Betty Ford at a 1981 rally for the Equal Rights Amendment wearing the color white, intended to signify her allegiance to the feminist movement. (Getty)
This is the second in a story series of the National First Ladies’ Library Blog about the political roles of First Ladies to be run during the 2016 Republican and Democratic National Conventions.
“It was the first presidential convention I’d experienced sober,” former First Lady Betty Ford recalled fourteen years after she’d attended the 1980 National Republican Convention.
The Ford living room, Rancho Mirage, (zillow.com)
Our later afternoon interview session seemed to make her want to joke, standing from her signature lime-colored, patterned late Seventies living-room furniture, looking out the floor-to-ceiling glass window towards a beautiful fountain flowing from one corner of an even more beautiful pool, the golden sun of the cooling desert afternoon illuminating her saucy blue eyes.
“And wow – did I see the show biz, that whole side of politics that is just so –, well…you know,” she shrugged, her Midwestern integrity never abandoning her. “Let’s just say it was unhealthy for me.”
The author with Mrs. Ford in 2001.
I was working with Mrs. Ford on an article she was doing in anticipation of the twelfth anniversary of the Betty Ford Center, the substance abuse recovery center she co-founded.
Betty Ford speaks to Jackie Kennedy Onassis 1976.
The hour my plane had touched down in Palm Springs, her predecessor Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis died and the next two days would be devoted to television specials about the late First Lady.
So while we always worked on tracing her addiction and eventually her redemptive work at the center, one could not help but indulge Mrs. Ford’s desire to reference her life as a congressional spouse from 1949 to 1973, rather than her more famous times as a vice-president and presidential one from just 1973 to 1977. In the process, she blended these two defining strands of her identity, that of a political wife and of an alcoholic.
The most dramatic recognition she had of the connection between her past and her alcohol use came to the fore on March 15, 1980.
On March 15, 1980, with his wife Betty at his side, former President Gerald Ford announces that he would jump into the state primaries of the already ensuing Republican presidential primary race and seek the nomination. (Getty)
That day, she walked out with former President Ford onto the broad, beige stone pavement of the entrance to his office suite, part of the complex compromising the new desert retirement home they’d built and only moved into two years earlier, and stood by in silent relief beneath the shade of trees, listening as he announced to gathered reporters that he would not be entering the 1980 Republican presidential primary raceme which was already underway.
A former president at that point for only three years, Jerry Ford maintained a rigorous travel, meeting and speaking schedule around the country but this time with his trips emanating from the west coast.
Mrs. Ford only half-joked that he seemed to be away traveling after his presidency than as a young husband, father and congressman in the 1950s.
Seen here exiting Long Beach Memorial Naval Hospital after completing a month of addiction recovery, Betty Ford’s public disclosure of her alcoholism and prescription medication dependency was a watershed moment n political and cultural history. (UCLA)
At that particular moment, however, it was Betty Ford who had risen in the popular culture as few former First Ladies ever had. In 1978, a year after leaving the White House, she had endured a family intervention that steered her into Long Beach Naval Hospital’s alcoholic and drug recovery program.
As she had when she discovered she had breast cancer and had to undergo a mastectomy, Betty Ford decided to publicly share this information and it set in motion global headlines that immediately helped destigmatize the then often-fatal woman’s disease. With the simple act of announcing she was alcoholic, she again broke an old “polite society” taboo, admitting that even one with her historical status was simply a vulnerable human being.
The societal implications were many. The political implications were another matter.
For Betty Ford, her husband’s announcement was good news, all the more so because he had decided to do so on his own. As she later wrote, “I knew I shouldn’t try to force my feelings of not wanting to go back to Washington, of wanting to stay in the desert.”
In 1979, some in the party had already assured Ford that he would find support if he sought the 1980 Republican presidential nomination. He calculated the idea in terms of political risk and decided against it. Neither Jerry or Betty Ford talked about her tender sobriety, however, although he said that “subjectively it was a factor,” knowing he did not want to become a candidate if it would prove harmful to her process.
In June of 1980, former California governor Ronald Reagan was the presumptive nominee and asked Ford if he could come see him in the desert, for a meeting.
Reagan and Ford at the 1968 Republican Convention. Betty Ford had then hoped Nixon would name her husband as running mate and Nancy Reagan urged her husband to encourage a draft movement for his nomination. (Getty)
Ford and Reagan had first met one another at the 1968 Republican Convention in Miami that nominated Richard Nixon as the presidential candidate. It was evident even during the Miami convention that both Betty Ford and Nancy Reagan were ambitious to see their husbands raised to the highest national level possible.
Mrs. Ford had strong hope that Nixon would chose Ford as his running mate, premised on his status as House Minority Leader and as long-time working colleague of Nixon. Mrs. Reagan urged her husband to let his name be circulated at the convention as California’s favorite son candidate, in case anything unexpected prevented Nixon from gaining the necessary delegates to cinch the nomination.
