The 1976 campaign of President Ford to win his own full term was supported, in part, by not only liberal Republicans but Independents ands Democrats who were ardent defenders of Betty Ford’s political views. (ebay)
(This is a sixth in an original ten-part series being run exclusively on the National First Ladies’ Library website blog on the history of presidential candidates’ spouses being used as campaign symbols. If any of this information is used, you must credit the NFLL Blog. If the images are used please credit the NFLL and the original publisher as listed)The presidential election of 1976 converged with the nation’s Bicentennial celebration as well as a push for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.
Refreshingly frank Betty Ford was a potent figure in her husband’s 1976 campaign. (ebay)
Abigail Adams 1976 pin. (private collection)
In campaign remarks she made that year to help her husband President Gerald Ford (who inherited the presidency upon Nixon’s resignation), win the Republican primaries, incumbent First Lady Betty Ford often made reference to Abigail Adams.
The second First Lady, a fellow feminist and a Bicentennial heroine even appeared on a button sold among those of Mrs. Ford at that summer’s Republican convention – even though her long-dead husband had not run for president in nearly two centuries.
The Ford poster. (GRFL)
Still, the spirit of feminism as well as timely women’s issues were a central part of the 1976 election, addressed not only by the candidates of the two major party candidates, but their spouses as well. It was a year where even though they were “just wives,” political spouses regularly began addressing the serious issues of the campaign and were now expected to respond to overt, even sharp political issues.
This button references Betty Ford’s CB “handle” (nickname). (ebay)
A great part of what was advanced by his campaign as a key element of President Ford’s character was his simple honesty.
Her persona became an important part of Ford’s overall campaign and for the first time in a presidential race, a spouse was featured on large campaign posters with the candidate.
Nothing more personally and dramatically illustrated this to the nation than Betty Ford’s disclosing that she had breast cancer. Mrs. Ford’s decision had an astoundingly immediate affect on millions of American families, overnight breaking a taboo on even the open discussion of what could become deadly without early detection and treatment. It created a unique constituency for this wife of a Republican President, reaching across all demographics and political sensibilities.
Matchbooks with the slogan “Best Fitted for the Office: Betty for First Lady ’76.”(ebay)
An odd Ford button: pro-her, anti-him. (ebay)
Betty Ford also made no apologies for attempting to influence the President to support gender equity issues, even if her views on several specific and controversial matters, such as abortion and couples co-habitating without being married, proved to be more in alignment with Democrats and liberals of both parties. In fact, as the campaign unfolded, it create a curious disconnect among voters.
There were liberals and Democrats who supported Ford because of his wife’s views – and conservatives and Republicans who opposed him because of his wife’s views. Supporters might wear the popular “Vote For Betty’s Husband” buttons (see the lead image), while foes were likely to don the, “Betty Yes! Jerry No!” button.
Mrs. Ford also served as a symbol of a growing schism within her party, representing the more established wing that was liberal on social issues.
Even though the convention had not yet taken place, one rare campaign button from the 1976 Republican primaries declared, “Nancy Reagan for First Lady.” (private collection)
During the primaries, President Ford was seriously challenged by former California Governor Ronald Reagan. His wife Nancy did not hesitate to point out her strikingly different and more conservative social views, mirroring those of her husband and his wing of the party.
Reagan came close but did not take the nomination from Ford, yet perhaps as a sign of how serious a challenge he appeared to be during the primaries, there was an optimistic button made before the convention exhorting voters, “Nancy Reagan for First Lady.”
Like the Republican candidate’s spouse that year, for the first time a Democratic candidate’s spouse was also featured on a piece of campaign ephemera during that year’s primary season, rather than the general election.
A 1976 presidential primary campaign button in favor of LaDonna Harris, a Native American rights activist, and wife of a candidate that year. (pinterest)
During what was his second attempt to win the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976, former US Senator Fred Harris of Oklahoma, a button was made declaring, “LaDonna Harris for First Lady.”
The spouse of the Democratic presidential candidate that year would prove to be just as liberal on women’s issues as Betty Ford, but was comparatively unknown to the public as a former Georgia governor’s wife – compared to a First Lady who made national headlines for what she said. Consequentially, there was a limited number of items
One of several versions of a “Rosalynn Carter for First Lady in ’76″ campaign buttons made in the official colors of the Carter campaign. (ebay)
It’s unclear whether the Carter campaign officially sanctioned the buttons that were created with pictures of Rosalynn.
It does not appear so, but a button that was notable for any of the familiar red-white-and-blue touches, but rather green was issued called for her to be First Lady.
Green and white, rather than any variation on the national tricolors were the official brand colors of the Carter campaign and a dramatic departure from all previous presidential campaigns.
