Betty Ford (1918 – 2011)

Betty Ford, briefly America’s quirky First Lady and its perennial therapeutic icon, is dead, aged 93. 

When we say the name Betty Ford these days, it almost always refers to her eponymous center in Southern California frequented by adulterous evangelists, drug-abusing athletes and misbehaving celebrities. Dubious though this honour was, it was something Betty Ford cherished.

If her husband’s road to the American Presidency was unconventional, Betty Ford’s First Ladyship was equally unconventional. In those heady days before rehab was “cool”, Ford openly talked about her breast cancer, then her mastectomy, and finally her addiction to pills and alcohol.

Betty Ford was a dancer and (like her husband) fashion model; she studied at the Bennington School of the Dance, joined Martha Graham’s company, founded her own dance troupe, and taught disabled children dance. During her short and mostly absent stay at the White House, Ford would dance through the halls of the White House. Her dance on the Cabinet Room table amidst ashtrays and notepads was a fulfillment of a long-harboured wish.

The moment was captured by David Hume Kennerly, who encouraged her to jump onto the table

I said, ‘Well, nobody’s around.’ She said, ‘I just think I’m going to do this.’ Then she’s on the table. She’s a tiny woman, really, in very good shape. Very graceful, as a former dancer with the Martha Graham company. She got up there…. Very few women have had a seat at that table. I bet you could count them on one hand at that point, and knowing her support for the Equal Rights Amendment, she was tap-dancing in the middle of this male bastion. She was storming the walls of the gray suits and gray-haired eminences….

I did not want people to put a martini glass in her hand and say here she is drunk on the Cabinet Room table. That would just be wrong. Because that is not what happened.”

It was Gerald Ford’s last full day in office and the picture disappeared into Ford Archives. It was first published only in 1995 with Kennerly’s book Photo Op . Kennerly remembers showing the photo to the former first couple before its publication:

And it’s like one of those cartoon moments where his eyes come bulging out, and he goes, ‘Oh, Betty isn’t going to like this.’ Remember, he knows her better than anybody. I’m sunk. But he doesn’t say anything when she comes in, and she looks at the picture and she starts laughing. She says, ‘Oh, I forgot all about this. That is so great.’ And I ask her, you won’t mind? And Mrs. Ford says, ‘No! It’s a terrific picture.’ Then President Ford says, ‘Well, Betty, you never told me you did that.’ And she smiles at him and says, ‘There’s a lot of things I haven’t told you, Jerry.’ “


(Kennerly interview from the Smithsonian Magazine) 

The Oliver Sipple Case

Oliver Sipple (leftmost) lunges for the assailant

On September 25th 1975, Oliver Sipple was walking past the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco where the then President Gerald Ford was scheduled to speak. As he moved forward to get a better look at the speech, he noticed the woman standing next to him reach into her raincoat and pull out a revolver. Instinctively, Sipple grabbed for her arm and deflected it as she pulled the trigger. The bullet, intended for the president, ricocheted off the wall and wounded another man in the crowd. Sipple, a decorated Vietnam vet, tackled the assailant , prevented her from shooting again and handed her over to the Secret Service.

Oliver Sipple was immediately hailed in the national press, and received thousands of letters. However, President Ford only sent him a short note, and avoided a personal meeting. News organizations wondered why the White House was avoiding Sipple; although he was openly gay, Sipple’s sexual orientation was a secret from his family and employers; he asked the press to keep his sexuality off the record. However, news organizations refused to comply. The gay community thought it was a great opportunity too; while discussing whether  Sipple’s sexuality be disclosed, Harvey Milk noted: “It’s too good an opportunity. For once we can show that gays do heroic things, not just all that caca about molesting children and hanging out in bathrooms.” Milk further suggested that Sipple’s sexual orientation was the reason he received only a note, rather than an invitation to the White House — something newspapers took and ran with.

Herb Caen, a columnist at The San Francisco Chronicle, finally ‘outed’ Sipple as gay. The Chicago Sun-Times called him a ‘Homosexual Hero’; The Denver Post was more pithy: ‘Gay Vet’. Back in Detroit, Sipple’s staunch Baptist family became the subject of ridicule and abuse by friends and neighbors. His mother refused to talk to him and when she died in 1979, his father told him not to come to the funeral. Sipple filed a $15 million invasion of privacy suit against seven newspapers, and various publishers, but after a long and bitter process, the courts held that Sipple himself had become news, and that his sexual orientation was part of the story.  Oliver Sipple sank into a downward spiral of depression, alcoholism, obesity and drug abuse. By the time he was found dead with an empty bottle of bourbon in 1989, Oliver Sipple was already a forgotten footnote to ethics and freedom of press. His apartment was littered with press clippings from that fateful day, when he saved a man’s life and subsequently ruined his own.

