Saturday, July 9, 2011

Rest in Peace, Betty Ford

I always admired Betty Ford.

When her husband became president in 1974, the initial consensus (at least, until he pardoned Richard Nixon) was that he was a "breath of fresh air." And, compared to Nixon, he was.

But Betty Ford really was, as I observed on her birthday last year.

And it was with sadness that I learned of her death at the age of 93.

I didn't support her husband when he ran for a full term on his own — which didn't matter, I guess, since I wasn't old enough to vote, anyway. I thought he was a decent guy, but I had Democrats for parents, as I have written here before, and we couldn't forgive him for pardoning Nixon.

Besides, I was brought up in the South, and I was enthused about the prospect of having a fellow Southerner in the White House.

Anyway, for that and many other reasons, the clear choice for me in 1976 was Jimmy Carter over Gerald Ford.

But if the choice had been between Betty Ford and Rosalynn Carter, I might have had to think about it for awhile longer.

I liked them both.

Betty Ford was honest and down to earth. She saw things the way they were, not the way she wished they were. I found that refreshing. So did lots of other people.

She could be outspoken at times — like when she said that she thought her children had tried marijuana and, if she had been their age, she would have, too. She was who she was, and people admired her for that.

"I figured, OK, 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 somebody I'm not," she wrote in her 1978 memoir, "The Times Of My Life."

She mostly disappeared from public life in her post–White House years. The Fords appeared at Republican conventions, but that stopped after President Ford suffered a mild stroke.

Then, in late December 2006, President Ford died — and the nation admired Betty Ford all over again as it observed her dignity during the state funerals in Washington and Michigan.

Her declining health prevented her from attending Lady Bird Johnson's funeral almost exactly four years ago. I believe her daughter went in her place.

As I say, Betty Ford was honest. Perhaps part of that stemmed from her experience of having been married briefly before she married the future president. Perhaps it gave her an insight into life and how things often do not turn out as we expect.

She knew that disappointments and setbacks were part of the bargain we all make. Perhaps it made her more appreciative of some things.

When she wrote her memoir, she had been married to President Ford for three decades. She observed that there had been "a great deal of whooping and hollering" when her husband became president "because I'd said Jerry and I were not going to have separate bedrooms at the White House and that we were going to take our own bed with us."

Her first marriage hadn't soured her. It made her more appreciative of what she had found.

"Even now, after all those years of married life, I like the idea of sleeping with my husband next to me," she wrote — and when you read it in 1978, you could almost see her sly grin.

It wasn't as controversial as when she said it wouldn't surprise her to learn that her 18–year–old daughter was in a sexual relationship. My memory is that a chastened Susan Ford denied being in such a relationship.

Maybe she had a greater influence on people than she imagined. That wouldn't surprise me, either.

She was one of a kind among first ladies.

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