FLOTUS on TV: Roosevelt and Ford
Our topic today draws upon the sparsely populated archive of U.S. first ladies on television. It’s only been a recent trend for Michelle Obama or Laura Bush to appear on TV talk shows. And yes the news has always covered First Ladies, but it’s usually been in conjunction with their official duties or travels.
Two First Ladies stand out with television presence. They rise taller than their peers, leaving a lasting impression which I hope you will find not only inspirational, but also piques your curiosity.
The first is Eleanor Roosevelt. Yes she served as First lady from March 1933 to April 1945 (the period of time in American history before the Constitution was amended to limit the president to two terms). She served as U.S. Delegate to the U.N. General Assembly from 1946 to 1952 and in 1961 and ’62, chaired the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women. Her term as First Lady transformed the position and literally transformed the nation.
A majority of Mrs. Roosevelt’s life was lived in the public eye. It’s a fascinating and uplifting story. Her life weaves in so much with the major accomplishments of women and the women’s movement that you’re sure to learn much. I recommend Blanche Wiesen Cook’s Eleanor Roosevelt Volume One and Two. She’s been working on the third for many years now. The first two volumes take us up to 1938. Cook’s writing flows naturally. Good stuff.
Mrs. Roosevelt was a great lady and did much for the women’s movement. She was an educated woman who, by the end of her life, had written thousands of newspaper columns, numerous books and had delivered thousands of speeches in person and via radio. Mrs. Roosevelt leveraged the content of her life into an international presence in newspaper and radio that had never been experienced in American politics by a man or woman.
This is some of the cool stuff of Cook’s two volumes.
So how does TV factor into the icon status of Eleanor Roosevelt? Within the realm of the internet, there’s not much footage of her. That which you find might be of her major speeches, either as First Lady or her U.N. work. News segments are either lost or still in vaults.
The George Washington University’s Department of History has a research center dedicated to Mrs. Roosevelt’s papers. There’s also a deep archive at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library. Truman State University has a collection of her correspondence.
But this little thing called YouTube has perhaps the most moving 4 minutes of video – of this woman whose strength and conviction was so apparent.
In 1959, Frank Sinatra hosted Mrs. Roosevelt on his TV show. This was three years or so before her death. She’s 75 at the time.
Yes, even at the age of 75, this woman remained at the forefront of American consciousness. She had earned all her stripes from a lifetime of public service AND there just weren’t that many other women with whom to compare her.
So in 1959, Frank had just released a song that would become one of his standards “High Hopes.” That song was adopted the following year, 1960 by the John Kennedy for President Campaign. That was back when songs were developed for campaigns. Now, campaigns just try to glom onto a work more famous than the person who is seeking office and hope – usually unsuccessfully - that those who hold the copyrights don’t notice.
In a heavily scripted segment, Frank teases her in the direction of the philosophy or value or observation of the power of hope.
This is the part of the little four minute segment, preserved now on the internet forever, where we get the sense that yes, this is a political ploy for JFK via his good friend Frank, but also that these were her words.
Okay, these were her words but she read them on cue cards. And remember, she was 75. When you heard this personal, thoughtful message straight from one of America’s most famous, accomplished, respected aren’t you just a bit uplifted?
Set up ant
This is the part where understanding Eleanor’s background comes in handy. Her schooling, her stature that her height – 6 feet tall held, her coal mine visits – to be the eyes and ears of the president, her strength…
Eleanor Roosevelt delivered many eloquent, moving speeches on behalf of causes domestic and international. She advocated for peace, education, housing and all the conditions of living which contribute to environments where children can be healthy and thrive. Those speeches are available in audio and even video format, but they were recorded not necessarily for TV.
This clip may have been a political favor to the Kennedy campaign on the part of both Mrs. Roosevelt AND Frank Sinatra, but I’d say that 57 years later, we continue to benefit from these four minutes of inspiration and strength of spirit, personified.
Now, on to another woman who contributed mightily to public discourse during her brief stint in the White House – so much so that men inside the White House put great pressure on President Gerald Ford to rein. Betty. In.
I will be me
With televisions present in pretty much every household in America – one if not two – but just before cable put the major broadcast networks to the test, there was this moment in time – it was supposed to be eight years long, called the Administration of President Richard Nixon.
This period in American HIStory is important to understand because it’s the full context and path that delivered Betty Ford, mother of four and wife of a congressman from Michigan, to the White House.
