Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton cleared their schedules so they could attend today’s memorial service for former First Lady Betty Ford. I sincerely hope Laura Bush, who occupied the White House after Clinton and before Obama, also makes an appearance — but I won’t be surprised if she does not.
Clinton and Obama are Democrats. Ford was a lifelong Republican, as are the Bushes. It should not matter, because the fraternity of ex-presidents (and, I would guess, the sorority of ex-first-ladies) is traditionally bipartisan. But this is such a polarized, hyper-partisan moment in political history that a failure by Bush to attend her forebear’s public goodbye will be seen, in many quarters, as a rejection of Betty Ford herself.
What a shame. Honest, down-to-earth and modest, despite both a privileged upbringing and youthful beauty that briefly made her a New York model, Betty Ford almost single-handedly vanquished the stigma that kept millions from addressing problems ranging from breast cancer to substance abuse. Any party lucky enough to have someone like her should count its blessings.
Yet the simple fact is that Betty Ford, lifelong Republican, would be relegated to the far fringes of her party today. She might even join the Log Cabin Republicans, where I hang out.
Imagine what Michele Bachmann or Sarah Palin would say about a Republican woman like Ford, who advocated for abortion rights or the ill-fated Equal Rights Amendment. Imagine what Mrs. Ford would say about today’s Republican-led efforts to circumvent and burden women’s constitutionally protected rights, recognized repeatedly by the Supreme Court, by defunding Planned Parenthood or by demanding that women submit to ultrasounds and propaganda lectures before they can obtain legal medical services.
The Fords represented an era when civil rights were not really a partisan topic. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed with more than 80 percent of Republicans voting in favor, in both the House and the Senate. Democrats, who in those days dominated the South, favored the bill by significantly smaller numbers. Contrast today’s controversies over same-sex marriage, in which Democrats greatly outnumber the small (but growing) group of Republican supporters, while many lawmakers in both parties silently wait for the courts to make the issue go away.
Women like Bachmann and Palin are too young to remember when abortion was illegal and women who could not, or would not, face an unwanted pregnancy sometimes died as a result. Abortion opponents are sincere, committed and mostly well-intentioned — points seldom acknowledged by pro-choice advocates — but they lack the experiences that a woman of Ford’s generation had. Growing up in early 20th century Michigan, the former First Lady would have known all too well what happened to “nice girls” who got “in trouble;” it was often the lucky ones who were merely sent away to have their babies in secret.
A generation of pro-choice Republicans is literally dying out, and their party has become too solidly identified with the anti-abortion agenda to let younger pro-choice citizens replace them. In varying degrees, this phenomenon repeats across the spectrum of issues that are often identified as “culture wars” today.
The Bush family epitomizes this shift. George H.W. Bush favored abortion rights as a congressman before shifting against them as he moved toward a bid for the GOP presidential nomination. His son, George W. Bush, presented a far more socially conservative public face. And W.’s wife, though reputedly less conservative than her husband, has carefully avoided contradicting his positions in public.
This would make Laura Bush’s absence from Ford’s service today look like a rejection of a woman with whom her in-laws are not particularly comfortable, especially since her mother-in-law, former First Lady Barbara Bush, also is not scheduled to attend. One can make allowances for the 86-year-old elder Bush, though Nancy Reagan, who just marked her 90th birthday this week, said she will be on hand at today’s event. Reagan, the oldest surviving First Lady, would thus be the only Republican president’s wife present.
Gerald Ford once described his political philosophy as “a moderate in domestic affairs, an internationalist in foreign affairs, and a conservative in fiscal policy.” He might not always have fully shared his wife’s views, but President Ford’s kind of Republicanism could be tolerant, respectful and inclusive.
They don’t make them like that anymore. Or if they do, they are making most of them Democrats.