Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Remembering Betty Ford and the 1970s

I watched a few minutes of Betty Ford's funeral last night, a delayed broadcast on C-Span, and was reminded of my only partly facetious proposal in a column several years ago that someone launch a Funeral Channel, which would televise celebrity funerals along with archival video of funerals past. I still think it's a concept that seems macabre at first glance but would probably succeed.

Betty Ford's funeral proves my point. There on the front pew were Rosalynn Carter, Michelle Obama, George W. Bush, Hillary Clinton and Nancy Reagan. If Mitch McConnel and Harry Reid had attended the funeral, we might have a debt limit increase by now. Such are the good feelings generated by shared mourning.

I was transfixed by Rosalynn Carter's eulogy, which was obviously sincere and leavened with deep affection. Beyond her hard Georgia accent, Carter poignantly described her relationship with Ford and their mutual respect and love for each other. Carter obviously admired Ford's achievements but also admired her priorities, her support for her husband and her love of her children. It was one of the most moving eulogies I've ever heard. Later, journalist Cokie Roberts delivered an unscripted talk about the demands of being in a political family and the loss of camaraderie that used to be common when her father, Hale Boggs, and Betty's husband were opposing party leaders in the U.S. House. They were also close friends. Betty was appalled by the venom and the insults that have become part of political dialogue, she said and urged the politicians in the room to re-examine their tactics.

It's easy to forget the Ford presidency, which lasted only a couple of years. In one sense it was a minor footnote to history, but in another, it was a great achievement. After six years of the paranoid, conniving, suspicious, insecure Richard Nixon, good ol' Jerry Ford was such a breath of fresh air! The Washington Post (I was a subscriber at the time) published a front-page picture of the bathrobe-wearing new president retrieving the morning paper on his front porch. Before Congress, he proclaimed himself to be "a Ford, not a Lincoln," and the country found a comfort that had been impossible with Nixon. Ford was probably not a great intellectual or a creative thinker or "policy wonk." Lyndon Johnson dismissed him as having "played football without a helmet." He was an amiable politician, the kind of guy you vote for because you like him, and he had a very successful career, even if you don't count his appointment to vice president or his presidency.

Betty Ford's outspoken candor and honesty contributed to the aura of her husband's presidency. Like her husband, she had no pretensions. She didn't mind speaking her mind, and she was brave enough to expose her own vulnerabilities. Her death at age 93 reminds us of the good times in the 1970s when problems seemed huge but are forgotten today.

The Funeral Channel could provide that comforting nostalgia.

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