When elected in 1968 to be President, Richard Nixon had already served California as a congressman and US Senator. From 1953 until 1961, Nixon was vice president under Dwight Eisenhower. Nixon ran for president in 1968, this time against Hubert Humphrey. Nixon’s vice president was long time Maryland politician Spiro Agnew. It was 1968, the baby boom was coming of age. The world of politics felt the winds of change just like every other aspect of American life did.
Eventually, Vice President Agnew’s actions, during his Maryland years, came back to haunt him. As a seated vice president, he was charged with having accepted bribes while in office, in excess of $100,000 and ultimately pleaded no-contest to a lesser charge of unreported income during that time period.
Remember they didn’t get Al Capone for any of his heinous crimes, they put him away for tax evasion.
And behold, Vice President Agnew resigned under a cloud of scandal. Americans expected more ethical behavior from their public servants. President Nixon scanned the horizon and found the perfect replacement – hard working, affable, family man, World War II veteran – Congressman Gerald Ford from Michigan. Ford was sworn in as vice president on October 10, 1973.
He would serve as vice president until August 8, 1974, when he’d be sworn in as president upon Nixon’s resignation.
During this entire time, television news documented it all, the Fords (who presented a contrast in every way from the Nixons) and the brewing scandal of Watergate.
By the time Gerald, Betty and three sons and a daughter moved into the White House, the country was shaken to its core. At the same time, the economy was challenged by runaway inflation and the energy crisis. Change was afoot and this was not the time for national leadership to fail in its duty.
Ford began his first speech as president by saying that he was beholden to no party (Nixon, who would be considered a major league moderate Republican today, had pretty much besmirched the Republican party’s reputation) – he delivered what he called, “straight talk among friends” proclaiming that had not campaign for either the office of president or vice president, that he subscribed to no partisan platform, that he was indebted to no man and to only one woman - Betty.
President Ford and his family had walked through two doors to become the First Family. Americans – happy to have a fresh set of faces to look at – and this group smiled and appeared normal - quickly got to know them and like them, Betty in particular, who at the time was 56 years old.
No one sent Betty Ford a memo saying she had to be all prim like Pat Nixon, Lady Bird Johnson or Jackie Kennedy. They had all gotten the message early on in their husband’s presidential campaigns. Nope, when you you’re raising teenagers in the 70s, no one tells you what to think.
I’m a feminist
So again, just like with the rare video of Mrs. Roosevelt, there’s not a ton of video available on the internet about Betty Ford. The following are short audio clips derived from mainly TV news and interviews. They are almost exclusively found in a longer biographical profile that was produced by PBS upon Mrs. Ford’s passing in 2011.
It’s must see YouTube – for you and every woman in your life, old and young.
So while the selections may not hold great quantity, they hold incredible quality. Betty Ford was a FORCE and over time, quickly became comfortable with stating her own opinion. CBS’s 60 Minutes aired an interview with her conducted by Morley Safer. By then she had already made statements about the women’s movement, Roe Vs. Wade and a host of other social issues of the day.
There were only three major TV networks at the time. Needless to say, hip Mrs. Ford quickly faced public opinion that didn’t necessarily agree with her… something she had been spared by never by having been part of a national campaign.
But this was a woman who wasn’t going to back down. She and the president had been together too long. They had arrived at the White House as themselves and only saw a nation that clamored for candor and truth.
Again, view the PBS chronicle of Betty Ford’s life, or read any of her memoirs. This clip from the PBS show is from an interview with the Ford’s only daughter Susan, who was 17 when the Fords became First Family.
Within the world of TV exposure of First Ladies, Betty Ford hit a high mark that probably wasn’t matched again until Hillary Rodham Clinton became a high profile policy expert on health care reform during the first Clinton term. Prior to Betty’s candid interviews, America had heard and seen little of Pat, Lady Bird and Jackie. It was a lot of window-dressing and formality.
But Watergate changed all that. News organizations both print and TV embarked on even greater investigative reporting. There was a clarion call for transparency that took on a whole new tone when it
was reported that Mrs. Ford had been diagnosed with breast cancer. This wasn’t something the president could or should hide from the public.
It was a time when disease and medical details weren’t discussed openly by anyone, let alone a husband talking about his wife’s condition.