(Opinions follow: This post is partially inspired by my misgivings towards DADT policy in the US. It was initially enacted without much tangible information,  and nearly two decades on, seems a little dated. Over twenty countries allow gays to serve openly in their armed forces, and most of these countries are members of the coalition forces fighting together with Americans. In the British Army — which itself was largely homophobic until recently when it was forced to accommodate gays by the European Union — there had been no incidents of bullying, harassment, blackmail or erosion of unit cohesion or effectiveness because of allowing gays to serve openly. And on a personal level, I believe it is unhealthy and unproductive to keep secrets from one another in the military where camaraderie and trust are the most important values.)

Presidents in Japan

President Obama is currently under fire for his obvious yet unreciprocated bow to Japanese Emperor Akihito. The conservatives defined this deference as an inappropriate gesture for a President of the United States, while the president’s defenders noted this showed Mr. Obama’s cultural sensitivities. No matter what symbolisms meant, this marks another episode in faux-pas-ridden relations between the U.S. and its former WWII enemy.

When Akihito’s father, Emperor Hirohito, who ruled Japan during the WWII, visited the U.S. in 1971, President Richard Nixon bowed to him. In November 1974, Gerald Ford became the first sitting president to visit Japan. He didn’t pack his formal trousers, and attended an imperial ceremony in Japan’s extremely formal court in borrowed trousers which were too short for the president. The media had a field day, but Ford–who was an Eagle Scout–joked that scouting still ran in his veins and that his visit to Japan proved that he still liked to go around in short pants.

[President Ford also encouraged people to wear “WIN” buttons as part of a plan to “Whip Inflation Now.” Bob Hope joked about Ford’s trip to Japan, “Hirohito gave the president a jeweled sword with a crest of the Imperial Order of the Setting Sun, and the President gave him a WIN button. The president told him, ‘Millions of Americans are wearing these.’ And Hirohito said, ‘I know. We make them.’]

In 1992, on his state visit, President George H.W. Bush vomited on the Japanese Prime Minister. Earlier in 1989, while attending Emperor Hirohito’s funeral, Bush committed the same controversy as Obama by bowing deeply in front of the emperor’s casket. The issue was further complicated by the fact that as a flight-pilot, Bush was shot out of the sky by the Japanese. While being pressed about his bow, Bush wavered, noting members of his squadron who never came home, and Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s decision to keep the emperor system.

In 1994, Bill Clinton was criticized for almost bowing to Akihito. Liberal The New York Times wrote: “It wasn’t a bow, exactly. But Mr. Clinton came close. He inclined his head and shoulders forward, he pressed his hands together. It lasted no longer than a snapshot, but the image on the South Lawn was indelible: an obsequent President, and the Emperor of Japan.”

(Above photo was by Mandel Ngan/Agence France-Presse)

Rockefeller gives Middle Finger


Today “Liberal Republican” is an oxymoron, but in the 70s and the 80s, they did exist, Nelson Rockefeller was their leader. Elected four times as governor and one of America’s wealthiest politicians, Rockefeller resigned in 1973 to devote all of his time to a potential presidential run in 1976. But when Vice President Spiro T. Agnew resigned in disgrace after pleading guilty to not paying taxes, Rockefeller called Nixon and asked for the vice presidency.

Nixon decided instead to appoint House Minority Leader and Michigan congressman Gerald Ford. After Nixon’s resignation Gerald Ford was sworn in as President. Ford offered the Vice Presidency to Rockefeller. Knowing that he would not be the nominee for president in 1976, Rockefeller relaxed and enjoyed his duties as vice president. This attitude was caught on camera, above in Binghamton, NY.; A heckler was shouting insults and Rockefeller leaned over the podium and gave him the finger. The picture appeared in newspaper across the nation, the public opinion was divided: some criticizing it as a crude gesture, but others admitting that it was nice to see politician who wasn’t afraid to show just what he really meant.

Shortly after taking office both Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Rockefeller had been diagnosed with cancer and had to have mastectomies. It was major headline news and focused the nations attention on the dangers of breast cancer. Then when California’s former two-term governor Ronald Reagan announced that he would be a candidate for the Republican nomination, Ford had to appease the conservatives, and replace Rockefeller was replaced on the ticket with Senator Robert Dole of Kansas. It was a rally for Dole in Binghamton that Rockefeller hold up his middle finger with ‘sneering, Satanic expression’. For him, not running for reelection again, the defiant middle finger was a kind of declaration of independence freeing him from the unspoken rule that politicians must always flatter the audience and ignore the hecklers.

