This week, America bids farewell to one of its most consequential first ladies, Betty Ford.
Rating first ladies is not an easy matter. Nor is it necessary. Established neither in the Constitution, nor by statute, the position comes with no job description. One gets to fill it by marriage. Still historians and others fascinated by lists keep trying.
The few surveys that exist usually place Eleanor Roosevelt, who "treated all the world as her personal slum project," according to conservative critic William F. Buckley, at the head of the pack; and Mary Lincoln, who had possibly the worst press of any first lady, dead last, or very close to it. A 2008 Siena Research Institute survey put Betty Ford in seventh place. Ahead of her were the sainted Eleanor, Abigail Adams, Jacqueline Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson, and Dolley Madison. Below her among the "top ten list" were Rosalynn Carter, Martha Washington, and Edith Wilson.
Unlike too many surveys ranking the nation's presidents, this one applied criteria, other than partisan biases, in assessing its subjects. Its creators instructed those completing ballots to assign each first lady a grade of 1 to 5 in each of ten, often overlapping, categories: background, courage, service to country, integrity, intelligence, accomplishments, leadership, being her own woman, public image, and value to the president.
In several, Betty Ford was almost without peers. This is especially true of courage, integrity, leadership, and accomplishments. At a time when "cancer" was regarded more of as a "death sentence" than as a disease—few, if any public officials discussed its ramifications and almost none talked about breast cancer—Betty Ford shared her personal travails with the world. Her decision to use her celebrity status to alert other women to the importance of early detection caused an upsurge in preventive medicine and patient advocacy. After leaving the White House, she did it again by confronting her addiction to alcohol and painkillers. Her public service will long survive her through the work of the Betty Ford Center, perhaps the most unique of all the nations "living memorials."
When it came to being her own woman, Betty Ford was in a class by herself. In an era when double standards and hypocrisy were order of the day and first ladies were expected to show a stiff upper lip, Betty Ford spoke her mind.
How the political consultants screeched when, in one her first interviews as first lady, Mrs. Ford confessed that she would "not be surprised" if she learned that her daughter, then eighteen years old, had had an affair. Her choice of words was especially interesting. Rather than intend them, as an opinion writer stated recently in the New York Times, to suggest that she would not "necessarily object" to such an occurrence, Betty was making a more important point. In the age disco, when "Studio 54" helped shape national tastes, not even White House walls were sturdy enough to shield its young occupants from societal pressures.
During the turbulent and hasty Nixon-Ford transition, photographers spotted movers carrying the large double bed the Ford's occupied in their Alexandria, Virginia home into the presidential bedroom. Word leaked that the first couple would retain the sleeping arrangements they had maintained for nearly a quarter of a century. (Previous first couples had slept in separate rooms, purportedly to spare presidential spouses from being awakened when their husbands took the proverbial "3:00 a.m. calls" Hillary Clinton used to speak of.) An impertinent reporter asked Betty Ford how often she intended to sleep with her husband. "As often as I can," the irascible first lady shot back.
Undoubtedly, Mrs. Ford had to have been the first presidential wife to kick off her shoes, while taking to the dance floor at state dinners and receptions. Legend has that, befitting her past as a professional dancer, she once rehearsed an old number on the top of her husband's desk in the Oval Office.
Like Bess Truman, Mamie Eisenhower and Pat Nixon, Betty left the politicking in the family to her husband—most of the time. One notable exception was the Equal Rights Amendment, for which she stumped the country. Delegates and spectators paraded around the 1976 Republican National Convention, which renominated her husband by the narrowest of margins, sporting buttons beseeching others to "Vote for Betty's Husband." Whether anyone actually did because of her is unclear. In their capacity to attract votes, first ladies may not be all that different from vice presidential nominees, who Richard Nixon said can "hurt," but do not necessarily "help." That Betty Ford was of "value" to both her husband and to the country was among the few subjects to go undebated during her husband's presidency.
A decade ago, I had the occasion to interview former president Gerald R. Ford over the telephone. Toward the end, at his initiative, we engaged in pleasantries and exchanged political gossip. "Anything else?" he said, preparing to hang up. "Yes," said I. "Please say 'hello' for me to Mrs. Ford." I could all but hear his beaming smile over the telephone.