It’s odd how a stranger’s death can affect you more strongly than you would have anticipated. That happened, for me, with Betty Ford’s death — an odd sense of grief for a woman I never met.
But, I swear to you, I felt like I knew her. She followed the tragic Pat Nixon, whose face was forever frozen in a grimly polite mask. The Nixons didn’t share a bedroom in the White House, Pat Nixon once said, since it was impossible to sleep with her husband since he was so restless. I’m sure multitudes of women nodded their heads silently at this news, thinking there were far worse fates than joining a convent — among them being married to Dick Nixon or Idi Amin. No wonder Pat Nixon chain smoked in private; who wouldn’t have?
Betty and Gerald Ford entered the White House when the country was weary of political scandal and expectations were in the basement. Nixon had finally slunk off to California after blubbering incoherently about his sainted mother; the system had worked, as the media constantly reassured us; our long national nightmare was over, Gerry Ford said. The Fords, sturdy, unpretentious Midwesterners, were a relief after an administration whose dark side resembled the Cosa Nostra crossed with Richard III.
Betty Ford had been in politics with her husband for decades, but somehow, she wasn’t harnessed and managed like her predecessors. She talked about sex and breast cancer and child-rearing and abortion. She seemed — astonishingly — like a real person who might be your friend. Even Gerald Ford’s detractors had to respect him a little more for being married to such a frank and outspoken woman.
Anyway, that’s what we thought we knew at the time. In stark contrast to the Nixons, the Fords appeared sunny-tempered and sane, almost simple. It’s odd to think back and realize Betty Ford had her own dark side, emotional and physical pain, her own private anguish and struggles. It must have been hard for her to take on the most thankless job in the universe — First Lady of this country — but she never let us see her sweat while her husband was still in office. It wasn’t till her husband’s retirement that her own struggles became public.
Her death reminded me of how much good one person can do in her lifetime, how much she can inspire others. It’s a cynical age and I find myself getting a little jaded around the edges on an hourly basis. How nice to recall someone who lived her life fully and well. How fortunate for the rest of us to have been touched, however distantly, by a great woman.
(Copyright 2011 by Ruth Pennebaker)
Read about a mother from another generation