y Dr. Jeffrey Lant
Think for a minute of all the First Ladies we have had since the time of Franklin Roosevelt. Each found a way of serving the nation in her often difficult and always demanding position. Each First Lady invents her job, for it is a station mentioned nowhere in the Constitution but with high expectations, under the constant gaze of her often nit-picking countrymen… who expect a model wife to the president, mother to their children, and a great lady for a great nation. Difficult though these tasks must be, we expect absolutely nothing less.
Eleanor Roosevelt, much more than wife and mother.
The modern First Ladyship started with Eleanor Roosevelt in 1933. Born and bred a lady, she was never anything else, but she, like her relative Theodore Roosevelt, came to know how to use the “bully pulpit” of the White House to superb effect. She was there not to serve tea, but instead to advocate for a host of social issues. Men who preferred wives pouring tea were appalled… but, year by year, Mrs. Roosevelt grew in stature as a policy maven… creating a towering model for her successors.
Bess Truman was uncomfortable with Washington, and her mother made things even more difficult by often reminding Harry that he wasn’t good enough for Bess, for all that he was Leader of the Free World. She couldn’t wait to return to Independence… and the nation saw her leave without regret.
Mamie Eisenhower ran the White House like an army post, her white-glove inspections ensuring fastidious order and efficiency. Her relations with Ike were problematic; after all, he had wanted to divorce her and marry Kay Summersby probably the love of his life. Not a good model for future First Couples.
Jackie Kennedy brought a style elegant, alluring, a princess of Camelot. Unfortunately she well knew of her husband’s humiliating infidelities; she was often wary, suspicious and frosty. She’d be First Lady, but on her terms. One looked in vain to Mrs. Kennedy for the kind of joy and the ability to connect which America wanted and deserved.
Lady Bird Johnson, who became First Lady at a period of intense mourning and soul-searching for America was someone liked. But like other presidents before him, husband LBJ found marital fidelity, even in the White House, onerous; he had the perfect political wife, but the nation wondered if he really loved her. He bellowed “Move over, this your president” when sowing wild oats; she sowed millions of wild flowers, which cheered her and the rest of us.
Mrs. Pat Nixon “got” her job in the White House. Even before becoming First Lady, she was a frequent guest in the Executive Mansion. She had sage advice for herself, self-talk of value to any First Lady: this may be the only time in their lives the guest may visit the White House; remember that and greet him accordingly. Mrs. Nixon lived up to her part of the bargain, but she always seemed unhappy. She clenched back her tears rather than show weakness. America would have understood and loved this too little loved woman had she been more open and honest…
… like her unexpected successor Mrs. Gerald Ford, universally known as Betty.
Elizabeth Ann Bloomer was born in Chicago April 18, 1918. She entered the world along with her nation. In 1918 the United States was the only major combatant to emerge from World War I unscathed. America was now the ascendant power, and Chicago, with its access to the greatest granaries on earth, its sophisticated transportation network, and all the beef America and all the world could eat, was its second city, an empire on Lake Michigan.
When she was 2, her well-heeled family moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan. She was something of a ham and the theater ran in her veins. She loved an audience even then. At 8 she began taking dance lessons, finding a lifelong passion. At the Bennington School of Dance, at Bennington College, she studied with such titans of Terpsichore as Martha Graham, Hanya Holm, and Doris Humphrey. She moved to New York in 1939 to dance with Graham’s troupe and always retained close, affectionate relations with her mentor, recommending her (successfully) for the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, bestowed by her husband the president.
While in New York, she supported herself with modeling assignments. She was definitely a “looker” and she knew the art of moving so the world looked at her. It was to prove a very useful skill, when millions wanted to see her up close and personal.
The Bloomer’s were a tight knit family and they missed their Betty. They persuaded her to return to Grand Rapids where she got a job in a department store where she worked with the advertising department, modeled and put on fashion shows.
A year later, in 1942, she married the man who was definitely not of her dreams, William C. Warren. In 1947 they divorced. It turned out Betty had bigger fish to fry. It came in the person of Gerald Ford, a college football star and well-known lawyer. It proved to be a match made in heaven.
One thing America liked about the Fords was that they genuinely liked each other — and showed it. This was a real difference from the arrangements, heart breaks and bitterness of too many presidents and their ladies. You could try to fake it and, maybe for a while you could fool some of the country… but not for long. Body language doesn’t lie.
They married on October 15, 1948 and started (it’s not overstated) their lifelong honeymoon, based on true affection and empathy. It made the Fords look old- fashioned, but America cheered and always wished them well.
Ford got himself elected to Congress. Betty proved a virtually ideal political wife. For one thing she was not just wife, but partner. It was the secret of their success. In 1965 he was elected Minority Leader in the U.S. House of Representatives; he wanted to be GOP Speaker of the House, his highest aspiration. But then came Watergate and all its attendant troubles…
After Vice President Agnew resigned in disgrace… President Nixon and the nation both needed a man of integrity as Vice President. And so destiny knocked on Gerald Ford’s door and transformed one of the most decent men in politics into the vehicle to help the troubled nation weather the storm. The Fords had ended America’s nightmare and began a regime of decency, honesty, and sincerely, and we all breathed a sigh of relief.
Now First Lady Betty Ford, Midwest born, knew her mind and spoke it… about abortion, marriage, drugs… and, in due course, her own addictive demons. The nation applauded her openness and candor. She had the problems millions of her countrymen shared… and, as she openly got help, she helped them ask for it ourselves.
Now Betty Ford is dead, at 93. She excelled at the great game of life… and helped others, now down and out, get up, try again and excel, too. We saw ourselves in her, good and bad… thus her passing diminishes us… But she is with her Jerry now which is where she always wanted to be for all of time to come, together.
About the Author
Harvard-educated Dr. Jeffrey Lant is CEO of at http://homeprofitcoach.com/associates , providing a wide range of online services for small and-home based businesses.