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.’..