Thursday, July 28, 2011

an extraordinary first lady worth remembering.

she called herself an ordinary woman.
a midwesterner, yes.
an almost-professional-dancer, sure.
a lawyer's wife, okay.
but ordinary?

not betty ford.

she was born elizabeth ann bloomer in 1918 in chicago.
she always wanted to be called elizabeth,
but got betty for life.

she moved with her family to michigan at the age of two.
at the age of twelve, she went to her first dance
with the boy who, twelve years later, became her first husband.

in-between, she modeled
& danced.
dance was a lifelong passion for betty,
beginning at eight with lessons,
& culminating at 20, when she spent a winter in new york
under the tutelage of modern dance pioneer
martha graham,
even performing in graham's dance troupe at carnegie hall.

but ultimately, she returned to michigan
& married her old sweetheart, an alcoholic like her father.
three years later, she decided to file for divorce,
but when he went into a coma, she cared for him
for another two years as he recovered.
they finally divorced in 1947.

within months, betty met grand rapids attorney
gerald rudolph ford, jr.
by the time he announced his run for congress,
she was already smitten.
they married in late 1948 &
honeymooned at republican party campaign rallies.
gerry won, & the fords were off to washington.

quipped betty later, "we came to washington
for 2 years & stayed for 28."

the fords had four children within seven years.
betty was hospitalized for a pinched neck nerve,
& began taking prescription painkillers.
gerry kept getting reelected & became house minority leader.

in october 1973, president richard nixon announced gerry
as his vice-presidential nominee for appointment
following spiro agnew's forced resignation.

betty was thrust into the high-profile political wife spotlight.
her first interview was with barbara walters.
walters' first question was about betty's perspective
on roe v. wade, which effectively legalized abortion.

betty's answer?
"i'm delighted, because i'm glad
they have taken abortion out of the backwoods
& put it into the hospitals."

delighted? did i mention gerry was a republican?

regardless of betty's progressive views
& penchant for being honest about them,
her husband became vp.

ten months later,
watergate forced nixon out
& the fords into the white house.

& betty kept on being betty.

she candidly disclosed
she had a nodule in her right breast.
it was malignant. she underwent a radical mastectomy
followed by two years of chemo.

she forthrightly revealed
she slept with her husband "as often as i can."
she straightforwardly said
if she were younger, she'd probably try pot.
& she frankly told the press she "wouldn't be surprised"
if her teenage daughter were to have premarital sex.

more than all that, she continued to
champion liberalized abortion laws,
she lobbied for ratification of the equal rights amendment,
& she promoted putting more women into
policymaking government positions.

by the end of 1975, she was ranked as
the nation's most admired woman.

when gerry lost the presidency to jimmy carter
the following year, his voice failed him,
so betty read the official concession statement
with smiling grace.

the fords moved to california,
where betty tried to fill her empty calendar & nest
with pills & vodka tonics.

in 1978, confronted by her family, betty divulged
her use of alcohol & prescription drugs
had become a dependency.
she entered rehab at long beach naval hospital.
& her experience there led her to found
the betty ford center in rancho mirage.

she authored two memoirs,
received the presidential medal of freedom,
& stayed married to gerry for 58 years until his 2006 death.

betty ford,
recovering addict,
cancer survivor,
& extraordinary first lady for all of thirty months,
died july 8th at the age of 93.

she left behind her sons, mike, steve & jack,
daughter susan, seven grandchildren &
seven more great-grandchildren.

"america had been a nation of shame-faced secrecy
in so many of its domestic affairs.
the 1970s was when that began to change.
betty ford was that transformation's joan of arc."

[rick perlstein, the new york times]

image source: david hume kennerly, betty atop the cabinet room table, her last full day as first lady, 1.19.77.

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