What Michelle Obama Could Learn From Betty Ford

Betty Ford made her voice heard. Why hasn't Michelle Obama?

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A Chicago-born first lady takes the country by storm and confronted some of the searing issues of her day--and her name is not Michelle Obama. I'm talking about Betty Ford, who will be buried today. She was 93.

Michelle Obama is scheduled to attend the funeral service for Betty Ford in California. One can only hope that some of Ford's feisty spirit will rub off and inspire her to be more outspoken about the big things. Obama, 47, is notably more circumspect than Ford and another Illinois native who became first lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton. (Secretary Clinton will also attend Mrs. Ford's funeral.) Two and a half years since the Obamas moved into the White House, the first lady still has not made a place of her own. I am sorry to say she's playing it safe. We won't even hold her up to another possible role model, the incomparable Eleanor Roosevelt.

[See photos of Mrs. Obama.]

Will Michelle Obama be remembered for planting a kitchen garden, standing against childhood obesity and for military families? You tell me. Her fashion sense is the boldest public statement she has made so far. The rest seems a bit airbrushed, a bland agenda chosen with the utmost care not to offend anyone.

Mrs. Ford campaigned for the Equal Rights Amendment (a cause that lost) and openly supported legal abortion laws in the 1970s. She urged her genial husband, President Gerald Ford, to include more women in policy posts. The nation's women owe a debt of gratitude to her for speaking out on cutting edge social issues. Thank you for not playing it safe, Betty.

From the summer of 2008 onward, Michelle Obama has hidden away her Harvard Law degree and cast herself as a wife, mother, hostess, sharp dresser, garden grower, and a sleek fitness buff. For three years, I've looked and listened for more, wishing she'd step out of her shell, stand up and speak more passionately in the public square. Jacqueline Kennedy's passion for restoring the White House showed on her face when she spoke of it on a televised tour. Hillary Clinton gave healthcare reform everything she had and testified before Congress in no uncertain terms. Betty Ford let her voice be heard, especially in solidarity with women. How refreshing would that be?

That is not Mrs. Obama's way, or perhaps not her strategy, as accomplished as she is. She simply doesn't give much of herself away at the end of a day in the White House. Her husband, the president, has also proven a more cautious character than the public and media thought at first. [See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]

So I like Mrs. Obama, but I don't love her, as they say. The lawyer in the first lady who might get engaged in advancing social justice, workplace equity, or life chances in elementary education--let's see her show up for work. If a Republican first lady could do it while the nation was recovering from Watergate, it can be done in these tough times.

Rest in peace, Betty Ford.

  • See cartoons about President Obama.
  • Check out photos of Mrs. Obama.
  • See photos of the Obamas abroad.