by Maria Downs
In the fall of 1976 “Keep Betty’s husband in the White House” campaign buttons erupted all over the country—a tribute to a woman unknown to most Americans only three years earlier—and to her grace, candor and lack of pretension.
It was my good fortune to have been chosen by Mrs. Ford to serve as her White House social secretary. America’s Bicentennial in 1976 would soon be upon us—a time of numerous state visits when leaders came from around the world to honor our country. It also happened to be a presidential election year. The importance of the social side of the White House in accomplishing the goals of an administration was well known to both President and Mrs. Ford and fortunately entertaining was something the first lady relished.
It was also a time of great change for women in this country and Betty Ford was instrumental in getting women involved in White House policy and campaigning for the Equal Rights Amendment. She relished that, too. She was a caring boss who worked without a chief of staff giving generously of herself and her time to the individual needs of people who worked for her. When I commented that there seemed to be a reversal of roles, Mrs. Ford laughed and said, “Not to worry—I think you have the best job in the White House—I would be happy to swap.” Long before there was a Betty Ford Center she was looking after and helping people—a precursor of what was to come. We will miss this very special lady greatly.
Maria Downs is the Public Relations Director for the White House Historical Association.