Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of
The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, (OUP) and
Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents: George Washington to Barack Obama . His other books include: Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a member of the advisory board of HNN. His website is giltroy.com. His next book “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism” will be published this fall by Oxford University Press.
Betty Ford, who died on Friday at the age of 93, in the 1970s was the most controversial First Lady since Eleanor Roosevelt. During Gerald Ford’s brief presidency, from August 1974 through January, 1977, his wife Betty retrofitted the odd role she inherited to suit the modern media sensibility. Peddling the Ford marriage as a "normal" partnership struggling with the challenges of raising a modern family, Betty Ford inserted herself at the flashpoint of the country's social upheavals. In so doing, she became an iconic American figure even though she may have cost her husband the Presidency in 1976.
Mrs. Ford's acknowledgment that she had breast cancer and a mastectomy in September 1974 was heroic. As thousands of women rushed to get mammograms, the legend of Betty Ford the candid political wife was born. After enduring years of neglect while Gerry Ford politicked, sometimes left at home with the four children for over 250 days in a year, Betty Ford loved the attention.
Most reporters welcomed this refreshing, "normal," First Lady. They tired of "Plastic Pat" Nixon, a selfless spouse who, they sneered, traveled with a hairdresser and an embalmer. Betty Ford brought controversy, fun, and a shot at the front page.
Most reporters, therefore, overlooked the fact that Betty Ford spent much of her husband's tenure dazed by tranquilizers and alcohol. Her oldest son Michael would describe a typical evening in the White House study: "my dad will work in his chair" and "my mother will sit in her chair and she'll read or maybe she'll watch TV or she'll just kind of reflect on things." Barbara Walters recognized that "reflection" as the "zombie"-like state of a substance abuser exhausted by her efforts to maintain appearances.
When Betty Ford was active, she was too active. On "Sixty Minutes" in August 1975, she speculated that "all" four of her children had "probably tried marijuana," and confessed that she "wouldn't be surprised" if her eighteen-year-old daughter Susan had "an affair"—quaint language for premarital sex. More than thirty-thousand letters bombarded the White House, with 23,308 "con" letters, 10,512 "pro." Betty Ford had provoked a nationwide symposium on sexual morality.
Mrs. Ford’s fans championed her as a new kind of First Lady, candid and "hip." Most approving letters wished she were running for president or her husband were a Democrat -- implying she earned their love not their votes. At best, Betty Ford neutralized some hostility to her husband, but few liberals were willing to cross party lines to support a president they disliked just because they liked his wife.
Mrs. Ford's detractors, on the other hand, abandoned the President. "We think this error is much more serious than anything that President Nixon did," a Southerner wrote. "Your statements on '60 Minutes' cost your husband my vote," one woman added. "Until now I thought we had someone in the White House who thought along the same lines that I did."
Nearly two weeks after the broadcast, Gerald Ford was still trying to clarify the "misunderstanding." His popularity had dropped from 55.3 percent to 38.8 percent. The President said that "Betty meant we're deeply concerned about the moral standards" in the family. Feminists snapped that husbands should not speak for their wives.
At a critical moment, when the conservative former governor of California Ronald Reagan was contemplating a direct challenge to an incumbent president of his own party, Betty Ford alienated President Ford's right flank. Within a month Nancy Reagan criticized "the new morality" for young people. Mrs. Reagan's talk had the desired effect, garnering headlines that "MRS. REAGAN, MRS. FORD DISAGREE ON SEX."
The "60 Minutes" controversy helped encourage Reagan’s run, which crippled President Ford during the 1976 election against Jimmy Carter—the only presidents to lose re-election campaigns in the last fifty years first faced serious challenges for the nomination. Gerald Ford initially speculated that his wife's remarks would cost him ten million votes—but quickly doubled that estimate. Ultimately, Carter won by less than two million votes out of eighty million cast. Despite the polls and the media adulation, Betty Ford cost Gerald Ford the presidency.
Mrs. Ford showed that in the modern era, First Ladies often do more harm than good, electorally. As a lightning rod for criticism, she personified one aspect of her husband's character that some feared, in this case, that he was too soft. As with the Carters, the Reagans, and the Clintons, the stronger the wife appeared, the more popular she became, the weaker the husband seemed.
The political damage Betty Ford caused reveals the difficult balancing act facing First Couples. Reporters and voters often have conflicting needs. Popularity does not always translate into political success. In America's mass-media popular-culture-drenched age, presidents and their wives cannot afford to alienate either their journalistic mouthpieces or their voting constituents.
A little more than a year after the Fords left the White House, the family staged the intervention that ultimately led to Betty Ford drying out, then establishing what became the “Betty Ford Center” in 1982. As with the breast cancer, Betty Ford’s frankness was pathbreaking and timely—Americans were ready for such openness. Her emergence as the iconic figure of America’s 12-step culture boosted her standing with the American public. Few remembered the backlash against her in the 1970s, the political harm she caused her husband. In fact, many assumed that she entered treatment during the Ford presidency, simply clumping all her candid moments into one appealing package.
As a result, for decades she was one of America’s most admired women. And, while it is difficult to prove, the adulation Betty Ford enjoyed in the post-presidential years probably did Gerald Ford a world of good. When he died in 2006, most of his most controversial moves, including his pardon of Richard Nixon, were hailed. Thus, while the evidence suggests that Betty Ford’s candor harmed Gerald Ford’s electoral chances, the evidence also suggests that, in the long run the Betty Ford legend enhanced Gerald Ford’s historical reputation.
Betty Ford was one, bold, sassy, classy lady, who successfully forded the huge divide between the traditional culture into which she was born and the modern, let-it-all-hang-out-culture she helped spawn. She will be missed.