Betty Ford, RINO, RIP
I have a confession to make. In 1976, the first presidential election in which I was eligible to vote, I pulled the lever for the Republican. But I wasn't really voting for Gerald R. Ford; I was voting for his wife.
At the age of 19, there was one thing that mattered to me more than any other: the fight for women's equality, and Betty Ford was a feminist. When her husband was appointed to the vice presidency by Richard Nixon after Spiro Agnew's resignation in disgrace, she told Barbara Walters in a televised interview that she agreed with the Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade, the case that legalized abortion.
She supported the Equal Rights Amendment even as Phyllis Schlafly led a crusade against it. How ironic then, that even as a woman, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., dares to run for the GOP presidential nomination on a path that was paved for her by the likes of Betty Ford, the congressman claims to subscribe to a religious doctrine of "wifely submission" to her husband.
In the Republican Party of today, Betty Ford would be deemed a RINO -- a Republican in Name Only. Her obituary draws in stark terms the brutal change her party has undergone, and the assault on civility and pragmatism it has come to represent.
The Pragmatic Feminist
Betty Ford dealt with life pragmatically, not from some fantasy world drawn from an antiquated set of patriarchal morals. On "60 Minutes," she told Morley Safer that she wouldn't be surprised if Susan, her then-18-year old daughter, decided to "have an affair." (The word "affair" was a euphemism for sex.) Ford said that, of course, she'd want to counsel her daughter on the matter, and know the young man with whom her daughter was getting involved. If you weren't alive then, it's probably hard to appreciate just how radical a thing that was for any mother to say, never mind the first lady. And a Republican first lady, at that. (In the same interview, Ford said she assumed that her kids had tried smoking pot.)
In those days, despite the fact that the nation was in the throes of the sexual revolution, anything that related to sex -- even health issues particular to women and their body parts -- were taboo in the public dialogue. While in office, Betty Ford was diagnosed with breast cancer, and went public with it, even inviting television cameras into her hospital room. Before that, the word "breast" had probably never appeared on the cover of a women's magazine. And the word "cancer" was almost as taboo. We'll never know just how many lives were saved by Betty Ford's public admission of her diagnosis, and the fact that she had a mastectomy, but her admission catalyzed the push for breast screenings and self-examination.
Then, of course, there's the debt that all of us recovering addicts and alcoholics owe her. The fact that I can even include myself in that sentence owes something to Betty Ford, and the public manner in which she treated her own recovery, in 1978, after the Fords left office, from addiction to alcohol, tranquilizers and painkillers. She didn't come to the realization of her addictions on her own: her family staged an intervention. But once she accepted the truth about herself, she did what she had always seen fit to do: she told the truth about herself to the world.
The founding of the Betty Ford Clinic was revolutionary, not because no such institutions had ever existed before -- they had -- but because the inclusion of the former first lady's name on the letterhead helped remove the stigma from the condition of addiction, and softened the shame so many addicts feel at the simple act of asking for help.
Always an Artist
Part of what facilitated Betty Ford's role as an unusual first lady and cultural lightening rod was her background as an artist. Ford studied with the legendary dancer, choreographer and troupe leader, Martha Graham -- a radical figure in the dance world who changed notions of what classical dance should be. Betty's decision, at her mother's request, to return to Grand Rapids, Michigan, after having made it into Graham's secondary troupe, could be said to have changed the history of the presidency.
Betty Ford hadn't intended to stay in Grand Rapids upon her return, but it was there that she met Gerald Ford, then a congressional candidate. That she was a divorced woman already, and a dancer, did not deter the college football hero from wooing her. (That speaks well of him; after all, this was in 1946.) And the rest, as they say, is history.
A mere four years after the Fords left office, the Republican Party would take a sharp right turn, thanks to the takeover of the party machinery staged by the religious right, to which Ronald Reagan owed his 1980 victory. It boggles the mind to consider that, just four years prior to that election, 75 percent of the American people judged Betty Ford, in a Gallup survey, to be a very fine first lady. Today, given the rise of a religious minority in the national political arena, presidential spouses of both major parties feel that they dare not speak their minds. I suspect, though, if more political spouses and politicians were like Betty Ford, the American people would respond just as they did to the late first lady, so long ago.
I've always contended that, in this world, the most radical thing you can be is yourself. It's the reason why artists are so often deemed to be radicals; art is the ultimate expression of self. Betty Ford, thank you for your loving example, and for having had the courage to be yourself in every arena of your life. RlP.