Until last night, when I heard that she had passed, I didn't realize how much I admired Betty Ford. Truth said, my first thought was "I thought she had died long ago." I do that a lot lately. Betty lived to be 93 years old and hadn't been seen in public for several years. That's the only way I keep in touch with public figures -- by seeing them in public. So when public figures I admire or enjoy are gone from view they're gone from thought, and when they pass, only then do I see it as moments lost. I should have been paying attention.
It took her passing to bring Betty back. I don't have to watch the tributes or re-live the highlights and lowlights of her life to understand why her life had meaning to me. I know why. She was honest in a caring way and caring in an honest way. She was a career politician's wife living in D.C among Republicans, yet she was pro-choice, pro ERA, pro disenfranchised; a true non-partisan activist. I, an avowed liberal even then, followed her as if I were an acolyte sitting at her knee.
(Ellie Smeal, former president of Now, said this about her today: "When the 1980 National Republican Convention in Detroit was deciding
whether or not to keep the ERA in its platform (up until then it had
been in its platform for several decades), Betty left the convention and
together with the Republican first lady of Michigan, Helen Milliken,
joined the National Organization for Women's protest march. I was the
president of NOW at the time, and Betty and Helen were on either side of
me as we marched with some 12,000 people through the streets of Detroit
and wound past the convention center shouting, 'Keep the ERA in the
When she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1974 and underwent a mastectomy, the normal action for the times would have been either to try and hide it or to simply call it a "malignancy" and let it go at that. Betty Ford chose to call it what it was: breast cancer.
At a time when people still had a hard time using the word "cancer" and an even harder time with the cringy word "breast", she used them both to draw attention to a scourge facing women in growing, alarming numbers. And she survived.
Betty was uncomfortable with public speaking. It was always a knuckle-biter for me whenever she began to talk in that measured quaver of a voice, her lower jaw moving uncontrollably as she struggled to get the words out. But what came out was a refreshing assemblage of truth. She might have been living an Elizabethan life but she was just Betty to the women who took courage from her.
She went quiet when she gave in to pain killers and alcohol, but when her family performed an intervention, the details went public and Betty began to talk again. This time the subject was alcoholism and with painful honesty Betty brought the hidden truth out into the open and we all began to talk about it. Honestly.
She didn't let the issue die, easy as it might have been to pretend it didn't happen. Instead she kept the problem alive by founding and heading The Betty Ford Center for Substance Abuse and Addiction and built it into a model for humane, caring addiction treatment.
She was some gal. I wish she were around right now. I can think of a few public women who could use a dose of her honesty.