Cokie Roberts Eulogy for Betty Ford: The Hard Work of a ‘House’ Wife

Jul 12, 2011 6:14pm

Former First Lady Betty Ford asked Cokie Roberts, ABC News political commentator and NPR analyst, some five years ago to be one of the speakers at her funeral.  Today in Palm Dessert, California, Roberts delivered the eulogy below for Ford, who passed away Friday at age 93. Former President Gerald Ford, a Republican, was House minority leader when Roberts’ father, Democratic congressman Hale Boggs of Louisiana, was majority leader. They had known each other since Ford’s election to Congress in 1948.  Boggs died in a plane crash in 1972 and Roberts’ mother, Lindy Boggs, now 95, took his seat in Congress after a special election. When Mrs Ford assigned me the daunting honor of speaking at her funeral, it will surprise none of you to learn that the assignment came with instructions. Mrs. Ford wanted me to remind everyone of the way things used to be in Washington. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if she timed her death to make sure she could convey the message of comity this week, when it seems so badly needed. A couple of months ago when the statue of President ford was unveiled in the regal, though republican (note the small R) rotund of the United States Capitol, the Ford “children” happily recalled their days playing hide and seek under the watchful gaze of George Washington in heaven high above. Times roaming the secret spaces of the Capitol, sometimes coming upon something truly spooky, formed some of the most vivid memories for many of us Congressional brats – as we are not so kindly called. But there are many others we share. We all, for instance, have Strom Thurmond stories – after all, he was there most of our lives. Al Gore tells about Senator Thurmond stepping on his truck when he first met him. We girls have ‘different’ stories. Since she came up in the 60s rather than the 50s, , Susan, I don’t know if you had to parade down runways at the fashion shows Congressional wives staged for good causes. (One time one of the women snagged Robert Goulet to croon ‘If Ever I should Leave You.’ much to everyone’s delight) But Susan’s mother escaped none of those 1950s rituals. My mother remembers that the reason she and Betty Ford performed in every fashion show was that they were the same size the models were – that is small. Looking at those retrospectives over the weekend, didn’t you gasp, “Betty Ford was beautiful!!” Since our mothers were all involved in the Congrssional Club, many of us put in time at its dancing school – Lynda Johnson Robb, Tricia Nixon Cox – even some of the boys had to do that – and we all got copies of the Congressional Club Cookbook as wedding presents. Mrs. Ford’s carrot vichysoisse doesn’t look bad. More wedding presents we all received: glass items with the names of members of Congress etched into them. It’s nice in a way. I think of Tommy Kuchel every time I serve cake, even though it looks like I stole the plate from his office. The worst present: the Department of Agriculture Yearbook.

