Betty Bloomer Ford, an outspoken First Lady, diedon July 8th, aged 93;
All her life, Betty Ford loved to dance. At ten shewas gliding round to the waltz and the foxtrot atsocial-dancing classes in Grand Rapids, Michigan.As a young woman, she was taught by MarthaGraham and danced in her troupe at Carnegie Hall. In the White House she tried out disco steps, and shimmied to the Bump at dinner-dances. But if you tried to teach her an arabesque or a jetée，she turned into the worstballet dancer who ever came down the road. She couldn t bear to be constrained like that.She was, as she put it once, a booby who only wanted to soar。
Of course, she could be proper too. In her brief stint as First Lady, from August 1974 toJanuary 1977, she was always immaculately turned out. She wore white gloves whenever she had to do so. But, much as she adored clothes—the room-long rack ather house in Virginia had fallen off the wall, she had so many—all the ladylike publicbehaviour could be a bit of a strain.So too could the split-second scheduling, when she likedto linger in bed in the mornings till 9.30 or so, putting on her makeup in her own good time.It sometimes happened that she had to greet the public from the balcony with her nightgowntucked up under her coat. “Hi, Betty!” they would shout back.
On Jerry s inauguration day she kept quiet, because she had taken advice from her LivingBible that morning to “put a muzzle on your mouth”. But she made it clear that she didn tintend to change the candid habits of a lifetime just because she was in the White House.Jerry and she were going to keep their sleeping arrangements , in which they wouldhave sex “as often as possible!” The flag she had made for her limousine featured a pair ofvoluminous calico knickers on a blue satin ground, because her maiden name was Bloomer.On “60 Minutes” in 1975, her bouffant hair perfect and her warm smile ever ready, shedeclared that smoking marijuana was like “having a first beer” and that she wouldn t besurprised if her 18-year-old daughter Susan had an affair. Jerry said: “Honey, you just lostme 20m votes.” Her own ratings soared.
She had no preparation for the White House. When Spiro Agnew resigned the vice-presidency in 1973 Jerry became Veep; when Richard Nixon resigned the next year, he wassuddenly president. There was no election. She felt terrified, but ended up enjoying it. Shehad never known what she was in for since she had met Jerry, the big, blond, handsomefootball hero who walked beside her at their wedding in 1948 in awful dusty brown shoes thatdidn t match his suit. He had seemed such a relief after Bill, her first husband, who soldfurniture and was an alcoholic. But Jerry too had a secret vice, and that was politics.
He was elected to Congress the year they got married, and they stayed in Washington for 28years. For more than half that time he was away from home while she raised Mike, Jack,Steve and Susan, tripping over bags of marbles and toy trucks, burying pet alligators, visitingthe emergency room, measuring out her life in Pablum spoons. She was a den mother forcub scouts and taught Sunday School, but by 1965 she couldn t be Bionic Woman any more.A psychiatrist told her she had to believe she was important again.
She went to him for almost two years, and openly admitted it later. Why not get help if youneeded it? It was the same when breast cancer struck her as First Lady. She spoke “breast”aloud and “cancer” aloud, had a mastectomy and urged others to do the same. Why, she toldthe world, she could even wear her evening clothes. When she became addicted to pills forneck pain and, over martini-filled years, started drinking too much, she publicly booked into aclinic to recover, sharing a room with three other women, and then in 1982 founded the BettyFord Centre for addiction in Rancho Mirage, California. There she would tell patients: “Hi,I m Betty. I m an addict and an alcoholic.”
Her impulse to speak out shockingly and usefully extended into politics, too. Though shetried not to get in Jerry s way, she realised that First Ladies had power to make waves. Shethought Roe v Wade, which legalised abortion, a great decision, and said so. She lobbiedhard for a woman on the Supreme Court, though pillow-talk had no effect in that case.Naturally she supported the Equal Rights Amendment, but since Jerry opposed it she waiteduntil 1977 to get out in front of the sisterly protests with her placard. She had spent so muchof her life feeling secondary that she burned to undo the lawsthat hemmed women in.
She was only an ordinary woman, she liked to say. She d worked in a department store, hadan unlucky marriage, could only make scalloped potato out of a box, never got a collegedegree. But she was caught up in extraordinary times. And when they ended—as sheblissfully contemplated getting both life and husband back, as they packed up to leave theWhite House—she took just a moment to climb on the Cabinet table, so beautifully set, anddance.