Saturday, July 16, 2011 | 2:01 a.m.
Former first lady Betty Ford was laid to rest this week, leaving behind an incredible legacy. She was thrust into the high-profile role in 1974 after her husband, Gerald Ford, assumed the office when Richard Nixon resigned. During her husband’s short presidency, she transformed what it meant to be first lady.
To the occasional shock of the White House staff, she bluntly and publicly offered her views on the issues of the day. She also took a public role on issues she cared about. She championed women’s rights, and she publicly shared her fight against breast cancer, hoping to help other women fight the disease.
After losing the 1976 election, the Fords retired to California. In late 1978, Betty Ford was in the news again after publicly admitting that she had an addiction to alcohol and prescription drugs. Once again, Ford used her situation to expand public awareness, and she went on to found the Betty Ford Clinic, the now famous addiction treatment center in California.
In eulogies this week, Ford, who died a week ago Friday at the age of 93, was remembered for being a force of nature, a woman who didn’t conform to the expectations of what anyone thought a first lady should be. In a eulogy Tuesday, journalist Cokie Roberts recalled Ford’s words as she took on the role of first lady: “I’ll move to the White House, do the best I can, and if they don’t like it, they can kick me out, but they can’t make me be somebody I’m not.”
In a 2006 profile of her after her husband died, The New York Times noted her role in trying to help her husband restore dignity to the office that had been disgraced by Nixon. People connected with Ford, in no small part because of her genuineness. The Times noted that she was engaged in the issues and culture of the day. She didn’t shy away from hot-button issues such as drugs, abortion and sex, and she campaigned for the Equal Rights Amendment. She also did the then-popular fad dance the Bump in the halls of the White House, wore a mood ring and talked on a CB radio using the handle First Mama.
People responded. A popular button during the 1976 campaign said, “Elect Betty’s Husband,” and she once told an aide that she wished her husband’s poll numbers were as good as hers.
During a service in California, Roberts said that Ford had asked her to speak and “remind everyone of the way things used to be in Washington,” referring to a more civil era in politics. Roberts noted that her father, Democrat Hale Boggs, was the House majority leader when Gerald Ford was the House minority leader. Although they often disagreed politically, they — and their wives — got along personally.
“That friendship made governing possible — they weren’t questioning each other’s motives, much less their commitment to the country,” Roberts said.
She said when her father’s plane was lost over Alaska in 1972 and never found, the Fords comforted and supported Boggs’ wife, Lindy, and the family.
“She was a great help to me,” Roberts quoted her mother as saying.
Indeed. That was Ford’s character. She rose above personal situations and politics to help not only those around her, but also America.