By Jim O’Neal
Every presidential trivia fan knows that Eleanor Roosevelt’s birth name was Eleanor Roosevelt. She had married her father’s fifth cousin, Franklin. Although the couple had six children, Eleanor said she disliked intimacy with him and wrote she was ill-equipped to be a mother since she didn’t understand or even like small children.
They somehow managed to stay married for 40 years until FDR died in 1945. Franklin did enjoy intimate relations, especially with Lucy Mercer, Eleanor’s social secretary. He wanted a divorce, but his mother (who controlled the family money) would not allow it. This even after a trove of love letters between Franklin and Lucy exposed their elicit relationship.
Eleanor skillfully leveraged her position as First Lady; many consider her the first First Lady since she personally championed so many women’s rights issues. She had an active public life and a serious relationship with reporter Lorena Hickok. Eleanor became well known during her long occupancy in the White House and was highly respected all over the world.
That was not true (initially) of Betty Ford, who became First Lady when Jerry Ford became president after Richard Nixon resigned in 1974. She was born Betty Bloomer and she had divorced after a failed five-year marriage to William Warren, an alcoholic she nursed during his final two years.
She was a dancer before she married the man whose name was Leslie Lynch King Jr. when he was born in 1913 (he changed his name in 1935). As a member of the renowned Martha Graham dance troupe, Ford had performed at Carnegie Hall and later earned the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom. It was presented by the recently deceased President George H.W. Bush in 1991.
Betty Ford (1918-2011) had been impressed by Eleanor Roosevelt since childhood. “She eventually became my role model because I admired her so. I loved her Independence … a woman finally speaking out for herself rather than saying what would be politically helpful to her husband. That seemed healthy to me.” Others were quick to note the similarities between the two women. Major publications compared the willingness of both to offer bold, personal opinions on highly controversial issues. I would argue that Betty Ford set a higher standard for candor than any of her predecessors.
One small example is the very first press conference in the State Dining Room. Ford seemed to have no reservations about repeating her strong positions as a supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment and her pro-choice stance on abortion. She admitted she had consulted a psychiatrist, had been divorced, and used tranquilizers for physical pain. Any single one of these uttered today would instantly be “Breaking News” on the cable news channels so starved for fresh material (or innuendo).
Initially, Ford didn’t consider her Ladyship as a “meaningful position,” but rather than letting the role define her, she decided to change it. “I wanted to be a good First Lady … but didn’t feel compelled to emulate my predecessors.” She simply decided to be Betty Bloomer Ford … “and [I] might as well have a good time doing it.” She succeeded on both accounts and the results were more than just surprising.
She talked about “demanding privilege” and “a great opportunity,” but also about the “salvation” that gave her a genuine career of her own … and on a national level she’d never experienced before. Her impact helped reshape her into a likeable leader with broad respect.
Her creative imagination rivaled Jackie’s. “This house has been a grave,” she said. “I want it to sing!” More women were seated at the president’s table, especially second-tier political women who needed a little boost. And they were round tables, which denoted equality. This was the instinct of a free, bohemian spirit, but not by contrivance. She had been a single woman who studied modern dance and introduced it to the ghettos of Grand Rapids, Mich. She spoke deliberately and was unafraid of listening to differing viewpoints.
There were the occasional curious remarks about her drug and alcohol use, but easily rationalized by her well-known physical pain from severe arthritis and pinched nerve courtesy of her dancing. Not even nosy reporters questioned or sought to investigate the degree of her medications. It wasn’t until after the Fords left the White House that the drinking resulted in a family intervention.
In true Betty Ford fashion, after the denial, anger and resentment subsided, a positive outcome resulted. The Betty Ford Center was founded in Rancho Mirage, Calif. The center, known as Camp Betty, has helped celebrities and others overcome substance abuse issues. It offers treatment without shame and, although not a cure or panacea, gives people control over their lives. The opioid crisis of today is using some of the experience gained from Camp Betty.
However, her most lasting and important contribution concerns breast cancer. During the mid-1970s, television didn’t even allow the word “breast” until a determined Betty Ford decided to go very public with her condition. She had accompanied a friend who was having an annual checkup and the doctor suggested she do the same. After several more doctors got involved, a biopsy confirmed she had breast cancer. The White House press office squabbled over releasing information about her condition, but Betty spotted another opportunity.
By the time she was back in the White House two weeks later, women across America were having breast examinations and mammograms. The ensuing media coverage of her honest revelations was credited with saving the lives of thousands of women who had discovered breast tumors. The East Wing was flooded with 60,000 cards, letters and telegrams, 10 percent from women who had mastectomies. The First Lady told the American Cancer Society, “I just cannot stress enough how necessary it is for women to take an active interest in their own health and body … too many women are so afraid … they endanger their lives.”
Ford was a modern day Abigail Adams, but Ford used a megaphone rather than letters, and in a practical way. Bravo to an under-appreciated First Lady, who set a standard that all who follow should study.
Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].