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Betty Ford, a trail-blazing first lady whose footsteps are not often followed

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The title “first lady” comes with a lot of baggage, beginning with the word “lady,” which Merriam-Webster defines as “a woman of refinement and gentle manners.” A lady is polite. A lady is well-groomed. Whatever her real or perceived power, a lady does not rock the boat. But to be a first lady? That’s something else entirely: both a privilege and a requirement that a woman’s conduct be at its most public and polished.

As the tributes and outpourings of admiration during the past week have emphasized, Betty Ford, who died at age 93 on July 8 in Rancho Mirage, Calif., was one of the United States’ most beloved — and progressive — political wives. A lot of this was thanks to Mrs. Ford’s unique ability to act like a lady while subverting the expectations for female subservience that it demanded. (As the Rev. Lane Hensley said at a memorial service Tuesday in Palm Desert, Calif., Mrs. Ford showed the world that “there are new and better ways to be a first lady.”)

A former dancer, fashion buyer and stay-at-home mom, Mrs. Ford had June Cleaver looks and an all-American biography that belied a ferocity and willingness to embrace provocative politics (Roe v. Wade, the Equal Rights Amendment) that — coming on the heels of the stilted, seemingly staid households overseen by Mamie Eisenhower, Lady Bird Johnson and Pat Nixon — seemed truly revolutionary. She was, as her fights with breast cancer and substance abuse made abundantly clear — the embodiment of the political made personal.

“She liked the idea that a woman could express herself rather than the views of her husband,” says Donna Lehman, an archivist at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum in Grand Rapids, Mich.

This “take me as I am, warts-and-all” approach to life was, in its way, a feminist act, but it was also an expression of her Midwestern upbringing. In a 1997 interview with Lesley Stahl on “60 Minutes,” Ford visited the studio of artist Ray Kinstler, who was finishing a portrait of the first lady that would hang in the entrance of the Ford Museum.

“It’s lovely,” Mrs. Ford, then 79, told Kinstler as a camera crew looked on. “I just expected something . . . more mature.” (Kinstler later agreed to add more evidence of her age, i.e., wrinkles, to her face.)

At Tuesday’s memorial service, Rosalynn Carter, who followed Mrs. Ford into the White House after Jimmy Carter defeated Gerald Ford in 1976, extolled her friend’s honesty and graciousness, saying that she “was never afraid to speak the truth even about the most sensitive of subjects.”

The audience, nodding, followed along in a bound program, the cover of which bore Kinstler’s completed portrait.

Blazing trails

Unfortunately, the trails that Mrs. Ford blazed — particularly her belief in radical honesty and personal transparency — have been somewhat lost in the maze of modern partisan politics. Now, almost 40 years after her departure from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., it’s difficult, if not impossible, to think of a contemporary first lady, particularly a Republican one, who has been so consistently and unapologetically outspoken in her activism.

Nancy Reagan is best known for adoring astrology. Barbara Bush for being a dowdy, white-haired matriarch. Laura Bush for her love of books. Whether by failure or by design, all of our latest first ladies, with the exception of Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was pilloried for her attempts to overhaul the health-care system, have stuck to a script that kept the country — and White House advisers — comfortable. What’s remarkable about Betty Ford is not how she changed the office of the first lady but how little the office of the first lady was willing to change.

Michelle Obama — cautious and disciplined, purposeful and personally conservative — is the most recent, and obvious, example of this, although she and Mrs. Ford share a number of biographical and situational similarities. Like Betty, Mrs. Obama was born in Chicago, a strong-minded only daughter who found herself thrust into the role of political wife soon after she wed Barack. (Betty’s marriage to Gerald was her second; she divorced her first husband, William Warren, after 5 years.) Like Betty, Michelle’s appearance in the East Wing was seen as a breath of fresh air, a much-needed sprinkling of sunshine and dynamism in an institution whose immediate predecessors had left the American body politic feeling exhausted and demeaned.

Even so, it’s difficult to imagine Mrs. Obama mounting the bully pulpit in the same unapologetically outspoken way Mrs. Ford did. Some of this is circumstantial. Unlike Mr. and Mrs. Ford, who were thrust into the executive branch, and later, the White House, after the resignations of Vice President Spiro Agnew and President Richard Nixon, Michelle took part in her husband’s pursuit of the Oval Office, giving her and her staff time to refine their message and prepare for the microscope that accompanies a White House residency. In many ways, Mrs. Obama’s years of practice dealing with the political press made perfect — perhaps too perfect — leaving little room for Betty Ford-like improvisation.

