11 July 2011

The Unportable Mrs. Ford

Back in 1937, when another outspoken First Lady was rankling many American voters, a fellow named Whitfield Cook wrote a charming short story, “The Portable Mrs. Tillson.” Just as the title suggests, Mrs. Tillson is everything a political wife ought to be: easily managed, unobtrusive, and uncomplaining on the campaign trail. Her husband simply stows her in a small bag, and they’re off to the next whistle stop.

Say what you will about Betty Ford, she wasn’t portable.

Photo courtesy of the Ford Library

Most of the obituaries being written about the former First Lady remember — and praise — Mrs. Ford’s famous candor. She was honest about matters of sex, forthcoming about questions of health, and unafraid to take public positions at a variance from those of her husband and his party’s platform in 1976.

We had been lied to quite a lot, in the years leading up to the Ford Administration, and even before Jimmy Carter pledged that “I will never lie to you,” Betty Ford had begun telling the truth. She’d been a political wife for years, and she was a trained dancer before that, but she’d never faced a spotlight like the one that greeted her when her husband became President. She hadn’t been groomed and “handled” and stifled; she hadn’t been larded with research and surveys to tell her what to say and what not to say. From all accounts, Betty Ford saw no reason to conceal her thoughts, and so she spoke freely. That turned out to be exactly what we needed as a nation.

What’s surprising is how surprising that candor was (refreshing or repellent, depending on whether you agreed with her), and how seldom any political wife on the national stage has come anywhere near to rivaling Betty Ford in the years since. Even tiny steps in Betty’s direction have been met with furious reprisals — in both parties. Remember Marilyn Tucker Quayle and Hillary Rodham Clinton in the early 1990s? Remember how the wives of both the Presidents Bush kept their opinions to themselves until after their husbands had left office?

There are limits to the truth-telling any government can afford, and of course a First Lady nominally wields more influence than authority. Yet I suspect that these women have been in a better position than anyone else in an administration to speak their minds — and to help by doing it. Some spinmeisters claimed that Betty Ford’s candor cost her husband votes in the national election in 1976, but surely Jerry was hurt more by suspicions that he hadn’t been truthful about his pardoning of Richard Nixon.

It’s dangerous to sentimentalize political figures. And yet I always liked Betty Ford. I liked Jerry, too, for that matter, and I liked him more because they liked each other. By speaking her mind, by taking risks, by being supremely unportable, Mrs. Ford helped cancer patients — and substance abusers — and the entire nation — to heal. I’m glad she was First Lady, and I’m a bit sorry she was never President.

She was terrific on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, too.

NOTE: Bernard Welt brought Whitfield Cook’s story to my attention, and I thank him for that, wherever he is now.

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