article

07.08.11

A Fabulous First Lady

Betty Ford died on Friday at age 93. Eleanor Clift on the trailblazing candor and wit that allowed her to beat her personal demons, transcend politics, and earn the respect of a nation.

Betty Ford was always true to herself, and in politics that’s not easy. Sometimes to the chagrin of her husband, and certainly to his advisers, she had something to say on just about every hot-button issue of her time. The mother of three young adult sons and a spirited teenage daughter, she didn’t flinch when asked about whether they might be experimenting with marijuana, or how she might react if she learned her daughter was having an affair. “Not surprised,” she said.

Photos: Betty Ford's Life
betty-ford-obituary-tease
Dave Tracy / Getty Images

She was a regular person who just happened to live in the White House, and she didn’t trim her sails to satisfy any political constituency. Conservatives were still a minority in the Republican Party then, and they weren’t fond of Betty Ford. She was pro-choice and pro-gun control, and an eager adoptee of the '70s, donning a mood ring and chatting away as First Mama on a CB radio, which was all the rage then.

Whatever Betty Ford did, the country, and women especially, loved her. Her approval ratings were consistently high at 75 percent, and when her husband ran for president in 1976, she said, “I would give my life to give Jerry my poll numbers.” President Ford lost narrowly to Jimmy Carter.

She was a more open woman than we’d had in the White House before, speaking out about her cancer, her addiction to painkillers, and her support for the Equal Rights Amendment. Her candor broke political rules, endearing her to women everywhere.   

In an interview with McCall’s magazine in 1975, she said she had been asked about almost everything in her life except how often she had sex with her husband. “And if they’d asked me that, I would have told them,” she said, adding that her answer would be, “As often as possible.”

Her quips made the news, and the wit behind them disguised the fact that she was changing the culture in a serious way.  She was the first in her position to announce that she had breast cancer, revealing the details of her mastectomy in 1974. Until then, women mostly kept the disease private. She made it public, and it was a turning point for all women.

Her candor broke political rules, endearing her to women everywhere.

Betty Bloomer was her maiden name, and she wanted to be a dancer. She got far enough to perform in Carnegie Hall but her family pressured her to return home, and she did, marrying a childhood sweetheart whom she later divorced. When she wed Gerald Ford, an aspiring politician running for the first of what would be 13 terms in Congress, he worried what voters might think of their hometown boy marrying a divorced ex-dancer.

Betty probably told him no problem, and it wasn’t. He learned to live with and love her for her flamboyance, and her human frailties. When her addiction to painkillers became a problem after they left the White House, he and their adult children staged an intervention. His beloved Betty recovered, and went on to found the Betty Ford Center for Substance Abuse and Addiction.  Her legacy endures as does the respect and admiration for a woman who always did it her way, and who was loved all the more for it.