Washington Sure Could Use Betty Ford Now

Last Updated Jul 14, 2011 9:29 PM EDT

It's too bad Betty Ford is no longer with us. She might be just the person to bring our national politicians to order, or to an after-hours party.

Cokie Roberts noted in her regular appearance on NPR's Morning Edition that Mrs. Ford had arranged for her to be one of the speakers at her funeral. Mrs. Ford also dictated the topic of her eulogy â€" recall the times when politicians on both sides of the aisle met and mingled as friends. Ms. Roberts herself is the daughter of politicians of that same era â€" Hale Boggs and Lindy Boggs who succeeded him upon his death, and noted that Mrs. Ford's request seems almost prescient, given the stalled status of debt ceiling negotiations.

When her husband became president in 1974, upon the resignation of Richard Nixon, her public persona blossomed. She spoke out for the Equal Rights Amendment, spoke frankly about sexual mores (hers and her daughter's) and more importantly after suffering breast cancer addressed it openly.

Then after President Ford had left office, she went public with her addiction to painkillers and alcohol and helped establish a rehabilitation clinic in Palm Springs that bears her name. Betty Ford was a strong advocate for issues in which she believed it.

One principle to which she adhered is the necessity of understanding the person behind the politician, hence her assignment to Ms. Roberts.

The era of bi-partisanship

In Mrs. Ford's days, working across the aisle was not viewed as capitulation. While both parties argued, they did not vilify the other side as nastily as parties do today. The reasons for the lack of comity are many, including the necessity of fundraising that requires politicians to cultivate base voters who are the most passionate in their causes. The other reason is that too many in public office seek it only to turn their back on it.

The irony of political office today is that it cost millions to run and win an election but the preferred method of continuing in office is to repudiate what you have just done, e.g. get elected. There is no respect by congressmen for the office they hold, and so they stay in Washington only as required, three days a week generally. Worse, they never take the time to know one another. After all, it's easier to vilify whom you don't know and don't care about.

What would Betty Ford do?

So taking a cue from Betty Ford, what can President and leaders of Congress do? The easy answer is to negotiate as citizens rather than as partisans.

It is time for both sides to consider the person across the aisle as an elected official, one who represents the views of his or her constituency. Partisans never agree with their opposites but citizens do.

Partisanship plays a role in shaping ideas but elected officials have a greater responsibility â€" to act for the national good. As Mrs. Ford knew well, it does no good to posture for the cameras if you cannot do what is right for others.

Related:


image courtesy of flickr user, dbking