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The Tentacle


July 13, 2011

Remembering a Classy First Lady

Kevin E. Dayhoff

Former First Lady Betty Ford, the widow of Gerald Ford, our 38th President of the United States, died last Friday at the age of 93.

 

It was almost 40-years ago that she raised the bar for candor from a national figure that so many had yearned for, and for the most part, have not seen repeated.

 

When her husband died December 26, 2006, she was once again thrust into the national lexicon in an era when much of the public could not remember President Ford. For that matter, much of contemporary society cannot remember what they had for breakfast and could care less about national history if it occurred before Britney Spears or Lady Gaga was born. We live in an era in which, if the lessons of history drone-on past 140 characters, forget about it.

 

However, for those of us who remember August 9, 1974; we can recall the end of a dark chapter in our nation’s history when the 40th vice president of the United States took over the oval office when President Richard M. Nixon resigned in disgrace.

 

Mr. Ford was the only president in U.S. history who had not been elected to either the office of vice president or president. All this after Vice President Spiro Agnew was forced to resign as a result of charges that he had taken bribes from contractors while serving as the governor of Maryland.

 

Mr. Ford was the first person ever appointed to the office of vice president according to the provisions of the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

 

Along with President Ford, our nation got the unexpected bonus of First Lady Ford, who was 56 years old at the time. Innovative as much as she was transformative, she set the standard for being an activist first lady with a voice of her own at a time when the wife of the president was more known by her marital status than her name or accomplishments; with the notable exceptions of former First Ladies Jackie Kennedy and Eleanor Roosevelt.

 

She left a groundbreaking legacy by going public with her fight with breast cancer and her struggle with drug dependency. In doing so, Mrs. Ford encouraged an immeasurable number of women by pulling back the curtain on both diseases and – in doing so – likely saved countless lives.

 

Carl S. Anthony observed in Salon that with her death … Betty Ford should command respect, not for the coincidence of being married to the president. Or “that she survived cancer, alcoholism and chronic osteopathic pain to become the third-longest-living first lady in history (Bess Truman died at 97, Lady Bird Johnson at 94), but rather for what she did with the public role she was thrust into and the values of justice and compassion she exemplified all her years.”

 

To be certain, there can be no doubt that Mrs. Ford was completely loyal to her husband, but her allegiance did not cross the line of obsequious sycophant. She spoke her mind and did not hesitate to disagree with her husband, nor did she tow the party line.

 

Whether you agreed or disagreed with her positions, one may only imagine how the instant-anger response-24/7 media of today would have accepted Mrs. Ford’s candor. Respect for another’s opinion delivered in a straightforward manner is a long-lost art that is overdue for a comeback by the political practitioners of professional outrage.

 

“She was a Republican of the type now vanished,” Mr. Anthony wrote.

 

Indeed, Associated Press writer Mike Householder wryly observed, “While her husband served as president, Betty Ford's comments weren't the kind of genteel, innocuous talk expected from a first lady, and a Republican one no less.

 

“Her unscripted comments sparked tempests in the press and dismayed President Ford's advisers, who were trying to soothe the national psyche after Watergate. But to the scandal-scarred, Vietnam-wearied, hippie-rattled nation, Mrs. Ford's openness was refreshing.”

 

Mr. Anthony noted, “She also offered her opinion on other hot-button issues of the era that hadn't affected her, supporting strong gun control laws, anti-discrimination against gay men and women...

 

“Some of this may have shocked the nation, but it never shocked her husband or kids, all of whom knew and loved her because she was frank – and complex.”

 

“These were straight, honest answers, but hardly calculated to prolong a Republican Presidency,” wrote the British newspaper, The Daily Telegraph; which also recalled that in the presidential primary campaign of 1976 against Ronald Reagan, “A cartoon suggested that the President might win the election if he didn't have to run against the First Lady.”

 

Mr. Ford won the primary, but lost that fall to Jimmy Carter.

 

The Telegraph quoted Mrs. Ford to have once remarked of her tenure as first lady: “I've spent too many years as me. I can't suddenly turn into a princess… Every time she passed one of the two small Greek goddesses in the Yellow Oval Room she would put a cigarette between the statue's fingers.”

 

Salon noted, “And in all the historic facts and firsts reviewed in the flush of stories about Betty Ford, none have mentioned the most glaringly obvious. In his inaugural address on taking the oath of office, just after Nixon left the White House, Gerald R. Ford became the first and only president to credit his wife.”

 

Jake Tapper wrote, for ABC News, “The first lady helped the nation restore its faith in the presidency following the Watergate scandal, once saying she wanted the White House to sing again.”

 

At a dark era in our nation’s history she helped shine a light and in a way, we all sang again as a result.

 

. . . . .I’m just saying…

 

kevindayhoff@gmail.com

 



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