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The Importance of Betty Ford


They’re bringing Betty Ford back home this week, to be buried next to her husband, President Gerald Ford, at his presidential museum in Grand Rapids.

You knew by now that the former first lady died last Friday in California. But what you may not have known unless you are in your fifties, or older, is just how important she was.

They both were, really. President Ford’s story is better known, and best expressed by Jimmy Carter, who said when he took office: “I want to thank my predecessor for all he has done to heal our land.”

Elizabeth Bloomer Ford had a big role in that too, but she also did something else. She showed the nation that a first lady could also be a human being.

The Fords took office after the final convulsion of the Watergate scandal, and eleven of the worst years the United States has ever known. The public had learned that Richard Nixon had lied about virtually everything.

His predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, had dragged us into a war in Vietnam for reasons nobody understood, a war that went on for years and tore our nation apart. Before that, we’d been traumatized when the young president before him had his head blown off in broad daylight. The presidency and America had taken a beating.

Nor were any of the first ladies of the period women to whom most people could relate. We’d always been fascinated by the presidents’ wives. But they were sort of like royalty, fascinating, forbidden and distant. Betty Ford was a regular person. Just months before she moved in to the White House, she was the unknown wife of the house minority leader, looking forward to her husband’s retirement from Congress. Then, suddenly, she was first lady.

But she was still Betty Ford, the irrepressible mother of four kids, a woman who most of all, was real.

She had been divorced; she had known tragedy. She was honest. She said she wouldn’t be surprised if she learned her eighteen year-old-daughter had sex, or her children had smoked marijuana. She even said if she were younger, she’d try it too. This was shocking to some, who thought first ladies should be plaster saints. They were horrified when she said she was pro-choice, and that she slept with her husband every chance she got.

To millions more, this was refreshing. As first lady, Betty Ford proceeded to save thousands of women’s lives, by announcing publicly that she had breast cancer, sharing the details of her surgery and inspiring millions of women to be tested.

Years later, she did the same when she had to confront the embarrassing truth that, like millions, she had an alcohol and prescription drug problem.

Betty showed us what it meant to be a partner when her husband lost his voice when he lost the presidential election, and she, not he gave the concession speech on national television. She showed us you can be fifty-eight and still play when she danced on the cabinet room table her last night in the White House. I can’t see Laura Bush or Michelle Obama doing that.

But Betty Ford did, with grace and class. I hope her family remembers that and smiles this week, whenever they feel sad.