A Final Public Service By a Steadfast First Lady
Wednesday, January 3, 2007
Betty Ford, observed in these days of national mourning:
Frail. Determined. Quiet. Tired.
She was 88 and clearly exhausted.
She was resting on the arm of the president of the United States when she emerged from the darkness of Washington National Cathedral into the weak January sunlight yesterday, following her husband's coffin. She did not speak during the service, except to turn to her daughter, Susan, and mouth the word "beautiful" after a moving rendition of "O God, Our Help in Ages Past." She was surrounded by family, including her three sons.
She will bury her husband today on a hillside back home in Michigan.
Then, three decades after leaving the White House, she will finally be relieved of the duties of being first lady, a job that comes with no description but endless expectations. The final duty is burying one's husband under the glare of public attention. This has become a de facto job requirement in the past century, when first ladies began to routinely outlive their husbands.
"This is a very frail woman, and by God, she's in charge," says Dick Capen, a longtime family friend, a newspaper publisher and diplomat who visited with Betty Ford at the family's private service in Palm Desert, Calif. "You could see it in her face. She's 88 years old, and she wasn't going to sit down. She's an incredible lady."
"She's been great," says Melvin Laird, the former congressman and defense secretary, and a close family friend for nearly half a century, speaking by phone from his Florida home. "Jerry always worried about her, but she was the one who really took over, really watched out for him."
Though Betty Ford has spoken no public word since her husband died (her statement announcing his death was a written release) she has nonetheless had a public role to play. First ladies leave the White House, but they never leave the job. They become the public face of the nation's grieving when their spouses die. Their role blends public duty and private emotion, but the public is expected to hold sway.
"When I reflect upon my Washington career I wonder how I ever faced it," Grace Coolidge observed late in life, after burying her husband. "There was a sense of detachment. This was I, and yet not I -- this was the wife of the president and she took precedence over me; my personal likes and dislikes must be subordinated to the consideration of those things which were required of her."
When Woodrow Wilson suffered a massive stroke in office, paralyzed but not yet dead, his wife, Edith, virtually took over. She refused to let people see him, becoming the intermediary through which the nation dealt with its president. It caused a crisis and a furor. She was unmoved: "I am not thinking of the country now, I am thinking of my husband."
This is understandable but not practical: The love of one's spouse must take second place to national need.
It is the consensus among historians that Jacqueline Kennedy, in her bloodstained dress while Lyndon B. Johnson took the oath of office in Dallas, is the model image of this. She walked into the White House as the Queen of Camelot and walked out as a woman whose dignity helped hold together a shocked nation.
The Lincoln assassination a century earlier proves the point via an opposite example. Mary Todd Lincoln, already unstable of emotion and personality, dissolved after her husband was shot. She offered the nation no such grace note.
Since the Civil War, only three presidents have outlived their wives.
"The first lady is not a private person grieving, they're a public icon, and we look to them for strength and how to behave," says Myra Gutin, professor of communications at Rider University and author of "The President's Partner: The First Lady in the Twentieth Century."
She says it has left one constant:
"If they cry, it seems like they did it privately, not on the public stage," she says.
Betty Ford spent her last official weekend in Washington with her family at the Renaissance Mayflower Hotel, a few blocks from the White House. She walked, resting on arms of a family member, a military official, the vice president, the president. She kept her gaze level, her eyes steady. She attended services at the Capitol Rotunda, the cathedral, the landmarks of official Washington.
Her lips were pursed, save for offering a quiet smile to family or friends. She shed no public tears.
She was being strong; maybe for the nation, maybe for herself.
Then, yesterday afternoon, the plane lifted her and her family up into the bright blue sky, heading north, heading home.
One last funeral, and then no more.
Leaving the pages of history must sometimes be an answered prayer.