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
No wonder women all over the country have spent this past weekend loving her
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.