The Fords and Reagans became better acquainted but their relationships never developed into a close friendship, not just because of their friendly political rivalry but also fundamental policy differences, the Fords being emblematic of the long social liberalism of the Republican Party on civil rights and women’s equality issues, while the Reagans were heir apparent to the rising conservative wing of the party emerging in the western states under the leadership of Senator Barry Goldwater.
During his June visit, Reagan boldly asked former President Ford if he would consider running as his vice presidential candidate. Ford turned him down. It was not that their views on larger issues were wildly out of synch, but there was some resentment the Fords held against the Reagans that stemmed back four years.
Nancy Reagan signs a balloon as she and her husband arrive for the 1976 Republican convention. (Politico)
The moderate Ford always believed that his being challenged for his party’s presidential nomination in 1976 by the conservative Governor of California Ronald Reagan during the primaries had drained resources that could have been better spent on the general election and was a factor in his losing the White House for the Republican Party.
Ronald and Nancy Reagan attended the July 1976 Republican Convention in Kansas City amid a sea of their ardent delegates but despite this his campaign was unable to find a way within the rules to pull off a coup to win their candidate the nomination. The thunderous applause among the supporters when Nancy Reagan first appeared in the coliseum on Tuesday night was quickly usurped when Betty Ford timed her entrance to override the demonstration of her rival.
Nancy Reagan being cheered at the 1976 convention. (Boston Globe)
By the next time there were competing demonstrations for both women, intended to outshout the other, both women necklaced in leis by Hawaii delegates. When some southwestern state delegates shouted “Viva!” for Mrs. Ford, others shouted “Ole!” for Mrs. Reagan.
The two-day “feud” between the two women quickly became a point of focus for the live-television network coverage. Soon enough came the press leaks of alleged quips each woman had about the other. The differences between Betty Ford and Nancy Reagan as Republican political spouses, however, were very real not because of television or gossip.
In fact, each became a symbol of the splintering party platform and a division in the Republican Party in the late 1970s.
Betty Ford acknowledging a floor demonstration for her. (Boston Globe)
On the one hand was former First Lady Betty Ford who had said she would be understanding if she learned her unmarried daughter was having an affair or any of her children experimented with marijuana, announced that she was alcoholic, and had been the nation’s most culturally powerful symbol of the codified “women’s lib” movement by lobbying governors to permit their state legislatures to permit a vote on the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), a constitutional amendment intended to guarantee entire equality
Nancy Reagan’s 1980 book presented the candidate’s view of social issues without having to detail how it might translate into a legislative agenda.
In her 1980 campaign biography Nancy, Mrs, Reagan published her own purported personal views as a statement in political alignment with her husband’s conservative wing of the party, making plain her opposition to the ERA, sexual permissiveness, drug use, and a society that was increasingly disclosing personal information.
Throughout the 1976 convention, the general election which Ford lost to Democrat Jimmy Carter or during the next four years, neither Betty Ford or Nancy Reagan mentioned the other by name to the media in making clear their own, different views.
The Reagans and Ford on the closing night of the 1976 convention (nationalinterest.com)
In fact, on the night the President won the nomination and finished his acceptance speech, he called Ronald and Nancy Reagan from their seats in a viewing box to join him and the First Lady on stage, all joining hands after Reagan made a stirring presentation echoing the rise of the conservative Republican movement.
On July 15, 1980 when the former First Lady literally returned to the political arena, arriving with her husband at Detroit’s Renaissance Center Hotel she quickly learned how difficult an experience it would be for her.
The next day, the presumptive nominee and his wife came to visit the Fords in their suite. Reagan brought Ford a birthday gift of a peace pipe.
Reagan presented a peace pipe as a birthday gift to Ford on July 16, 1980 at the Republican convention, as Betty Ford and Nancy Reagan confer in background.(Kennerly/Getty)
And he again asked the former president to consider running as his vice presidential candidate. Ford politely said he would reconsider it. He had four of his aides meet with four of Reagan’s aides to delineate what specific duties he would assume. It suggested to many commentators something of a co-presidency.
“My new life in recovery was precious to me and I was glad to be done with politics,” Mrs. Ford later wrote, unable to keep herself from cracking, “I had eaten enough creamed chicken and sat through enough speeches to have earned a presidential pardon.”
More seriously, she explained the emotional restraint of, as she later termed it, “the show biz” of politics. “When your husband is serving, you’re an extension of him, you can’t always express the way you feel, and I’d never been good at keeping my mouth shut if I had a strong opinion.”
The Stop ERA activist Phyllis Schafly and Ratify ERA First Lady Betty Ford. (carlanthonyonline.com)
Indeed, at the 1980 Republican Convention, the liberal views of the former First Lady did not make for an easy presence there. Among the most fervent leaders forming the conservative coalition that helped Reagan win the presidency was Phyllis Schafly, president and founder of the Eagle Forum, a women’s political organization that had successfully forced an end to the Republican Party’s history of support for the Equal Rights Amendment.