It is said that Betty Ford’s public battle with cancer, which she won – and lived to be 93 years old – caused widespread education about mammograms as the way to detect breast cancer in its earliest stages. At the time, breast cancer was the leading cause of death for women and mammogram technology was still considered relatively new.
In just being Betty Ford, she did what advertising and public service announcements couldn’t do. She called upon women to take responsibility for their health care by getting mammograms. Through this chapter of the Ford Administration, Betty’s approval ratings skyrocketed.
So there she was, a feminist voice, in the form of a mature woman within the establishment, who most Americans liked. The Fords as the breath of fresh air met the rigors of the 1976 presidential campaign trail. Even Betty’s appearance on a January 1976 episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show couldn’t shore up the lingering scent of Watergate and Ford’s pardon of Nixon and tough sledding of high gas prices, inflation and high interest rates.
But for a bit of context, Lou and Mary are in Washington DC for a journalists’ conference. Mary has a date with a low ranking congressman. Lou opts to have a few old friends over to his hotel room. Old friends, he tells Mary after her date, like Hubert (Humphrey and his good friend John Glenn), Eric Sevareid and Ethel Kennedy, who was driven home by the Fords.
Mar’ is not believing one word of this. Until the hotel phone rings.
TV herstory right here, folks. This was surely one of the first time appearances of a First Lady on a TV show that wasn’t the news or White House production.
For all the reasons noted above, Gerald Ford lost to Jimmy Carter, Governor of Georgia. Carter ran as a Washington outsider and America opted for that approach to leading the country to better days.
As a matter of fact, a hoarse, larangytic President Ford turned the microphone over to Betty to deliver his concession speech.
From Washington, the Fords relocated permanently to California. Both remained active and President Ford kept a busy travel schedule. Over those years, Betty grew more dependent on prescription pain killers and alcohol – to relieve arthritic pain and perhaps the sense of loneliness that came after those three crazy years.
A few years from removed the White House’s scrutiny, Betty Ford was about to re-enter the spotlight. This time, for treatment for her addiction. Here’s how she described it to Barbara Walters in an interview that aired around the time of the 1982 opening of The Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, California.
Mrs. Ford oversaw the residential treatment center’s development and became perhaps the most recognized face in America to serve as an advocate for treatment programs. Again, she was a national name appearing at conferences and fundraisers to educate, advocate for and help build a better future for those struggling with addiction. In a short period of time, Mrs. Ford helped remove the stigma of treatment and in developing the facility that bears her name, guided research into understanding the different approaches that work for men and women, separately.
Upon her death, presidential and American historians maintain that Betty Ford did more for public health and had a direct positive impact on the lives of more Americans than her husband and perhaps than almost any single lawmaker of recent memory.
There it is. We’ve heard some incredibly powerful statements spoken by two of our country’s most influential First Ladies, made possible by TV. I hope you share my respect for their candor, their hard work and their can-do spirit that they were so willing to share with the public.
These are two voices who gained strength through adversity. TV has left us with their inspiring voices. And within the context of the Women’s Movement, President Nixon can be credited with three gifts.
First, the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in Congress and his signature that initiated the ratification process of the states (which fell a few votes short, even with an extension).
Second, the implementation of Title IX, the education reform within his administration that ensured equal access to school programs and facilities, regardless of gender.
And third, by virtue of his vice president being shadier than was accepted in 1973 and Nixon’s own paranoid shortcomings that led to his resignation, the progressive, unfiltered, accessible Ford Family – with all its real life complexities - plunked down on the White House couch.
Wow! Thanks for hanging in there with me on this important installment of Advanced TV Herstory. Again, let me recommend the most definitive biography on Eleanor Roosevelt – the 2 volume set – with the third in the works – by Blanche Wiesen Cook. Cook tells Eleanor’s story from a woman’s perspective and really did her homework with these two volumes. That’s likely why the third is taking so long to publish. I confess I have never read a Betty Ford memoir or biography. I just like watching her TV clips.
Her hair and clothing was impeccable. She’s so unapologetic. Again the PBS segment documenting her life is a great resource. It can be found on YouTube, as can the Frank Sinatra Show which included Eleanor Roosevelt as a special guest.
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Background music you heard was a track called Phoenix from the album The Petrified. A tremendous work of Circus Marcus which can be found at www.Free Music Archive.org.
I’m your host, Cynthia Bemis Abrams. Thanks for listening!