Cokie Roberts is a political commentator for ABC News and NPR and the author of six books about women in American history.
‘If you want Betty to tone it down, then you tell her,” a wise President Gerald Ford warned his two young aides, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, in August 1975. The first lady had just appeared on “60 Minutes,” speaking candidly about sex and abortion and marijuana only a month after her husband announced he would seek the Republican Party’s nomination for president in 1976.
Luckily, no one toned down the frank and funny Betty Ford.
As President George H.W. Bush said years later when awarding her the Medal of Freedom, Ford’s “courage and candor have inspired millions of Americans to restore their health, protect their dignity and shape full lives for themselves.”
I knew and admired Ford and count her daughter Susan as a friend. Mrs. Ford, as I always called her, honored me by asking that I speak at her funeral, and I have happily honored her at events celebrating her good works.
Lisa McCubbin’s biography, “Betty Ford: First Lady, Women’s Advocate, Survivor, Trailblazer,” is also celebratory. But it begins on a painful note: the Ford family’s confrontation with “Mother” over her dependence on painkillers and alcohol, and her need for treatment. Though the shadow of those addictions hovers over this book, what we read here is mostly a much lighter tale of a happy family thrust unexpectedly into the glare of the presidency.
Only once do we get a sense of how scary Ford’s episodes could be. When she announced that she was leaving home with terrified, 8-year-old Susan in tow, “her hair was disheveled, like she’d been trying to pull it out, and her eyes — swollen and red from crying — were wild,” McCubbin writes. Congressman Ford, perpetually preoccupied by politics, was summoned to calm his wife down. The children (McCubbin interviewed all four for this book) were wary of their mother, worried she might lose it in front of their friends.
On the whole, we don’t see a person losing it in these pages. Here we meet a brave, beautiful and bright woman, who at age 20 catapulted “straight from the sticks” of Grand Rapids, Mich., to the stage at Carnegie Hall, where she danced as part of Martha Graham’s company.
That short-lived dream come true ended when family lured Betty back to Michigan, where she suffered through a bad five-year marriage. Then a local high school and college football star came back from World War II ready to embark on a political career. It was a career that Betty would share with Gerald Ford for the next 30 years.
In cozy postwar Washington, congressional families usually didn’t care whether the politician in residence had a D or an R after his name. The Fords quickly made friends with LadyBird and Lyndon Johnson, Pat and Dick Nixon, and my parents, Lindy and Hale Boggs.
The wives spent a lot of time together at the Congressional Club, where they subjected us kids to dance lessons and sometimes pushed the girls down a fashion show runway for some charity. Together we grumbled and giggled about it — because we were all friends. That’s what Mrs. Ford wanted me to talk about at her funeral.
Still, the life of a congressional wife could be tough. Visiting constituents expected to be entertained. “I don’t know how many times I went to Mount Vernon,” tour guide Betty recalled. Absent husbands working late at the Capitol or attending “stag” dinners made for solitary nights and solo child-raising. And constant campaigning required the women to “suit up and show up,” as Susan put it. (McCubbin irritatingly tells us what Mrs. Ford was wearing on many occasions.)
“Betty and I were as happy as we could possibly be,” Gerald Ford thought, leaning on his wife for comfort and counsel. But as he rose in importance, her sense of invisibility rose as well, stoking resentment. Soon, though, she would find herself the most visible woman in the land.
In 1973, when Vice President Spiro Agnew was forced to resign over charges of tax evasion, Gerald Ford was chosen to replace him, much to his wife’s surprise. (In what would be a quaint concern today, she thought her long-ago divorce might disqualify her husband politically.)
Less than a year later, Gerald moved into the top job, the only appointed president of the United States. A stunned Betty declared that she would “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.”
Not only did the public like it, people loved the unpretentious first lady so willing to speak out on sensitive issues — unequivocally supporting the Supreme Court’s abortion decision, ardently lobbying for the Equal Rights Amendment, confidently cheering an international women’s conference with the message: “Being ladylike does not require silence.”
Then breast cancer hit. “Breast” and “cancer” were far from ladylike words. But when the first lady uttered them, thousands of women headed for checkups. The advocacy movement for research and treatment started with Betty Ford. Who knows how many lives she saved?
As first lady, she learned that her voice mattered: “I have come to realize the power of being able to help.” She enjoyed that power, relishing especially her role as an advocate for women, and when Ford’s campaign for the White House kicked into gear, “Betty’s Husband for President” buttons dotted the rallies.
His defeat threw his wife into a life she had never lived. Often left alone at their new house in the California desert, she sank into depression and depended more and more on pills and cocktails that dulled the pain. After her family intervened, the former first lady unflinchingly revealed her addiction to the public and then opened the treatment center that bears her name. Half the beds there are reserved for women.
She changed the conversation around alcohol, affecting countless lives. When she emerged from treatment for alcoholism, the nation rallied around her. She helped ease the stigma, encouraging the public to understand that alcohol addiction was a disease, not a sin. Barely two weeks later, President Jimmy Carter, the man who had defeated her husband, declared: “Betty Ford has earned the admiration of our nation for her courage and complete candor. She is the most popular person in our country today.”
By Lisa McCubbin
Gallery. 411 pp. $28