He retired soon after; Rockefeller could have died with the respect, but it was reported that his fatal heart attack was induced by a more than the usual late night ‘office work’ with a young female associate.

Gerald Ford falls


Above, the photographer Wally McNamee captured an iconic moment as President Gerald Ford slips and falls as he leaves Air Force One upon arrival in Vienna, Austria for a state visit in 1975. This fall and another slip earlier cemented Ford’s reputation as clumsy and inept with the press.

Ironically, Ford was one of the most athletic people to assume the presidency. An Eagle scout and male model, the president was also a serious athlete still fondly remembered at the University of Michigan as a star football player and cheer leading coach whose mastery of the back handspring was known even at Yale. On then-fledgling television show, Saturday Night Live, comedian Chevy Chase made fun of the president as a blundering, gawky leader who was not to be taken seriously. The weekly skits had Chevy Chase as the president who might mistake a water glass for a telephone or go tumbling over his own desk or Christmas tree.

Thus the accidental president was made him accident prone. The SNL skits influenced the ’76 elections by instilling in people’s minds an image of an inept president. It was a moment launched Chevy’s career, and ruined Ford’s. Two later became friends.

Gerald Ford assassination

A6320-23A  600Ford escorted out of the park by the Secret Service after the assassination

On September 5th, 1975, a woman in a red nun-like robe tried to assassinate President Gerald R. Ford inside Sacramento’s Capitol Park. The woman, a follower of Charles Manson, named Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, pointed a Colt 45-caliber handgun at Ford. As Fromme pulled the trigger, Larry Buendorf, a Secret Service agent, grabbed the gun and managed to insert the webbing of his thumb under the hammer, preventing the gun from firing.while she was being further restrained and handcuffed, managed to say a few sentences to the on-scene cameras, emphasizing that the gun did not “go off”.

It was later found that, although the gun was loaded with four bullets, it was a semi-automatic pistol and the slide had not been pulled to place a bullet in the firing chamber, making it impossible for the gun to fire. Fromme subsequently told The Sacramento Bee that she had deliberately ejected the cartridge in her weapon’s chamber before leaving home that morning, and investigators later found a .45 ACP cartridge in her bathroom. She also claimed that her motive was to plead with the president about the plight of the California redwoods.

After a lengthy trial in which she refused to cooperate with her own defense–she threw an apple at the persecution–she was convicted of the attempted assassination of the president and received a life sentence. (She is set to be released from prison in mid August 2009). Ford went on to face one more assassination attempt–this one occurred in San Francisco seventeen days later, and the assassin was once again a woman.

Gerald Ford and his toaster


Gerald Ford shows off his English muffin-making skills in 1974.

Ford was an ordinary American; for the only man who assumed the nation’s highest office without being elected to the Presidency or the Vice-Presidency, it is an apt moniker. He lived in Northern Virginia and toasted his own English muffins before commuting to work in Washington. After the larger-than-life presidencies of Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, America readily embraced this humble man.

When the press discovered that Gerald Ford continued to toast his own English muffins in the White House kitchen, buttered them himself, and served himself orange juice before he entered the Oval Office, it was the most heart-warming moment of Ford’s presidency. However, this ‘toasted-muffin phase’ of the Ford presidency ended abruptly on the Sunday morning that Ford issued a full pardon to Nixon.

The American Bicentennial


President Ford and Queen Elizabeth II dances at the Bicentennial Celebration of the American Independence in 1976. The Queen and Prince Philip were in Washington D.C. to mark the occasion and the formal state dinner was held in the Rose Garden on July 7, 1976. When two heads of state meets, the protocol normally prohibits them from dancing together, to avoid the complications of who leads who. But on this occasion, it was the Queen who started to dance. The Marine band started playing ‘That’s Why the Lady is a Tramp. 

The evening was not without a diplomatic faux pas. Jack Ford, the President’s son, burst in the reception room where the Queen was staying, half dressed. The embarrassed President and Mrs. Ford had to introduce Jack, with his shirt tails hanging out and no shoes on. The queen laughed and replied, ‘Oh don’t worry about it. I have one like it at home,’ using the inanimate pronoun the upperclass usually uses to refer to children.

In this speech at a state dinner, Gerald Ford discussed the mutual friendship of the United States and England, and notes that both countries have met what might have seemed like insurmountable challenges, and looks forward to success much like “those first stalwart Englishmen who settled here, and their descendants who forged an independent nation.” He hopes the democracies, working together, continue the defense of freedom. The speech ends with a toast to the Queen.