PALM DESERT, Calif. – Since her death at 93, Betty Ford has been justly praised for publicizing her battles with breast cancer and alcoholism. As President Obama put it, her candor and courage gave “countless Americans a new lease on life.”
But long before her husband became president in 1974 – and she became a national celebrity – Ford spent many years in another demanding role: political wife. When she was planning her own funeral five years ago, she asked Cokie to speak about that period in her life. Here is a condensed version of that eulogy:
“When Mrs. Ford assigned me the daunting honor of speaking at her funeral, it will surprise none of you to learn that the assignment came with instructions. Mrs. Ford wanted me to remind everyone of the way things used to be in Washington. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if she timed her death to make sure she could convey the message of comity during this week, when it seems so badly needed.
“A couple of years before he died, I came here to the desert to interview President Ford for a series on former presidents and the Constitution. When we turned the cameras off, the president turned to me and sighed, ‘You know, Cokie, I just don’t understand what’s happened in Washington. When your father was majority leader and I was minority leader, we would get in a cab together on the Hill and we would go downtown to someplace like the Press Club and we’d say, “OK, what are we going to argue about?” Now it was a real debate. We had different views about means to an end. We genuinely disagreed with each other; we were certainly partisans. But after we went at it, we’d get back in the cab together and be best friends.’
“That friendship made governing possible. Those two leaders weren’t questioning each other’s motives, much less their commitment to country. Underlying many of those congressional friendships was the relationship among their wives. They had a tough job, more often political widow than political wife. The duties ranged from showing visiting constituents around the Capitol to helping run the social-service programs in the District of Columbia. Mrs. Ford played all those roles – Cub Scout den mother sounds so sweetly innocuous, unless you’ve actually tried it – and yet her official ‘title,’ as it was for most political wives, was ‘housewife.’
“It was a title she shared with many American women, and it gave her a great understanding of what their lives were like. ‘Being a good housewife seems to me a much tougher job than going to the office and getting paid for it,’ Betty Ford once said, giving words to the dirty little secret men always knew. As she spoke out more forcefully for women’s rights, Mrs. Ford strongly defended the housewife’s role: ‘Downgrading this work has been part of the pattern in our society that downgrades women’s individual talents in all areas.’ No wonder women all over the country have spent this past weekend remembering how much they loved her.
“One talent political wives were expected to cultivate that they didn’t share with most women was that of first-rate campaigner. By the time he ran for president in 1976, Ford supporters sported ‘Elect Betty’s Husband’ buttons, but people in Michigan had been doing that for decades. It was another activity that brought political wives together – even if they were on different sides, they had the same complaints – and forged tightly joined connections that extended to the men as well.
“Of course, it wasn’t easy, and through Betty Ford’s courage we later learned just how hard those years had been. But Mrs. Ford had something very important going for her: She knew who she was. Before her sudden ascension to first lady, she said, ‘I’ll move to the White House, do the best I can and if they don’t like it, they can kick me out – but they can’t make me somebody I’m not.’
“President Ford gave me a glimpse of the importance of that strength when he told me, ‘The night before I took the oath of office, I held Betty’s hand, and we repeated together our Proverbs.’ I made the mistake of failing to ask which Proverbs, but I know which one he and all of us would say today. It is, of course, The Good Wife. The last line reads: ‘Let her own works praise her in the gates.’ Your works – all of them over many years – praise you, Betty Ford.”
Steve and Cokie’s new book, “Our Haggadah” (HarperCollins), was published this spring. Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.