This button used Mrs. Carter’s facial image without further identification of her. (ebay)
Judging by the size, font and plain design it appears that a non-partian company manufactured it since a matching one in red was also issued at the same time, with Betty Ford.
There were few other campaign buttons made of Mrs. Carter in 1976, nor were there many with distinct slogans referencing her honest disclosure of how involved she had been in her husband’s gubernatorial career and the early stages of his successful presidential campaign. There were two notable exceptions, however.
1976 Rosalynn Carter and Joan Mondale button. (private collection)
The public had a relative unfamiliarity with Rosalynn Carter at the start of the 1976 presidential primaries and early main campaign.
As her husband’s campaign moved on from the nominating convention, however, her activism and ubiquitous presence in the media and on the road later that summer and all through the fall made her immediately recognizable. So much so that in the weeks before Election Day there appeared a new campaign button, in blue, black and white, that used her image without mentioning her name.
A 1980 reelection button using the First Lady. (private collection)
One other unusual button appeared that summer, using the rare combination of the spouses of both the presidential and vice-presidential candidates, Rosalynn Carter along with Joan Mondale.
During the 1980 Carter re-election campaign, there were relatively few buttons using the incumbent First Lady. Another one using the Carter campaign’s signature green color appeared, this time.
Unlike 1976, when Ronald Reagan sought the 1980 Republican presidential nomination, he won it handily.
While the legendary romance between Nancy Reagan and her husband was always at the root of their relationship, theirs was also as joint a partnership as Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.
The Reagans began appearing jointly on campaign pins early on, during the primaries and through the general election. (historyteacher.net, ebay, ronwade, campaignbuttons-etc.com)
Mrs. Reagan’s presence was an important factor in reassuring him through difficult times, and through much of the winter and spring primary 1980 caucuses and races, they campaigned together.
Still, as a former Hollywood actress and governor’s spouse of a large and politically important state like California, Mrs. Reagan also developed a national profile rather independently from her husband. While she sought to humanize her husband with tender personal stories, she did not shy away from defending his views on any number of issues.
One button showed the Reagans co-starring in their only feature film together. (ebay)
Consequently, there was a figurative avalanche of campaign pins in 1980 that depicted Nancy Reagan as part of a team with her husband, far more so than appearing on those alone.
There was at least one with the indelible image of the Reagans, both of them being film and television actors, their faces pressed affectionately against each other in a publicity still from their only co-starring feature film, Hellcats of the Navy.
While she always emphasized that she was disseminating his views when asked questions on controversial issues of the campaign, the perspective she presented was distinctly conservative, and often at variance with the views expressed four years earlier by the Republican presidential candidate’s spouse, then-incumbent Betty Ford.
In fact, to spell out the specific moral issues that she and her husband believed important to restore to the American culture and values, Nancy Reagan became the first presidential candidates’ spouse to release her memoirs.
The first memoir released during a presidential campaign by a candidate’s spouse. (amres.com)
A move usually made by the candidates themselves, the book Nancy, also provided a rudimentary biography of her life up to the point of her husband’s 1980 campaign. Although the book was penned by ghostwriter Bill Libby, it was all based on taped interviews with Mrs. Reagan, in preparing for the campaign and she vetted the manuscript carefully before it was published, as did Mike Deaver, an important public relations adviser to the campaign and trusted friend to both of the Reagans.
It was only the second time in history that this was done, the first being the biography written about Ida McKinley in 1896. When the book’s first printing as a hardback, it visibly stood out in bookstores and airport gift shops because of its paper cover in bright green. As soon as a second printing, in paperback form was released, the cover had changed to a large photograph of Mrs. Reagan.
The Jane Wyman button. (ebay)
Green, of course, was the branded color of the official Carter re-election campaign, as it had been of his first, 1976 campaign.
There were some other unusual pinback buttons struck that year. One of them was a sure seller for both those who supported Reagan against Carter – and those who supported Carter against Reagan.
On the top half of it was the slogan in black letters against a white background, “Jane Wyman Was Right.”
Turned upside down, it read instead in white letters against a black background, “Jane Wyman Was Wrong.”
Jane Wyman had been Ronald Reagan’s Academy Award-winning actress first wife, who had divorced him because she was disinterested in his growing interest in politics and drifting from acting.
The Brown-Ronstadt, button. (ebay)
There was one other unusual button from the 1980 campaign, on the Democratic side.
Briefly, the bachelor Governor of California Jerry Brown entered the Democratic presidential primaries, challenging President Carter. The button depicted him with his girlfriend at the time, rock singer Linda Ronstadt.
Living together unmarried, the governor and singer were reflecting a changing nation’s mores – and represented at least one belief shared by those who wore the novelty “Jerry & Linda in 1980″ campaign item.