Betty Ford: The Surprisingly Normal First Lady

America didn’t really get to know Betty Ford until she was First Lady. Her husband, Gerald Ford, had been appointed Vice President in 1973 and then President in 1974. So, in 1976, when he began campaigning to stay in the White House, his wife helped by making national appearances on his behalf. Neither she nor her husband were expecting the warm response she received.

As a Post article in 1976 (“Ten-Four, First Mama”) explained,

Her naturalness and candor… won her even higher approval ratings than her husband, the President. It is not remarkable that a full year before the upcoming election, blue-and-white buttons popped up reading: “Betty’s Husband for President in ’76.”

Her popularity was even more unexpected because she was so unlike the usual candidates for First Lady. She was outspoken and direct. She strongly believed in women’s rights and in freely expressing her opinions.

“When somebody asks you how you stand on an issue,” she said last year, “you’re very foolish if you try to beat around the bush—you just meet yourself going around the bush the other way.”

Historically, Americans were accustomed to presidential wives with a serene, patrician air, whose first duty was being a gracious hostess. In the 20th Century, however, First Ladies began promoting social causes. For Betty, the cause was women’s rights, but it was also a concern for the everyday challenges American wives and mothers faced in caring for their families and their health.

Early in 1976, she found herself criticized after an interview on CBS’s Sixty Minutes.

Betty Ford and daughter, Susan, assume the seat of power.

She said that she “wouldn’t be surprised” if her eighteen-year-old daughter, Susan, decided to have an affair, allowed that premarital sex with the right partner might lower the divorce rate, and remarked that she assumed all her children had tried marijuana (they hadn’t).

Never had a First Lady been so outspoken… The first wave of criticism crashed in, causing Mr. Ford’s political soothsayers to fret and wring their hands. Americans who believed in old-fashioned values and virtues were outraged with Betty Ford. But then came the second and third waves… The people who wrote in, after thinking, were more inclined to agree with Betty Ford that parents who went through the struggle of rearing children during the “youth revolution” were familiar with the problems of sex and drugs. While these concerned parents were not changing their own standards, they also knew that the new generation looked differently at the traditional verities. In such a situation, the best course for a parent was to be available and understanding.

It was clear that Betty Ford was not detached from the reality most women faced, and she was willing to talk honestly about real issues.

Her husband was hardly installed in the vice-presidency in 1973 when Betty discussed her treatment by a psychiatrist and the fact that she took Valium or Equagesic three times a day.

She was just as lively when talking about her breast operation. “For those who have gone through it,” she said, “I don’t see anything so great about it. All you need is a little foam rubber.”

She also expressed her opinion on two controversial topics.

She was and is a firm supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment.

She had also made it clear that she supported the 1973 Supreme Court ruling for legalized abortion, saying that she was glad to see abortion “brought out of the backwoods; and put in the hospitals where it belongs.”

She also spoke openly about her marital relations.

“Betty Ford never hides her affection for her husband and is uninhibited about hugging and kissing him in public.” From “Ten-Four, First Mama,” Sep. 1976

Betty Ford never hides her affection for her husband and is uninhibited about hugging and kissing him in public… She told an interviewer that reporters had “asked me everything but how often I sleep with my husband. If they had asked me that, I would have told them, ‘As often as possible.’”

When Ford became President, Betty moved their king-size bed into the White House. There were many letters, in Betty’s words, “from people who feel it is very immoral for us to be using the same bedroom. I guess if you’re president, you’re supposed to become a eunuch.”

The Post author urged readers to look beyond these isolated remarks. The First Lady was no activist or eccentric, but a truly conventional woman, who read the Bible daily, often with her husband, sometimes praying with him afterward.

She considered herself a responsible, loving parent, who wanted her children to discuss their difficulties with the people in the world who cared the most—their mother and father. And she added: “My husband and I have lived twenty-eight years of faithfulness in marriage. I do not believe in premarital relations. But I realize many in today’s generation do not share my views.”

Gerald and Betty Ford in 1976.

The First Lady is in an awkward position. She is expected to display women’s best traits, virtues, and accomplishments, yet never lose touch with the hopes and concerns of average Americans. Betty Ford did this better than many First Ladies.

In later years, she had to confront her addiction and substance abuse. She readily shared her problem and recovery with America, believing that, although graciousness and elegance are fine qualities in a women in the public eye, they should never take precedence over honesty.