She was our most reluctant First Lady, and yet, arguably, in recent times, at least, one of our most accomplished. Betty Ford, who died Friday at age 93, didn’t want her husband, Gerald Ford to accept Richard Nixon’s appointment as the nation’s vice-president. She also opposed his decision to pardon the disgraced president. And she was a “feminist” at a time when feminism was still, for many, especially conservatives, a dirty word.
Many believe to this day that her outspoken defense of the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion – and even recreational pot-smoking – may have cost her husband his re-election, while paving the way for Ronald Reagan’s ascendancy. But thanks to her perhaps, even Republican women got a taste of what it might be like to live in the limelight, speak their minds, and have a real impact on national affairs.
Her signature achievement was her staunch advocacy on behalf of drug and alcohol recovery, which included the founding of the Betty Ford Rehabilitation Center in Rancho Mirage, CA in 1982. Ford didn’t come to the cause lightly. She suffered through her own fierce prescription drug addiction that began in the 1960s and that, combined with the onset of alcoholism, led her family to force her into treatment, from which she soon emerged as an industry pioneer. Some 90,000 people, including Hollywood celebrities like Robert Downey, Jr and Drew Barrymore, have passed through the Betty Ford Center, which includes one of nation’s first rehab clinics devoted exclusively to women, and they still credit her with helping them rebuild their lives.
Betty Ford’s legacy seems all the more remarkable given the brevity of her husband’s tenure in office – 868 days, following on the heels of Nixon’s resignation. Betty was so opposed to her husband’s involvement with Nixon that he felt compelled to hide from her the fact that he’d been meeting with Nixon to discuss the VP slot. And Nixon, apparently, never had any intention of supporting Ford for the presidency, had he survived until 1976. He told Ford he’d be merely a caretaker, and that helped assuage Betty, who’d already back-stopped her husband’s career – and largely parented the couple’s four children – through his 13 terms in office as a Michigan congressman.
But once thrust into the role, she decided to make the most of it, eventually overshadowing her husband and leaving a far more lasting legacy.
While Ford’s outspokenness and candor as a First lady seem more commonplace today, they certainly weren’t at the time. Nixon’s wife, Pat, had been considered a paragon of demure and loyal virtue, and preceding Democratic presidents, including JFK and LBJ, had wives known for their “presence,” but none had the temerity to speak out on issues as Ford did, or to seize the initiative on matters of social policy.
When Gerald Ford ran against Jimmy Carter in 1976, his advisers were deeply worried that Betty came across as more liberal than Carter’ wife Rosalynn. She was known as a fierce campaigner and effective defender of her husband, in fact, but Ford’s aides made sure she only appeared sparingly, and almost always in front of moderate Republican or even Democratic audiences. During the campaign, he joked that his famous wife – named Time Magazine’s Woman of the Year in 1975 – was “costing me a good 10 million votes” – an estimate that some old pols later upped to 20 million votes, in part to explain his loss.
Who among Republicans most reminds you of Betty Ford? Given the rightward shift of the GOP, hardly anyone, in fact. Certainly none of the Republican First Ladies who followed her were as politically outspoken or would have dared upstage their husbands the way she sometimes did. (If anything she bears a much closer resemblance to Democratic First ladies like Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama). But Ford almost certainly would have cheered the rebel Girl Power spirit exemplified today in Sarah Palin’s “Mama Grizzlies” and in the insurgent Tea Party candidacy of Michele Bachmann, even if their styles and temperaments – to say nothing of their stances on social issues – couldn’t be further apart.
Betty Ford, born and raised in a small Midwestern town, a former student of Matha Graham who loved the “Bump” and who organized disco dance parties in the White House four decades before Michelle Obama did the “Dougie” in public, was a true rebel at a time of dawning cultural change in America, especially for women. A woman of grit and grace among Republican patricians, she “went rogue” long before rogue had become “in,” and she did it without fear or favor.
On Ford’s last day in the White House, Betty left one last impression of her unusual elan. In full view of the photogprahers, she hopped on top of the huge ornate Cabinet Room table laden with so much policy history and did what only Betty Ford would do. She began to dance.