The political climate is different, too: The polarization that occurred after the rise of the religious right means that bipartisanship, which Mrs. Ford was so adept at advocating for, is mostly a thing of the past.

“No one in Washington, especially a first lady, dares do anything that’s one millimeter off the cautious path,” says journalist Kati Marton, author of “Hidden Power: Presidential Marriages That Shaped Our History.” “And we’re all the losers for it.” (At the Palm Desert memorial, Betty’s friend, journalist Cokie Roberts, at Betty’s request, lamented the political fracturing of Washington.)

There’s also the issue of race. Like her husband, Michelle Obama has had to step carefully around the explosive (and often gendered) stereotypes, assumptions and anxieties about black womanhood. Through no real fault of her own, she hasn’t always succeeded. She was raked over the coals in February 2008 for telling a Milwaukee audience that, for the first time, she felt proud of her country.

“She was talking like a reasonable person might talk, not a politician,” says Rebecca Traister, author of “Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women.” “She never really made that ‘mistake’ again.” (A representative later clarified that Mrs. Obama had meant to express her admiration for the groundswell of support for her husband and the public’s palpable desire for change.) As Liza Mundy — a Washington Post reporter who has written a biography on Michelle Obama — points out, her advisers eventually, and successfully, managed to change the conversation from what Michelle said to what she wore.

Betty, on the other hand, was the quintessential, all-American beauty queen — which is to say, she was not only attractive but white — who could get away with Betty Friedan-style agitations and consciousness-raising because of white America’s familiarity with both her appearance and her past experiences.

A born performer

Ultimately, though, it comes down to personality. Although Michelle Obama is widely considered as smart, competent and dynamic as her overachieving husband, the Harvard-trained lawyer is not, as Betty Ford biographer John Robert Greene points out, a born performer. (“I think the more interesting question is not what restrictions are put on Michelle Obama but what restrictions she puts on herself,” says writer Jodi Kantor, whose book “The Obamas” comes out in November.)

A onetime dancer with the Martha Graham Company, Betty didn’t shy away from the spotlight. And like any true entertainer, she never broke character. In 1975, in a famous and controversial “60 Minutes” interview with Morley Safer, Mrs. Ford responded to a theoretical question about her daughter’s sex life with unflappable aplomb. (“She clearly gets caught off guard but quickly snaps into performance mode,” Greene says.)

Even when faced with a 1974 diagnosis of breast cancer, which led to the speedy removal of her right breast, Mrs. Ford was out front and center, allowing her picture to be taken as she recovered in the hospital. As Betty put it in October 1975, about two months after the “60 Minutes” appearance, “Why should my husband’s job, or yours, prevent us from being ourselves?”

This isn’t to say that Mrs. Ford’s radical honesty was cynically motivated or stage-managed, that it was somehow a concerted effort to boost her popularity and, by extension, her husband’s. President Ford’s staff was taken aback by Betty’s outspokenness, Greene says. And she was difficult to control — “You can’t fire a first lady,” he laughs — and the president didn’t really want to muzzle her anyway. He loved her for her authenticity despite the political challenges it presented. (After the 1975 interview aired, President Ford joked, perhaps half-seriously, that it would cost him 20 million votes in his 1976 bid for reelection.)

And let’s be honest: There’s something to be said for cultivating a feminine mystique, and not of the Friedan variety. As any savvy Hollywood PR professional will tell you, there’s both safety and power in holding back, in actively avoiding overexposure, especially in our TMI-saturated 21st century.

Perhaps Michelle Obama’s unwillingness to fully reveal herself is less a protective shield and more a rejection of a culture in which self-revelation as performance art — Oprah, Facebook, reality TV — has become the rule not the exception. Perhaps, given the current cultural climate, in which congressmen are forced to resign after baring all online and former vice presidential nominees happily sign on to star in TLC reality television series, the reticent Michelle Obama is more of a rebel than she appears.

Even so, something has been lost in the four decades since Betty Ford and her husband packed up their belongings and made their way west to Rancho Mirage. As Marton puts it, while the rest of the American female population has carved out more and more territory for itself — political, economic, personal — during the past few decades, first ladies have gone in the opposite direction. “I wish the office of the first lady could be a little more humanized and a little less perfect, but it’s our fault, not theirs,” she says. “In a sense, first ladies tailor themselves for our acceptance and approval. We get the presidential couple that we deserve.”

© The Washington Post Company