“She wanted to be herself”

    Consider this a fond, belated farewell to Betty Ford.I rarely write about First Ladies, but Betty Ford, who died at 93 last Friday, warrants a nod because she was such a game-changer. Prior to her unexpected ascent in 1974, the basic 20th-century template (famously breached by Eleanor Roosevelt) was that First Ladies should be seen but not heard – especially on policy. Bess Truman and Mamie Eisenhower didn’t speak their minds. Jackie Kennedy was a fashionista, but she never held forth on the priorities of the New Frontier. Lady Bird Johnson hewed to her nonpartisan campaign to clean up highway trash and “beautify America.” Pat Nixon just looked like she was always sucking on lemons.Then came Betty. Morley Safer hosted her on 60 Minutes and asked: “Among things that you have spoken about is abortion, which kind of a taboo subject for the wife of a president.” To which she said, “Well, if you ask a question, you have to be honest (in response). I feel very strongly that it was the best thing in the world when the Supreme Court voted to legalize abortion and, in my words, bring it out of the back woods and out it into the hospital where it belongs.”And when asked how she would respond if Susan Ford, her unmarried daughter, confided that she had been having sex, Betty replied: “Well, I wouldn’t be surprised, I’d think she was a perfectly normal human being.”Heads predictably exploded out in the conservative heartland, not just because she was voicing social tolerance and echoing the feminist belief that women should have the right to determine their own private lives, but because she had the temerity to eschew the cardboard First Lady persona and embrace her spirited, independent authenticity. She had lived a life before politics. She had been married prior to bonding with Gerald Ford. She had been a dancer, and she had worked for a living. As Betty’s press secretary, Sheila Weidenfeld, remarked years later, “She didn’t want to become a podium princess. She wanted to be herself. She wanted to be able to say what was on her mind.”She got into trouble, of course. When she publicly declared that the states should ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (a major ’70s feminist issue), angry picketers surrounded the White House. President Ford’s advisers sent her a memo requesting that they be consulted in advance before she engaged in “activities intended to influence the public on legislation.” Her husband admitted his frustration. A reporter once asked him, “Have you ever said to your wife, ‘Why do you have to be so revealing, so honest?'” And he replied, “I’ve told her a million times. It has no impact.” Some commentators even believe that her candor put the kibosh on his presidency – by fueling conservative support for Ronald Reagan in the 1976 primaries, thereby weakening Ford during the autumn showdown with eventual victor Jimmy Carter. She was, however briefly, an historic figure, someone who was emblematic of so many other women in the party. There used to be a lot of moderate, socially tolerant Republican females, just like her; fed up with the party’s conservative stance on abortion and other social issues, millions of them defected to the Democrats in the year Bill Clinton was elected, and they never went back. Beyond that, it’s hard to envision any future First Lady speaking out so boldly on divisive, cutting-edge issues. Michelle Obama, for instance, is conspicuously reticent, and no wonder: Our politics and cultural warfare are far more polarized today than in the mid-1970s. If a First Lady today ever dared to stand up for women by assailing, say, the new South Dakota law which requires abortion clients to first endure counseling sessions run by anti-abortion activists, she would be savaged online 24/7 and the cable shows would fill hours of airtime speculating on the potential damage to her spouse.But Betty Ford once said, “I do not believe that being First Lady should prevent me from expressing my views.” Here’s hoping that the sentiment hasn’t died with her.——-Unless I am otherwise enlightened, I will assume that the debt-ceiling brinksmanship will dribble on until we near the witching hour on Aug. 2. Yesterday’s most entertaining comment was uttered by Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. Referring to President Obama, he said that, on behalf of his GOP brethren, “We refuse to let him entice us into co-ownership of a bad economy.”I’ll say to McConnell what John McEnroe used to say to the tennis refs: “You cannot be serious.”At the end of the Bill Clinton era, we had a budget surplus and solid job growth. After George W. Bush and the Republicans took over, we had reckless spending that was never paid for (notably the elective Iraq war, financed by loans from China; and the Medicare prescription drug benefit), and a massive revenue drain thanks to the Bush tax cuts. Result: massive budget deficits, and cratering debt. We also had anemic job growth and rampant fraud on deregulated Wall Street that sank us in ’08.Memo to McConnell and the Republicans, with apologies to Pottery Barn: You broke it, so you already co-own it.

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