Thursday, April 8, 2010

Betty Ford's Birthday

Betty Ford never seemed to be cut from the same cloth as most first ladies.

I wasn't old enough to remember the Kennedy presidency; if I had been, that might have altered my thinking. For that matter, I almost wasn't old enough to remember Lyndon Johnson's presidency, but I was old enough to have formed an impression of Lady Bird from what I had seen on TV. And I definitely had some opinions about Richard Nixon's presidency and his wife, Pat.

When Nixon resigned, Gerald Ford took his place, and it was, as I have written before, like a breath of fresh air. Maybe that was because most of Ford's public life had been spent as a Republican member of the House, representing a district in Michigan. He hadn't lost the common touch as had most of his 20th century predecessors, who had to wage national campaigns.

Neither had his wife, but she certainly became a lightning rod in the years she spent in the White House.

For that matter, Mrs. Ford likely would not fit in with the Republican Party of the 21st century. In the 1970s, she was much more candid and open than the other first ladies in my memory — and the positions she took (i.e., pro–choice, pro–ERA, a supporter of feminism, progressive on drugs and premarital sex and gun control) were, to say the least, hardly what one would expect from the spouse of the president in those days.

She did a lot to raise public awareness of some sticky subjects. Her husband hadn't even been president for two months when she had a mastectomy. Breast cancer wasn't something that people talked about openly in 1974, but Mrs. Ford changed that and, as a result, countless lives were saved.

"When other women have this same operation, it doesn't make any headlines," she said. "But the fact that I was the wife of the president put it in headlines and brought before the public this particular experience I was going through. It made a lot of women realize that it could happen to them. I'm sure I've saved at least one person — maybe more."

(Ironically, another famous woman — tennis legend Martina Navratilova — renewed public attention to the disease this week with her announcement that she has breast cancer.)

After she left the White House, Mrs. Ford continued her quest to improve the health of Americans. With the help of her family, she faced her problems with alcoholism and painkiller addiction and founded the Betty Ford Center in California. Her daughter Susan is now chairman of the board.

Mrs. Ford managed to remain out of the public eye in the last few decades, but she was thrust back into it a few years ago when her husband died. After his funeral, she retreated into her private life, where she remains today, which happens to be her 92nd birthday.

She is the oldest living first lady and only the third first lady to live past the age of 90 (although Nancy Reagan will join her if she lives until July 2011).

I guess, when one considers Mrs. Ford's battles with breast cancer and alcoholism and painkillers, it is nothing short of astonishing that she has lived more than 33 years after leaving the White House. But that is the sort of person Betty Ford is — a survivor who lives on and inspires others.

Happy birthday, Mrs. Ford — and many, many more.

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