Cliff Notes

What Michelle Obama could learn from Betty Ford

What Michelle Obama could learn from Betty Ford

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Betty and Gerald Ford in 1975 Photo via The Black Flag Cafe
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Gerald and Betty Ford Courtesy of Handout courtesy of Gerald R. Ford Library via Getty Images
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Michelle Obama, Rosalyn Carter, Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton plan to attend Tuesday's memorial service for former first lady Betty Ford, which seems entirely appropriate, given the fact that they are members of one of the smallest and most exclusive sororities on earth. Only someone who has been in the same situation could understand the pressures and scrutiny that comes from being married to the President of the United States.

The current first lady would do well to follow Ford's example. Of all the first ladies I remember, Ford was by far, the most interesting. She was a real individual, not afraid to speak her mind, perhaps because she was an "accidental" first lady whose husband hadn't coveted the job since childhood.

After Richard Nixon resigned as a result of the Watergate scandal in 1974 and Gerald Ford became president, the Fords were a breath of fresh air. Though married to a conservative Republican, Betty Ford campaigned for equal rights and spoke frankly about abortion and premarital sex. In a candid interview on 60 Minutes she acknowledged the possibility that her children may have experimented with marijuana and said she would not be surprised if her daughter had an affair. She chatted on a CB radio with the handle, First Mama, and seemed genuinely in love with her husband after decades of marriage.

 Back then, the nation seemed less polarized, but I think her popularity came from more than living in a less judgmental time. The American public can detect a phony. They are willing to like someone they may disagree with on some issues if that person is genuine.

 Telling a reporter that she had been asked just about every personal question except how often she slept with her husband, she volunteered an answer. "As often as possible," she said.

A few weeks after her husband became president, she underwent a mastectomy for breast cancer. At a time when it was taboo to talk about the disease, her frank and open acknowledgement transformed how cancer was viewed. For Ford, it seemed the right thing to do. She never knew any other way except to be herself. 

That frank nature continued after leaving the White House in 1977 (Gerald Ford narrowly lost to Jimmy Carter in the 1976 presidential campaign). After being confronted by her family over a dependence on pain killers and alcohol, she sought treatment but didn't keep it a secret. In 1982, she opened the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif., and transformed the way America deals with substance abuse.

Sure, she had her detractors — some conservatives called her "No Lady" — but her approval rating was an astonishing 75 percent. Back then, the nation seemed less polarized, but I think her popularity came from more than living in a less judgmental time. The American public can detect a phony. They are willing to like someone they may disagree with on some issues if that person is genuine.

Since then, Barbara Bush seemed to be closest to "what you see is what you get" as first lady, but most others didn't seem comfortable in the role. Nancy Reagan reverted to her actress ways, Hillary Clinton reverted to serving tea and cookies after Congress shot down the health care plan she had devised with her husband, and Laura Bush came across as a Stepford wife, even though I suspected she was a lot more fun and a lot more opinionated in private.

As an accomplished executive in her own right who earned more than her husband, Michelle Obama seemed poised to break from the traditional mold and carve out a new definition of a first lady. But after she was unfairly portrayed as an angry black woman during the presidential campaign, she appeared to have no desire to reinvent the position. As Newsweek recently wrote:

She was supposed to be a different kind of first lady—an Ivy League–educated, fashion-trendsetting professional who blew up the conventions of the job. No one could have imagined back in the heady days following the election that she’d declare that she would work only two or three days a week, choose a couple of politically comfortable issues, and stay out of the glare of the political spotlight. The result has been a low-key tenure that some have found disappointingly conventional."

Obama's supporters say she has been a different kind of first lady, venturing into Washington's poorest neighborhoods to mentor students and championing such causes as supporting military families and fighting childhood obesity. Just by virtue of being the first African-American in the role, she has transformed attitudes, some believe. Her approval rating hovers close to 70 percent,  much higher than her husband's numbers, so she must be doing something right.

Even so, she rarely seems spontaneous and sometimes, not terribly sincere. I find myself often wondering, "What is she really thinking?" Maybe, during moments of indecision, she should ask herself, "What would Betty do?" and just be herself. 

That's a simple lesson most first ladies have the hardest time learning.