To the surprise of some and the consternation of others, Mrs. Ford evolved as an activist first lady whose non-threatening manner coupled with her newfound celebrity provided the women’s movement with an impressive ally. Undaunted by critics, she campaigned for ratification of the ill-starred Equal Rights Amendment, championed liberalized abortion laws and lobbied her husband to name more women to policymaking government jobs.
“Perhaps it was unusual for a first lady to be as outspoken about issues as I was, but that was my temperament, and I believed in it,” she said in an interview for this paper at her Rancho Mirage, Calif., home in 1994. “I don’t like to be dishonest, so when people asked me, I said what I thought.”
Her husband, who died in 2006, was a longtime Michigan congressman who became House minority leader. He served as Richard M. Nixon’s vice president before the Watergate scandal led him to succeed Nixon, who resigned Aug. 9, 1974, and become the nation’s 38th president. Mrs. Ford had not wanted her husband to be president, but once he took office, she was determined that Americans know him as one with integrity.
“I was against a pardon,” she said of Ford’s decision to release Nixon from his Watergate offenses, which critics viewed as a secret deal between the two men in exchange for Nixon’s resignation.
Fearing the pardon would undermine Ford’s still-fragile presidency, she said she argued that “it would be very detrimental. I saw the anger as far as Watergate was concerned and the anger at President Nixon. I said, ‘It’s not going to be popular, it’s not going to look good.’ And I wanted him to look good.”
In the end, she acquiesced to Ford’s rationale that he needed to “get the country going.” Impeachment proceedings “would have taken months in court, and he didn’t think the country could stand that kind of thing,” she said. “When you’re trying to turn things around because of the distrust and all that was out there, you’ve got to do something. And sometimes you have to do something extreme.”
Within weeks after Watergate claimed Nixon’s political life and the Fords were settled at the White House, she soared from nonentity to national heroine because of her candid disclosure that she had a nodule in her right breast and was entering Bethesda Naval Medical Command. When a biopsy showed the lump to be malignant, she underwent a radical mastectomy.
Although intended in part to suggest a new period of openness in the White House, the announcement had another — and unexpected — effect that she said had not occurred to her: Women across the country began seeking checkups for breast cancer.
“Circumstances made it appropriate for us to speak up about what was happening to me because we were in such a spotlight. I became the conduit and I was very glad to be one,” Mrs. Ford said. “The public needed to know that this didn’t have to be swept under the rug anymore, that this needed to be open and discussed.”