The Partnership of Betty and Gerald Ford
Yanek Mieczkowski is Professor of History at Dowling College in New York. The author of The Routledge Historical Atlas of Presidential Elections (2001) and Gerald Ford and the Challenges of the 1970s (2005), he is finishing a new book, The Great Cold War Moment: Eisenhower, Sputnik, and the Race for Space and World Prestige.
In February 1948, Gerald Ford, then a Grand Rapids lawyer, told Betty Bloomer, the fashion designer he was dating, “I’d like to marry you, but we can’t get married until next fall and I can’t tell you why.” Those cryptic words began a partnership that spanned nearly sixty years. At its core was their love, but it also represented a political bond that lasted a quarter century on Capitol Hill and transformed the White House during their 895 days as First Couple.
What Ford could not divulge to Betty in 1948 was his plan to run for Michigan’s Fifth District congressional seat. That fall his life changed dramatically. In October he married Betty, and the next month he won a seat in Congress, marking the first of thirteen consecutive terms.
Ford’s marriage to Betty coincided with the start of his political career, and she became not just a housewife but a “House wife,” as the harried spouses of congressmen were called. During Ford’s first campaign, she already tasted the sacrifices of political life. On their wedding day, Ford showed up late, his shoes muddied from campaigning on a farm. Betty joked that if she had to wait longer, she would have run off with the best man.
She showed the same good nature as the tandem demands of family life and Ford’s career increased. The couple had four children—Mike, Jack, Steve, and Susan—and when Ford worked even on Saturdays, his family often accompanied him to his office, with Betty reading and the children frolicking in Capitol Hill’s Statuary Hall (where in May 2011 a new statue of Gerald Ford was unveiled).
In 1965, when Ford became House minority leader, his responsibilities multiplied. With her husband traveling two hundred days a year on speaking engagements, Betty became a political widow, often left alone to raise a family. Ford admitted, “She has been not only a mother to the children, but in many respects, a father as well.” Betty handled the dual roles with equanimity and her trademark humor. One morning, when she awoke to find her husband lying next to her, she asked, “What are you doing here?”
In 1974, when Ford became president following Richard Nixon’s resignation, he paid tribute to Betty in his inaugural address, saying, “I am indebted to no man, and only to one woman—my dear wife—as I begin this very difficult job.”
Betty’s personality helped to define the new administration. Ford strove to establish an “open” White House, freed from Nixon’s bunker mentality. He granted frequent interviews and invited members of Congress from both parties to the Oval Office. Betty did her part. After learning that Nixon’s White House staff had received instructions to be silent and inconspicuous, she urged them to chat freely with the First Family. She was pleased once to see the White House butler comparing golf scores with the president.
At a time when Americans felt the aftereffects of the often combative, truculent leadership styles of Nixon and Lyndon Johnson, Betty reduced the White House’s imperial overtones. In the Oval Office, where Nixon had an imposing-looking bald eagle staring out from a cold blue rug, Betty had a warm, yellow rug installed. She complained that the military battle scenes on the dining room wallpaper were grim; soon, yellow paint replaced them.
Reducing the regal hue of the White House had a functional purpose, too. A dominant issue of mid-1970s America was high inflation, and reducing it was one of Gerald Ford’s foremost goals—and his notable legacy—as president. Betty tried to focus attention on this scourge by stressing simplicity, which fit her husband’s down-to-earth nature. The White House Christmas tree was simple, with “no tinsel, no sequins,” as she requested, and she sometimes asked the chef to prepare no-frills meals for her family, such as tuna casseroles. Yet in adding these modest touches, she still maintained the presidency’s majesty. As Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s wife Nancy praised her, “Betty is uniquely able to create an atmosphere of warmth and relaxation without losing the dignity of the occasion—and that’s a hard balance to hit.”
Betty made other substantive contributions to Ford’s presidency on the era’s important issues. After South Vietnam collapsed in 1975, a flood of refugees entered the U.S., prompting xenophobic protests that the Fords considered shameful and un-American. To demonstrate a more humane spirit toward the newcomers, Betty visited a South Vietnamese refugee center at Camp Pendleton, California.
