I admit it -- First Ladies all fascinate me. It's a high-profile role with no job description, with tons of responsibility and little authority, and watching how each woman approaches it is like a Rorschach test into their personalities and their relationships with their powerful husbands.
One of the most influential First Ladies of my lifetime has been Betty Ford. I loved that she specified that at her funeral, Rosalyn Carter eulogize her. Rosalyn's Jimmy beat Betty's Jerry, of course, and even after that hard-fought campaign, a friendship developed. Betty brought people together and healed. Here's my tribute to her.
1) She was a Chicago girl, born Elizabeth Bloomer in April, 1918
2) When the stock market crashed, her family went broke. When she was 14, Betty went to work, becoming a department store model and giving dance lessons.
3) She also entertained the young patients at a hospital for children with disabilities by dancing.
4) After high school, she studied briefly with the great Martha Graham in New York. She financed her love of dance by becoming a photographer's model.
5) She had an early marriage to a childhood friend. That union lasted only five years and produced no children, but it did bring her to Grand Rapids, MI.
6) There she met a lawyer who was about to run for the House of Representatives. Her marriage to Gerald Ford lasted 58 years, until his death, and produced three sons and a daughter.
7) She became First Lady overnight, without a campaign, when her husband took over the Presidency after Nixon's resignation.
8) She captivated the public with her informality and charm. For example, this was the height of the 1970s CB craze, and she revealed her "handle" was "First Mama."
9) Betty Ford was openly pro-choice, even as First Lady. Daring for any political figure, but especially the wife of a Republican President. But she believed contraceptive choice and legalized abortions would save women's lives.
10) The First Lady's concern for women's health issues became more personal in 1974 when she had a mastectomy. Her frank discussion of breast cancer raised eyebrows because, believe it or not, back in those long-ago days it was considered vulgar to talk about one's breasts. Betty Ford believed that early treatment and frank talk could save lives, and so she that's what she advocated -- yes, right there from the White House.
11) In 1978, after she left the White House, the Ford family confronted Betty about her dependence of alcohol and prescription pain killers. After she won her battle with her demons, she came forward and wrote two books about addiction. Betty viewed addiction like breast cancer -- a disease and not a moral deficiency, something to be confronted and overcome.
12) In 1982 she founded The Betty Ford Center, a 100-bed hospital devoted to treating the disease of chemical dependency.
13) Most touching for me was her love affair with Gerald Ford. Imagine what it was like for a Congressional hopeful in the 1940s to marry (as Betty referred to herself) "a divorced dancer." He could have viewed her as a liability, keeping her tucked away, but he was proud of her strength, compassion and candor. And in turn, she thought he was a great American and a terrific husband. The love of her life. When attacked for her plain-spoken honesty in the White House, she was sneeringly asked, "If a reporter asked you how often you had sex with your husband, would you answer that, too?" Her response: "I'd say, 'as often as possible!'"
This week, when so much media has been devoted to a woman her own lawyer dismissed as "a liar and a slut," it's refreshing to spend a little time with a lady who was honest and loving. Rest in peace, Mrs. Ford.
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