With former President Barack Obama joining the campaign trail to stump for Democratic candidates in the midterm elections, he has broken with the tradition of prior presidents declining to comment on the conduct of the current occupant of the White House.
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Now, a similar break has taken place in the office of the first lady, as Susan Ford, the daughter of former President Gerald Ford and his wife Betty, attacked Melania Trump for insulting her mother as just another “traditional” first lady, according to People Magazine.
Melania made the comments back in 1999 when she told the New York Times that if her then-boyfriend, Donald Trump, was ever elected president, she’d like to be a “very traditional” first lady, “like Betty Ford or Jackie Kennedy. I would support him.”
That characterization of her mother did not sit well with Susan Ford, who says that:
“I don’t think of my mother as a traditional first lady to begin with. Yes, she did do teas and things of that nature but I just don’t think of her as a traditional first lady because she was so outspoken about the issues that were important to her.”
Ford calls her mother a trailblazer who regularly spoke out about hot-button issues, from abortion to pre-marital sex to her own addiction to pain medication. It was that latter issue that led her to found the Betty Ford Center, one of the first nationally known addiction treatment centers in the country.
In an era when women with breast cancer who underwent a mastectomy kept quiet out of shame, Betty Ford’s decision to go public with her story after undergoing the procedure changed the public perception about the disease and its treatment.
“Literally overnight, Betty Ford removed the stigma from cancer,” Ford’s biographer Lisa McCubbin wrote. “No longer was it a source of shame, but a disease like any other that needed to be addressed and treated.”
The result was a massive surge in women making appointments for breast exams that undoubtedly saved many lives.
The former first lady was equally candid about the alcoholism and addiction to pain medications that led her to found her eponymous treatment center. Even more surprising was her support for legalized abortion, a position that nowadays would be unthinkable for a Republican first lady. “Bring it out of the backwoods and into the hospitals where it belongs,” Ford said at the time, making a commitment to women’s reproductive health that has sadly been absent from the GOP for decades.
Her activism also extended to a fervent support for the unfortunately never-enacted Equal Rights Amendment. Her daughter recounts the extraordinary measures she took to make her voice heard.
“She put a phone line in, so she could call congressmen and senators on the Hill to talk about the Equal Rights Amendment. Donald Rumsfield, who was then chief of staff, said to my father, ‘Mrs. Ford is making calls up on Capitol Hill about the Equal Rights Amendment and she really shouldn’t be using the White House line.’ So he said to my dad, ‘Would you speak to her?’ And my dad said, ‘No, but you can.’”
“Rumsfield spoke to Betty, and Susan says, ‘She just paid to have her own phone line put in.’”
Susan Ford says that her mother’s straightforwardness could be a bit much sometimes.
“The running joke is that there were lines of boys standing outside the gates of the White House waiting to date me since my mother said I could have sex,” the daughter recalled, laughing.
Given the laughable signature anti-bullying initiative that Melania Trump has made her pet project in the most ironic social cause ever embarked upon by a first lady and the furor over her “I really don’t care, do you?” jacket, it’s perfectly understandable why Susan Ford rejects her characterization of her mother as a role model for the current first lady.
With a record of actual, substantial accomplishments, Betty Ford commanded respect and affection from an American public that appreciated her intelligence, common sense, and dedication to public service. If that is what Melania Trump considers the hallmarks of a “traditional first lady,” then she has fallen far from the mark and has a long way to go to even come close to matching the legacy of Mrs. Ford.
Follow Vinnie Longobardo on Twitter.