As many First Ladies have, Betty championed special causes. Having once taught children dance in Grand Rapids, she supported federal arts funding and projects for deaf and handicapped children. Since she studied dance under Martha Graham and called her “the first lady of dance,” Betty lobbied hard to see that Graham receive a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award.
Ford valued his wife’s political instincts, and Betty liked to engage in “pillow talk,” badgering the president on issues just before bedtime, when he was tired and likely to give in. One priority was female appointments to the executive branch and Supreme Court, and she proudly pointed to Housing and Urban Development Secretary Carla Hills and Anne Armstrong, the ambassador to Britain. Had she been more persistent with her husband, she said, the first woman on the Supreme Court might have come during the Ford presidency.
That sort of candor won Betty the greatest attention. She took liberal positions on many social issues, favoring the Equal Rights Amendment, gun control, and abortion rights. During a 1975 interview on “60 Minutes,” she praised Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion, as a “great, great decision,” words that elicited outrage from conservatives. The angry reaction, she later recalled, “terrified me. I was afraid I might have become a real political liability to Jerry.” Gearing up to run for a full term in 1976, Ford threw a pillow at her in mock anger when they watched the program together. He said that when he first heard about her remarks, he thought he’d lose ten million votes. “Then when I read about it,” he quipped, “I raised that to twenty million.”
A health scare one month into the Ford presidency also put Betty’s candor on view, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. The frank disclosure of her illness prompted thousands of women nationwide to undergo breast cancer screenings and led to a spike in donations to the American Cancer Society. Among those women who sought an examination was Happy Rockefeller, wife of Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, who learned she, too, had breast cancer and received treatment for it; she credited Betty with saving her life.
Betty recovered from cancer and loved being First Lady. She actually got to see more of her husband than while he was a congressman, and she had the White House staff to cook and tend house for her, luxuries she never enjoyed as a congressional spouse. She especially enjoyed communing with average Americans, writing, “I loved it when we’d ride down the streets in a motorcade and people would yell, ‘Hi, Betty’….Those people identified with me, they knew I was no different from them, it was just that fate had put me in this situation.”
By 1976, polls showed Betty was the most popular First Lady since Eleanor Roosevelt, prompting Ford to say she should travel the country to boost his own approval ratings. She campaigned gamely for him in the presidential race, even communicating by means of the 1970s fad, citizens’ band radio, using the handle “First Momma.” After her husband lost the election by two percentage points to Jimmy Carter, the couple retired to Rancho Mirage, California, where the desert warmth eased the pain of her arthritis.
But her candor and public crusades were not over. Beginning in the 1960s, Betty had turned to drugs and alcohol to seek relief from pain and loneliness, and her dependency alarmed family members. In 1978, they staged an intervention, urging her to seek help, and she checked into the Long Beach Naval Hospital for treatment. In 1982, her battle against chemical dependence inspired her to found the Betty Ford Center, which remains one of her lasting legacies, where 90,000 patients have sought aid in ridding themselves of drug and alcohol addictions.
Like all married couples, the Fords had their idiosyncrasies and tripwires for irritation. Betty was chronically late for important appearances, which annoyed her husband. Once, when he had an evening political function scheduled for 7:30, he told her the event was at 6:30. The stratagem worked: Betty was ready at 6:55, and a relieved Ford said, “For once we’ll be on time.” On January 20, 1977, the Fords’ last morning at the White House, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter were to arrive at exactly 10:30 for the traditional pre-inaugural coffee. Betty was running late, giving warm embraces and farewells to the White House staff. Ford boomed out, “Let’s go, Betty! You can’t be late this time!”
Through it all, Gerald and Betty remained a devoted couple, supporting each other steadfastly. In late 2006, as Ford’s health deteriorated, his study at their Rancho Mirage home became, in effect, a hospital room. Although bedridden and frail, he still brightened when Betty walked into the room.
Decades earlier, as newlyweds, Betty had given Ford a lighter inscribed, “To the light of my life.” To the end, the partnership between Betty and Gerald Ford remained the light of their lives. In the mid-1970s, by working together, they also made the White House a lighter, more cheerful place when Americans needed just that.
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