How much I appreciated your gracious letter telling of plans for the Western Regional Conference on Abortion and inviting me to attend.
Although my upcoming personal and official commitments will not permit me to be with you, I am grateful for this opportunity to convey my warmest greetings to all attending and my hopes for the success of the Conference.
So wrote Betty Ford, in February 1976, to the organizers of one of the first medical conferences on abortion to take place in the United States after the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. Sending such a message would have been inconceivable for any of the Republican first ladies that followed her. What Betty Ford said publicly about abortion, and what subsequent Republican women in that role could not, speaks both to the spirited and independent character of the former, who died on July 8 at age ninety-three, and to the sea change in American politics that was to come with the rise of the religious Right and the use of abortion as that movement?s leading wedge issue.
But even in 1976, a newly emerged right-to-life movement was making clear that presidential candidates would be accountable for their positions on abortion, which had been legalized in 1973 with the Roe v. Wade decision. President Gerald Ford, running for his first election to the office (after taking over from the disgraced Richard Nixon in 1974), was under attack from anti-abortion forces for his ?waffling? views on the subject: he argued that Roe v. Wade went too far, and that the abortion issue should be left to individual states. In contrast, his wife reaffirmed her full support of Roe, stating in a television interview that the decision took the issue ?out of the backwoods and put [it] in the hospital where it belongs.?
To be sure, it was not only on the topic of abortion that Betty Ford was outspoken. Again, in a way that would be unimaginable for later Republican first ladies, she identified as a feminist, supported the Equal Rights Amendment, and spoke frankly about the realities of premarital sex. Of course, not all her views were, in today?s terms, ?liberal??she was a strong supporter of the Vietnam War, for example. And the admiration she drew from the public?the New York Times in its obituary stated she was among the most popular of all first ladies?transcended conventional politics. It was her candor about her struggle with breast cancer, at a time when the disease was rarely spoken of publicly, and, even more courageously, her public acknowledgement of her struggle with alcohol and prescription drug abuse (which led to the founding of the Betty Ford Center for treatment of chemical dependency) that earned her the lasting affection of the American people.
None of Betty Ford?s Republican successors as first ladies spoke as freely as she did. On the abortion issue, there is reason to believe that all of the women in question?Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, and Laura Bush?were to varying degrees pro-choice (as may have been all their husbands, in private). But none of these women spoke frankly on the issue. Nancy Reagan?s views are perhaps the most ambiguous, but Lou Cannon, Ronald Reagan?s biographer, has written that while Ronald was governor of California, both his wife and father-in-law supported the California Therapeutic Abortion bill of 1967. In his memoir, the late Donald Regan, Reagan?s chief of staff from 1985 to 1987, quoted Nancy Reagan as saying privately to him, ?I don?t give a damn about the right to lifers.? The views of Barbara and Laura Bush are much clearer. The latter, in a memoir published after her husband?s presidency, stated her support of Roe v. Wade. The former, while her husband was campaigning for reelection in 1992, even stated her belief that abortion and homosexuality were ?personal choices? that should be left out of politics?though it remains debatable whether this was a case of genuine independence or a calculated move to draw support from the rapidly diminishing number of moderates in the Republican Party.
What is not debatable is that Betty Ford?s tenure as first lady was the last time in American politics that someone in that role could inspire bipartisan admiration while expressing her own political views. American politics have become so polarized, and the culture wars so fierce, that first ladies can only be broadly liked if they suppress their own views on controversial matters. Betty Ford?s passing reminds us of what has been lost in our political culture.
An earlier version of this post appeared at RH Reality Check.