Peggy Keener: The gentle woman who quietly roared

Published 6:30 am Saturday, April 17, 2021

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After a failed five-year marriage, this First Lady worked as a fashion coordinator in a local Grand Rapids women’s store. There she met a 35-year-old bachelor who, upon proposing to her, failed to mention his dream of becoming a politician. Thus, from the minute he arrived late to their wedding (due to a campaign appearance), Elizabeth “Betty” Bloomer Warren Ford learned her first painful lesson. Her future family would be subordinate to her husband’s career goals.

Unquestionably, Betty lacked preparation for her new role. But these would not be her only responsibilities. Within seven years she became the mother of three sons and a daughter. By then Gerald’s ambitions had grown to include Speaker of the House while his absences from home included several hundred speaking invitations a year.

Still, Betty carried on alone despite suffering from a pinched nerve and arthritis. Finally in 1970 after receiving professional counseling, she persuaded Gerald to leave Washington when his congressional term was up in 1976. The plan abruptly failed, however, when in late 1973, Vice-President Spiro Agnew resigned and was replaced by Gerald Ford. Rather than ending her political life, Betty was catapulted further into a role in which she never pictured herself.

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One year later, Richard Nixon resigned and Gerald Ford moved into the Oval Office. As the Fords accompanied the Nixons on their departure from Washington, a nervous Betty remarked how nice the red carpet was that had been rolled out for them. Pat Nixon frigidly replied, “You’ll soon grow to hate it.”

Overnight the Fords became the center of national attention, the scrutiny torturous. The family America did not know became the family everyone wanted to know. But quite to her surprise, Betty suddenly discovered she had a voice and that she intended to use it.

“I wanted to be honest and not dodge difficult subjects. People needed to know where I stood,” she explained. She further spoke with disarming frankness about her children, her health problems and how she felt about being a political wife. Reporters were shocked when she admitted that her drowsiness was attributable to regularly taking Valium. Betty Ford was making honesty something chic—and reticence something passe.

Less than a month in the White House, Betty scheduled her first press conference. There she announced to 150 reporters her intention of working for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. For the first time in American history, feminists finally had a First Lady who would work openly for them.

Furthermore, she felt abortion should be decided between the mother and her physician. (Gerald argued otherwise.) Betty then spoke to the fears of many American mothers when she speculated that her children had probably experimented with marijuana. Eyebrows were raised even higher when she additionally confessed that when voting, she was often tempted to split her ticket.

A routine physical in 1974 revealed Betty had breast cancer. Twenty years earlier the White House had refused to use the word “hysterectomy” when Mamie Eisenhower had her surgery. Instead, the Fords made the word “mastectomy” a household word. Betty emphasized the humanitarian value of being forthright. “If I don’t make it public,” she said, “lives could be lost.”

A ten-fold increase in requests for mammograms resulted with younger women being diagnosed and successfully cured. What influence Betty possessed! “Lying in the hospital thinking of all the women going for cancer checks because of my experience, I came to truly know the power of the position of First Lady; a power which could be used to help.”

After her recovery, the Equal Rights Amendment became her most important goal to the point where a special telephone line was installed to facilitate her lobbying efforts. Not everyone agreed, but Betty vowed she would stick to her guns even when mail ran three-to-one against her stance and when black-clad figures paraded in front of the White House chanting, “Betty Ford is trying to press a second-rate manhood on American women.”

But, above all, Betty’s true passion was the dance. Beginning lessons at age eight, she eventually became a student of Martha Graham. Choosing dance over college, Betty paid for her lessons by modeling for the John Powers Agency. For the rest of her life she attended dance programs and met with artists while giving a public image of a First Lady who was healthy and active. Indeed, Betty’s association with dance would eventually over shadow much of her other work.

In 1975, the National Academy of Design named Betty Ford a Fellow. Only she and Eleanor Roosevelt had ever been so honored. The photographer, Ansel Adams, upon presenting the award called Betty, “the most refreshing character we’ve had in public life for some time.” (And he stressed that this also included the men.)

All this acclaim came crashing down in 1975 after Betty aired a candid interview on “60 Minutes.” Throngs of reporters pleaded for a follow-up to Betty’s comments when she was asked hypothetically what she would do if her 18-year-old daughter told her she was having an affair. Betty’s response was that she wouldn’t be surprised, but would try her best to counsel her daughter; that her most important goal was to keep the channels of communication open no matter what the circumstances.

But, the press misconstrued her words to mean that she expected, and even condoned premarital sex among teens. Gerald bemoaned that when he heard the interview, he predicted it would cost him 10 million votes. After reading the newspapers, he doubled the damage.

Surprisingly, a Harris Poll taken three months later showed that 60% of respondents approved of Betty’s attitude. Her candor in dealing with her own experiences—cancer, surgery, psychotherapy and her children’s experimentation with illegal drugs—won the admiration of women weary of hearing about “super perfect” families in the White House.

Betty’s greatest hope was that she would be remembered as a kind and constructive wife to the President. Years later she continued to make headlines with the Betty Ford Clinic along with her admissions of dependency on alcohol and prescribed drugs. In the end, just how valuable she was as a presidential wife bore out when Gerald’s 1976 re-election campaign buttons read, “Betty’s husband for President.”

She died in 2011 at the age of 93.