What a Life

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

15 comments… add one
  • Cindy D. Link

    On the wall behind my desk is a photograph of Betty Ford in a dance pose on the table in thee White House where the Cabinet members meet. David Hume Kennerly took the original on the last day the Ford’s were in the White House. Betty had been a Martha Graham dancer in her youth and this wide slick expanse of table was calling her name. The photo captures Betty’s incredible life exhuberance.
    I loved her because she was so “real.” I, like so many women, owe my life to her. If she hadn’t started the public discussion about breast cancer I might not be here today to mourn her passing. She was a “Grand Ole Dame!” The photo can be seen in the book, Extraordinary Circumstances, The Presidency of Gerald R. Ford by David Hume Kennerly. It is the only book about a Republican that I have every paid money to own.

  • Cindy A Link

    I was so impressed that the Fords and the Carters became tightly bound friends, something that sounds unlikely in today’s political wrangling.

    From The Desert Sun:
    The friendship that the Fords developed with former President Jimmy Carter and former first lady Rosalynn Carter is among the most unusual in the nation’s history.

    After a bitter 1976 campaign that propelled the Carters into the White House and sent the Fords into retirement in Rancho Mirage, the couples moved past political differences to develop a bond that was rooted in their devotion to the country, commitment to family, and faith in God.

    As President Carter said in his eulogy for President Ford in 2007: “The four of us learned to love each other.”

  • I agree with you, Ruth. She was a real woman, in a thankless role, who refused to be packaged and presented by her husband’s handlers. I think I see a worthy successor to her in Michelle Obama, another real woman, with brains and opinions of her own.

  • Merr Link

    She had courage to be her truest self in public, to show her flaws with humility. And in turn she helped millions.

  • I’m so glad you wrote this tribute to Betty Ford. It seems so old fashioned to like someone because they are “nice”. We expect something more spectacular. But Betty and Jerry Ford were both that way. Barbara Bush is another solid and real person who didn’t let the Pennsylvania Avenue address change her.

  • Thanks for this reminder.

  • She certainly did so much for addiction that has helped so many people.

  • I was still a child when President Ford took office, but I do remember the bitter feelings in our house for Nixon and for Ford after the pardon. Still, my mother had a great respect for Betty Ford, and her public trials with addiction and breast cancer and her need to help people. I think what struck me most this week is that her death once again helped the nation, if only for a moment. We remembered a time when there was such a thing as moderates and compromise in our government. Something so badly needed today.

  • Sheryl Link

    I, too, was very touched by Betty Ford’s death. She was a brave woman who brought taboo subjects out into the open and in doing so, helped so many others.

  • linda unger Link

    Realizing that she lived that long with all of her issues almost makes one want to follow in her footsteps. Almost. Great and funny and honest take on Betty Ford’s life. I loved reading it.

  • I happened to stumble across her funeral the other night, televised on one of the news channels, and found myself transfixed as everyone from Rosalynn Carter to an alcoholic and board member from the Betty Ford Clinic stood up to talk about her. Just mesmerizing, especially to see George Bush, Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Rosalynn all sitting together in the front row.

  • Maria Link

    Yes, you’re right. She and her husband were good people.

    What has touched me so much about her death is reading all the spontaneous comments on blogs from ordinary people who admired her, who were inspired by her, who just liked her. It made me feel good to have something in common with so many people I never met. I enjoyed having that we’re-all-in-this-together feeling that is so rare these days.

  • Lovely tribute, Ruth. It was so bold for a woman of her stature to openly discuss breast cancer and alcoholism at a time when such topics were taboo publicly.

  • What a great tribute. I was surprised that her passing seemed to garner such little coverage in the news.

  • I think people forget what a trailblazer she was, for the times. It took her death for folks to revisit the courage it took to share her physical and emotional problems with the world.

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