Sunday, December 31, 2006

First Lady Betty Ford

The press has concentrated on a few phrases in reporting on and eulogizing Gerald Ford, whose death this past week marked a new period of mourning. He was "the right man at the right time," the one who ended "the long national nightmare" of the Nixon disgrace. In the long run, however, I think it was Betty Ford, the First Lady, who left a more lasting impact on the country. For that reason, I was happy to see an article in today's NY Times paying tribute to Mrs. Ford.

Her candor about her battle with breast cancer, which led to unprecedented awareness among American women about detecting the disease, and her later commitment to alcohol and substance abuse treatment, stemming from her own abuse history, set the stage for widespread acknowledgment and advocacy that is commonplace today.

Her role was defined in part less than two months into Mr. Ford’s presidency, when she discovered that she had breast cancer and then discussed her mastectomy openly in hopes of giving other women the tools to detect the disease early and treat it courageously. According to a 1987 article in The Journal of the National Archives, Mrs. Ford received 55,800 cards, or “92 cubic feet of material,” in response to her openness.

The next year, Mrs. Ford took it upon herself to champion the Equal Rights Amendment. She personally phoned legislators, held a slide show in the White House for staff members and gave speeches across the country about women’s rights.

She talked about her support of abortion rights and mulled the idea that her children might have smoked marijuana.

Perhaps most infamously, she told Morley Safer in a “60 Minutes” interview that she would provide “counsel” to her daughter, Susan, then 18, if Susan were involved in a sexual relationship, or, in Mr. Safer’s words, “having an affair.”
[Emphasis added]

This was in the mid '70s, over thirty years ago, and these topics were simply not discussed in polite company, much less by the wife of a president. My mother told me that she is convinced that Mrs. Ford saved thousands of women's lives by her courageous open discussion of her own breast cancer. Women suddenly started doing breast exams and pestering their doctors for further information.

Her later candor about her drug and alcohol addiction and her work with the Betty Ford Clinic for rehabilitation from those diseases also saved lives and gave hope not only to those suffering from the addiction, but also to their families.

Her support for the ERA and for abortion rights, coming as it did from a woman with genuine GOP bona fides, stunned many conservatives, but in doing so also paved the way for women to have more of a say in their own lives.

Betty Ford is back in the spotlight, a place she eschewed after leaving the White House, and it is for the saddest of reasons. Yet, she is showing the same grace and the same firmness that she did thirty years ago. In her own way, Mrs. Ford is a national treasure, one that we are fortunate to honor even if it is during the time of her own personal grief.

It also gives us a chance to thank her for her extraordinary service.


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