Blogs > HNN > Ford both a man of the past and the future

Dec 31, 2006 8:52 pm

Ford both a man of the past and the future

One of the anchors on CNN made a sharp and insightful comment the other day about Gerald Ford.

His administration pointed both backward and forwards. In his ability to work with colleagues across the aisle he was decidedly a man of the past. But in the role his wife cut as a first lady his administration was decidedly in the forefront of change.

Betty Ford was thrust into the role of first lady. She never anticipated becoming first lady anymore than her husband ever anticipated becoming president of the United States. But she helped redefine the role.

The media are wrong to suggest she was much of an asset to her husband. She wasn't. She may well have cost him re-election, as Gil Troy argues in his fine book, Mr. & Mrs. President. The country wasn't ready for a first lady who tolerated premarital sex, embraced abortion, and championed the ERA. She was simply too liberal and too involved in policy for many Americans. Unlike most first ladies she wasn't always the most popular woman in the country. Good Housekeeping reported that Pat Nixon was far more popular.

After Betty Ford no first lady until Hillary Clinton dared take on a policy role and none were as free as she to express unpopular positions.

All the same she reinvented the "office" of first lady. Never again would a first lady simply stand by her man.

Both she and her husband did what they thought was right regardless of the political consequences. They were very much alike in that regard, though they were very different people: he was strong and ambitious, she was often a nervous wreck and undisciplined.

But just as historians like to give presidents credit for taking the country in a direction they should go but aren't quite ready for, we should also give Betty Ford credit for redefining the role of first lady.

As the NYT reports today, it may be that she had a more lasting impression on the country than he did.

Certainly she made more of a flourish. The GOP noted early on that audiences reacted strongly to her when she came into a room. Consultants who wanted to get on the ERA bandwagon cleverly put her in front of large audiences. Only when she began phoning up legislators in states like Florida which had yet to vote on the amendment did Republicans begin to have second thoughts. Betty by then couldn't be stopped. If the ERA had passed (it needed just five more states to become part of the Constitution) she would have received a large part of the credit.

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