Betty Ford: Back in View, a First Lady With Her Own Legacy





It has been a while since America drew its face close to Betty Ford. But what the nation saw this week here in Southern California — an impossibly tiny face, lips pinched in grief and eyes blinking in the harsh midday sun — served as a poignant reminder of the woman whose reign as first lady, while brief and wholly unexpected, was among the most remarkable in modern history.

Former President Gerald R. Ford’s death on Tuesday at the age of 93 thrust Mrs. Ford back into a public spotlight that she had largely avoided in recent years....

She was a product and a symbol of the cultural and political times — doing the Bump along the corridors of the White House, donning a mood ring, chatting on her CB radio with the handle First Mama — a housewife who argued passionately for equal rights for women, a mother of four who mused about drugs, abortion and premarital sex aloud and without regret.

Her candor about her battle with breast cancer, which led to unprecedented awareness among American women about detecting the disease, and her later commitment to alcohol and substance abuse treatment, stemming from her own abuse history, set the stage for widespread acknowledgment and advocacy that is commonplace today.

Given her impact on these crucial health issues and her influence over the modern East Wing, Mrs. Ford’s effect on American culture may be far wider and more lasting than that of her husband, who served a mere 896 days, much of it spent trying to restore the dignity of the office of the president.

“I think that’s true,” said Carl Sferrazza Anthony, a presidential family historian and expert on first ladies. “The impact of her influence on the general public extended beyond her tenure in the White House. It was a situation of somebody coming along in history who, in simply being themselves, ends up crystallizing something that the nation at large is feeling.”



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