COLUMN: Q&A with Anita McBride: Remembering Betty Ford
Former First Lady Betty Ford, married to President Gerald Ford for 58 years, is once again beside her husband. She was laid to rest at the Gerald R. Ford Museum in Grand Rapids Thursday, on what would have been the president’s 98th birthday, following her death at the age of 93.
Anita B. McBride, who has ties to the state of Michigan, served in the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush, and was chief of staff to First Lady Laura Bush. She is currently executive in residence at the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies for the School of Public Affairs at American University in Washington, D.C.
McBride shared her reflections on the important role Betty Ford and other first ladies have had throughout history with me and Dean Erskine on 1290 WLBY.
Lucy Ann: The family of Ronald Reagan talked about his Alzheimer’s, and that was really the first time that we were given permission to talk about this devastating disease. Likewise for Betty Ford, who revealed her breast cancer and alcoholism. What courageous people to talk about such private affairs so publicly.
McBride: How lucky we are that these leaders in our country who we really look to as examples, who represent the best in the spirit of America, that they have used their platform in their time in public life to help others. Betty Ford said, “You know, you’re on this Earth to help others,” and, boy, did she ever.
Lucy Ann: Do you think the fact that being an accidental first lady gave her permission to be herself?
McBride: Our first ladies and our leaders throughout history, they’re always best when they share this authenticity and credibility about their own experiences in their life and how that could help others. She has had a history of accidents, an ordinary woman in an extraordinary time in our country, and she never expected to have this job. As all first ladies throughout our history would tell you, nothing can prepare you to be first lady and that was clearly the case for her, which happened overnight during a tragic time in our country. Betty Ford never ever changed and I think that’s what endeared a lot of us to her.
Lucy Ann: Let’s talk about the role of first lady. Has it maintained the same importance even as times have progressed?
McBride: Increasingly we had greater expectations of what we want from our first ladies to be engaged openly and publicly on issues of concern to the nation and to the world. I am leading a study at American University on the role of first ladies through the sweep of history, and one consistent thread is the commitment that each of them has felt to do something with the position that they have been given. Even though it is not official, with no statutory authority and no salary I might add, they still feel this obligation to use the position for something where they can make a contribution to the country. As we have more public access to our leaders on a 24-hour basis, we are very interested to see what they are doing and how they are using this platform that they’ve been given. I think the demands are greater and greater all the time, and someday it will be a man leading that office. The requirement and any obligation to be a partner to the president will be the same and even more.
Dean: One memory that I have of Betty Ford goes back to the Mary Tyler Moore Television Show where she made an appearance. You saw a personal side of her when she shrugged her shoulders after Mary Tyler Moore told her, “You know, you’re doing a very bad Betty Ford impersonation.” First ladies didn’t used to do that.
McBride: You think of other examples like that when Nancy Reagan came to Washington and very quickly some of the things that she did sparked controversy -- money being spent without people really realizing that it was private money, and expensive clothes that she was wearing -- and it started to really affect how people were looking at her as our first lady. She used a couple of opportunities to be very self-deprecating and to be herself and to have fun. One was the Gridiron Dinner where she dressed up in mismatched clothes and sang to the tune of ‘Secondhand Rose’ saying ‘secondhand clothes’ and it changed people’s perception of this woman. I think when people use humor they connect with people in a very different way. Dean: Do you remember when Nancy Reagan tripped coming into a room and Ronald Reagan said, “Nancy, I only told you to do that if I didn’t get applause.”
McBride: There was no one more perfect with a quick, off-the-cuff quip than Ronald Reagan. Take a moment, make light of it, and take the pressure off. He was a master at that.
Dean: Do you think when Hilary Clinton was first lady that she lacked some of that? That maybe she took herself more seriously than being a first lady. She made the comment, “We are the President.”
McBride: You really begin to see that first ladies are the bellwether of the times. She came in at a time where there was a generational change. She had been pursuing a graduate degree, she had full time employment as a lawyer herself, and had been engaged in a wide variety of issues and did not expect that any of those things would have to change. In fact, that she would take her background and credibility and use it to the benefit of the nation. It was using what she felt was most appealing about her, what she can contribute, and the country really didn’t move quite as fast as maybe she would have liked at that moment. Over time, she understood the limitations on the role but found a way to collaborate between the East and West Wing more effectively and she took it to the global stage. That’s where she ended up being able to add more to the visibility of what the administration was doing for women’s rights at the time. No one can prepare you for what it’s like to automatically go from being the person that you are to being on this public stage and having certain expectations for what you should be doing. You evolve into the role.
Lucy Ann: You had several tours of duty in the White House starting with the Reagan administration and ending with the chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush. Given those generational changes in time, do you see a day where the role of first lady, or first gentleman, will be completely different from what we assume? We’re getting two-for-one in the White House. We’re getting the president and his spouse and these spouses play such a vital role. Because of their passions and what they put their time into, they really change the course of history.
McBride: I don’t think that you can come into these very important positions where you have temporary custodianship and an obligation to do what you can on behalf of the American people and represent them around the world. I honestly don’t see how you can ever divorce yourself from the responsibility of using your office to the betterment of the country, and even if you do have your own job you’ve got to find a way to balance it.
Lucy Ann: A little bit of us died with Betty Ford.
McBride: I was at the White House for a foreign meeting this (past) week and, as is tradition, when an occupant of the House passes, a president or first lady, their portrait is moved to the ground floor so that they’re the first one that you see on the public tour. It is draped in black and flowers are placed there with an in memoriam sign. I was really quite moved. It is wonderful in our country and really an example to the world how we treat our former leaders. It makes all of us feel good about how we respect our leaders, how we elect them, how we inaugurate them, how we transition them, and how we handle their passing.