Just before the last presidential election, I decided to rate the ten First Ladies of my lifetime from “best” to “worst,” from Mamie Eisenhower, who occupied the White House until I was 16 months old, up to Laura Bush. It was sort of an obnoxious post, and I’m not sure I’d stand by all of my ratings now, but my feelings about one of the First Ladies have not changed a bit. The top Republican woman on my list was Betty Ford, who died yesterday at the age of 93. She and her husband, Gerald Ford, who died in 2006, were the first occupants of the White House who both lived into their nineties.
I had great respect for Betty Ford during her few years in the White House. I was in high school during her reign and remember closely following her gutsy and often controversial moves. I’m sure President Ford’s “handlers” were wringing their hands every time Betty opened her mouth and I’m sure they were incapable of shutting her up. She was the first president’s wife in my memory who had been divorced. What she did to bring awareness to alcohol and drug addiction had an enormous impact on so many people in this country, as did her open discussion of her own breast cancer. Though a lifelong Republican, she was a stronger advocate for women’s rights than many Democratic figures, then or now. She supported the Equal Rights Amendment, was strongly pro-choice, and even spoke candidly about marijuana and pre-marital sex. In today’s climate, such a Republican wife would be ostracized and shunned.
Many presidential scholars have noted that Betty Ford's impact on American culture would be far wider and would last much longer than that of her husband, who served a mere 896 days. And she never stopped speaking her truth. In one interview in 1975, Ford said she was asked just about everything, except for how often she and the president had sex. “And if they’d asked me that I would have told them,” she said, adding that her response would be, “As often as possible!”
Do you remember Betty Ford’s good-natured appearance as herself on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show?” She was clearly way more popular than her unelected husband. Following Ford’s unsuccessful 1976 presidential campaign, Betty said, “I would give my life to have Jerry have my poll numbers.”