupt and left quickly, and she sighed again, as she turned back to sip a club soda and sink back into her chair. I think she felt a lifelong obligation to be polite though she took some delight in fooling a few tourists, so she told me, who were sure she was “Mrs. Carter.”
From the first interview she agreed to grant me fresh out of college, based on nothing but some preliminary chapters on what would someday be my first book, Betty Ford radiated warmth, refreshing frankness and a gentle view of human nature. She had an engaging and unquenchable fascination with historical figures who’d long preceded her – as well as those she knew. We were together in her California desert home during the two May 1994 days following the death of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. As we listened to some of the reports on television together, her thoughts returned to President Kennedy’s funeral and she recalled the chill she felt when the crowds had begun streaming away from his burial spot and she accidentally witnessed his coffin being lowered into the raw earth. “Boy, it really is the great equalizer, death is,” she piped up.
She was entirely unsentimental in recalling how she and other Congressional wives gushed with pride and admiration for Jackie as First Lady, and emulated her clothing style, but that she had “little interest or respect for us as people.” Later, she went on, she thought of how happy Jackie seemed when they again met in January of 1976 at a Bicentennial Kennedy Center event: “By then she had gone back to work, starting out as an editor and I think she had that sense of real satisfaction that comes when you get a chance to start using or reviving your talents. And you could also see how [Senator] Teddy Kennedy tried to act as her sort of guardian [while in her company] but that Jackie didn’t need protecting. She’d become her own woman, a very different person from the one who’d been First Lady.” She’d found an equally unsure footing with Republican Mamie Eisenhower. “She invited me to come play canasta with a lot of old Army wives in the White House. I had kids to drive to school and sporting events. And I didn’t play canasta! And I didn’t want to learn!”
Thinking of Mrs. Ford now, a stream of random bits come to mind: her true confession to enjoying the Sopranos while sickened by its violent moments; the affectionate demeanor that flushed her when her white dog Happy came near, the eye-popping and refreshing greens of her living room which always somehow seemed new, and how easily she kicked off her shoes, put on her glasses and sat on the floor as we worked on a project. One story she told me and laughed at herself was about wanting to have the feminist screen goddess Mae West attend the Bicentennial State Dinner for Queen Elizabeth but that the then-83 year old actress responded from her home in Los Angeles that, “It was a long way to go for dinner.”
There was one frequent absence, however, in that light and airy beautiful home: Jerry or “my husband,” as she more usually made reference to the former President. Quite openly, she lamented that their retirement years still followed the pattern of their pre-White House years, when he traveled so frequently and she stayed home. Yet she spoke of it without complaint, but rather with a sense of the equality they gave one another to make their own choices, despite being husband and wife. It made me realize that while the separations might not have been ideal, the marriage was, for it was based on a sense of respect for one another as an individual first and foremost.
While its true that we’d have never felt the impact of Mrs. Ford had she not happened to have been married to the man who became President, it is also a fact that had she not made three decades of sacrificing her own ambitions to his, he’d never have been able to politically rise as successfully as he did – to the point where President Nixon had chosen him as Vice President in 1973.
In all the historic facts and firsts reviewed in the stories about Betty Ford, none have mentioned the most glaringly obvious.
In his Inaugural Address upon taking the oath of office just after Nixon left the White House, Gerald R. Ford became the first and only President to give credit his wife.
Another version of this article appears on www.Salon.com
All historic photographs are public domain, courtesy of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library