We all had fathers who were away a lot and mothers who ran everything and we all grumped and giggled together about it because we were all friends. And that’s what Betty Ford wanted me to talk about here today. A couple of years before he died I came here to the desert to interview President Ford for a series on former presidents and the constitution. When we turned the cameras off, the President turned to me and sighed, ‘You know, Cokie, I just don’t understand what’s happened in Washington. When your father was Majority Leader and I was Minority Leader, we would get in a cab together on the Hill and we would go downtown to some place like the Press Club and we’d say ‘Ok, what are we going to argue about?’ Now, it was a real debate. We had different views about means to an end. We genuinely disagreed with each other, we were certainly partisans. But after we went at it, we’d get back in the cab together and be best friends.” (They actually had drivers by that time and I think the cab part is an exaggeration and we all remember Douglas Frazier and Roger Brooks, the drivers, would be horrified – but the point is the same.) That friendship made governing possible – they weren’t questioning each other’s motives, much less their commitment to the country. Underlying many of those Congressional relationships across the aisle, and even more remarkable, across the dome, was the relationship among the wives. Over the last few days we have appropriately celebrated Betty Ford for her incredible courage in the face of her own challenges and the impact that courage has had on hundreds of thousands of lives. In her wisdom, she knew that the part of her life that would be given little notice would be her many years as a partner of a member of the House of Representatives. That’s why she asked me to talk about it. It was a tough job, more often political widow than political wife. The duties ranged from showing visiting constituents around the Capitol – it was a big deal when someone travelled all the way from Michigan or Louisiana – to helping run the social service programs in the District of Columbia.
In the days before home rule in Washington, it was the political wives working with the African American women who lived there, who stitched together a safety net for the citizens of the nation’s capital. There was always the challenge to the political wife of figuring out how to entertain on no money at all. And of course, she was expected to be the perfect wife and mother. Mrs. Ford played all of those roles – and I tell you, Cub Scout Den Mother sounds so sweetly innocuous, unless you’ve actually tried it – and Sunday School Teacher, Leader in the Congressional Wives Prayer Group. And yet her official “title,” as it was for most political wives, was housewife. It was a title she shared with many American women and it gave her a great understanding of what women’s lives were like. She said once: “Being a good housewife seems to me a much tougher job than going to the office and getting paid for it,” she was giving words to the dirty little secret men always knew. Over the years, as she spoke out more forcefully for women’s rights, Mrs. Ford strongly defended the housewife’s role: “Downgrading this work has been part of the pattern in our society that downgrades individual women’s talents in all areas.” No wonder women all over the country have spent this past weekend loving her anew. One talent political wives were expected to cultivate that they didn’t share with most women was that of first rate campaigner, especially wives of House members – the House wives – who faced an election every two years. By the time he ran for president, Ford supporters sported “Elect Betty’s Husband” buttons, but people in Michigan had been doing that for decades. It was another activity that brought political wives together – even if they were on different sides, they had the same complaints – and forged tightly joined connections that extended ot the men as well. They would bring the men together, serve them some drinks and a good meal, listen to their stories and make them behave. And some of that good behavior carried over to the corridors of Congress. It was a role political wives had played since the beginning of the republic and it worked. The friendship between my mother and Betty Ford spanned more than 60 years.  But it became especially close when the Ford and Boggs couples made their historic trip to China in early 1972. I asked my mother yesterday about what she and Mrs. Ford did on that trip. At first she joked, “I’m not sure I want to tell all those people.” But then she lit up, remembering one day when just the two of them were off without a good interpreter – this was 1972 remember. They were getting frustrated at their inability to communicate when Mrs. Ford turned to Mamma and said with a shrug, ‘What difference does it make?”
As Mamma laughed at the memory, she added, “Of course she was right, as she was about everything.” It was only a few months later that my father was lost in that airplane over Alaska. Betty Ford was devastated, but she put her own grief aside to stand by my mother, who said softly yesterday, “She was a great help to me.” That’s what these women did – they helped each other, they helped their husbands, they helped and hounded us children and they helped the nation. They regularly conspired to convince their lawmaker mates to pass legislation that would help educate and care for children, house old and poor people, improve health outcomes for all and yes, give equal rights to women. Betty Ford’s support of the Equal Rights Amendment did not arise full blown after she became First Lady. She had been pushing it for years – and making sure her husband got the message. As President Ford told me years later: “I had a lot of pressure not only politically on the outside but inside my own family. Mrs. Ford was a very ardent supporter of equal rights for women and I used to get a lecture quite frequently and I got pushed to act on the floor of the House in favor of it and I did, I voted for it and I think it’s a good approach but it was a very controversial provision.” There’s your Midwestern understatement. As Susan said in an interview, being First Lady, didn’t change her mother, rather it gave her a “podium to stand on” to express the views she had formed in her years as a Congressional wife. But Betty Ford always knew when to step off the podium, how to avoid that worst of labels for any woman of that era, especially the political wife – she was never “strident.” She could use her candid good humor to diffuse any discussion about whether she was overstepping her bounds as First Lady. At the National Press Club she told the men assembled (the women in the press were consigned to the balcony) that they had often heard her say, “Whatever makes Jerry happy makes me happy. If you all believe that you’re indeed unworthy of your profession.” She had them. And she made it look easy. Of course, it wasn’t easy and through Betty Ford’s courage we later learned just how hard those years were. But Mrs. Ford had something very important going for her: she knew who she was. Before her sudden ascension to First Lady she said, “I’ll move to the White House, do the best I can, and if they don’t like it, they can kick me out, but they can’t make me be somebody I’m not.”
And she knew, like her friends the other Congressional women, she knew that her husband could not be who he was if she were not who she was. President Ford gave me a glimpse of the importance of that strength when he told me, “The night before I took the oath of office, I held Betty’s hand and we repeated together our proverbs.” I made the unforgivable reporter’s mistake of failing to ask which proverbs, but I know which one he, and all of us, say today. It is, of course, The Good Wife: “She opens her mouth with wisdom, and in her tongue is the law of kindness.
She looks to the ways of her household, and eats not the bread of idleness.
Her children arise up, and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her.
Many daughters have done virtuously, but you excel them all.
Favor is deceitful and beauty is vain: but a woman that fears the Lord, she shall be praised.
Give her the fruit of her hands; and let her own works praise her in the gates.” Your works – all of them – over many years – praise you Betty Ford. And this Congressional brat along with the rest of the country, especially the women who have been keeping this republic, thank you.  

You are using an outdated version of Internet Explorer. Please click here to upgrade your browser in order to comment.
blog comments powered by Disqus