In 1975, Phyllis Schafly had been the First Lady’s archest opponent, picketing the White House to protest the First Lady’s overt advocacy of the ERA.
At the Detroit convention in 1980, Betty Ford longed to join the protest march in support of the Equal Rights Amendment, watching from her hotel window. (equalrightsamendment.org)
Reagan and Schlafy had once both supported the ERA but recognized that it was unpopular with the important voting demographic of conservative Republican women. It had been in the 1972 Republican platform and was supported by Pat Nixon then.
At the 1976 convention, anti-ERA forces had unsuccessfully fought to have it removed from the platform. At the 1980 convention, however, they would prove successful.
In preparation for a march she would be joining to protest against the Republican Party for dropping the ERA plank from its 1980 platform, Mrs. Ford had especially packed a white dress as all marchers were asked to wear in a sign of solidarity.
There was alarm as word circulated among influential Republicans. “I can’t tell you how many Republicans came to try and talk me out of it. They said it wouldn’t reflect well on the party of I marched. I was mad at the party anyway,” she wrote with a flash of defiance.
It was only after he asked her to forego the protest, yet never told her to, did Mrs. Ford decide, as a favor to him, not to attend. Instead she had to watch the rally march by her hotel suite window, a “dutiful wife and a disappointed feminist” as she put it.
The Fords appearing at the podium during the week of the 1980 Republican Convention. (AP)
The political views of the former First Lady, however, were too well-known among the new leadership of the party. Mrs. Ford soon discovered “there were events to which I wasn’t invited. I survived. I went ahead and made other plans.”
Mrs. Ford never said who had requested that she not be invited to attend several large gatherings honoring the new leading women figures of the Republican Party, but the convention became an important personal turning point as a measurable demonstration of her recovery. “Once, I might have been humiliated at not being on certain guest lists, bit I had already built enough self-confidence so I could face the fact that I wasn’t a favorite of everyone’s. And that was all right. Not everybody is a favorite of mine.”
Betty Ford and her husband joined Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush and their husbands on the podium on the last night of the convention. (Getty)
On the last night of the convention, however, after Ronald Reagan finished delivering his stirring and eloquent nomination acceptance speech and was joined by Nancy Reagan, as well as his vice presidential nominee and his spouse, George and Barbara Bush, he did a good turn by asking former President and Mrs. Ford to come up and join hands with them, and they did so.
What only those ERA advocates realized, however, was that Mrs. Ford’s appearance on the podium before the entire convention was intended to signal her protest of the party’s rejection of the measure on behalf of which she fought so hard.
Betty Ford signaled her protest of the 1980 convention stance on the ERA by wearing her white dress before the whole convention. (Getty)
She was wearing her white dress. “I wasn’t trying to be mischievous,” she later recalled with a smile. “Perhaps more subversive.”
Betty Ford and Nancy Reagan attend a 1992 fundraiser luncheon at the Beverly Hills Hotel.(Getty)
Over an astounding period of thirty-one years, from 1981 to 2007, Betty Ford and Nancy Reagan came to find themselves together at moments of celebration, always maintaining cordial public interactions, from the dedication of the presidential libraries of Ford, Nixon, Reagan and Bush to charity luncheons and events in the Los Angeles area.
Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Reagan in 1994.
They joined with other First Ladies at a 1994 National Garden gala in Washington, and in 2003, when the group reconvened (minus Lady Bird Johnson) Nancy Reagan left the side of her husband, then in his last stages of Alzheimer’s to be driven from their Los Angeles home to the Palm Springs area to honor Betty Ford at a fundraising dinner marking the both anniversary of the recovery center bearing her name.
Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Reagan at the 1997 Bush library dedication. (AP)
They also shared somber moments of personal loss. Both Betty Ford and Nancy Reagan came with their husbands to the Yorba Linda California funeral and burial of Pat Nixon in 1993. Ten months later, they returned there for the funeral of former President Nixon.
In June 2004, Betty Ford flew to Washington from California and offered her sympathies to Nancy Reagan at the state funeral of her husband. In 2007, Nancy Reagan returned the gesture, also flying from California to attend President Ford’s funeral.
Betty Ford in blue, Nancy Reagan in red, flanked by Rosalynn Carter, Barbara Bush and Hillary Clinton in 2003. (AP)
And, in July 2011, in that tradition of unified honor for the legacy of one among them, Nancy Reagan carefully used a cane to slowly make her way down the aisle of Palm Desert’s St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, to join Michelle Obama, Rosalynn Carter and Hillary Clinton in the first row at Betty Ford’s funeral.
Nancy Reagan attending the 2011 funeral of Betty Ford. (UPI)
It seemed that the old Ford and Reagan political rivalry would, however, persist by the fate of time.
In an odd turn of precedence, Gerald Ford died as the oldest-living President, at 93 years old, outliving Ronald Reagan’s longevity by 45 days. Conversely, Nancy Reagan died as the second oldest-living First Lady at 94, outliving Betty Ford by a year and a half.