Goodbye to Betty Ford and Cy Twombly
Most of the time First Ladies don’t get the credit they deserve. They may get the first in the designation, but history tends to judge them as second to their husbands, as if they were footnotes.
Eleanor Roosevelt wasn’t a footnote. Mary Todd Lincoln wasn’t a footnote. Lady Bird Johnson wasn’t a footnote. Jacqueline Kennedy wasn’t footnote.
For sure, Betty Ford wasn’t a footnote.
Her death at 93, widow of Gerald Ford, the country’s only appointed president who died in 1996, reminds us of the idea of legacy, of her vivid personality, of her humane and human qualities. Ford, a high-ranking Republican, was picked by the embattled Richard Nixon, entangled in a Watergate scandal that would lead to his resignation, to become his vice president after Spiro Agnew left in his own scandal.
After all the Watergate turmoil, the Fords were like a breath of fresh air, real people, and solid as breakfast. Gerald Ford exuded normalcy and strength, Betty Ford seemed like a down-to-earth wife. Along with their son and daughter, they exuded a spirited confidence and a recognizable sort of family and mother who happened to now live in the White House, as opposed to a suburb, a town, a place like Alexandria where they had lived before.
Betty Ford had style, and she had substance, and she had her views and stances, and she talked about them, and she had her troubles, and she talked about those, too. She talked about her breast cancer, and later, after Ford lost the narrowest of elections to Jimmy Carter in 1976, she had a rough bout with alcohol, which she later opened about. Her honesty, her championing of treatment for alcoholism and addictions would result in the Betty Ford Center, one of the pioneering rehabilitation centers which are now so commonplace that the word rehab, sometimes linked to her name, often not, are a part of daily conversation.
She was no Jackie—although she had plenty of dazzle and style of her own as a point in fact. She had other things on her mind, since after all, she was quite a political asset to her husband who had a lengthy career in the House of Representatives going back to the 1940s. They complimented each other is what they did, and her obvious affection and enduring love for him added some allure to his persona. Ford, when he became vice president and then president, became something of an object of fun-making on the emergent Saturday Night Live where comedian Chevy Chase regularly lampooned his supposed clumsiness and his football days. He was the object of two failed and bungled assassination attempts by female would-be killers no less, one of them a former member of the Manson family.
Yet, the Fords persisted in the White House, allowed the nation to take a deep breath after the long nightmare of Watergate, and even survived Ford’s controversial pardon of Nixon. And here’s something that Betty Ford accomplished because when she talked people listened. She raised breast cancer awareness but more than that she spoke frankly, with grace and honesty about her family, about sex, about abortion and other rising issues of the time in a way that had not been heard from previous first ladies.
She did something else: the obvious bond between Ford and her husband made him larger. It made the jibes nothing more than they were – jokes which he laughed at himself – even though he might not have appreciated them that much. She had, after all, picked him, a classy, smart, elegant woman of intelligence and humor. All these qualities became her and were transferred to him and gave him grace so that in the end, after their bitter and narrow defeat, they endured as a presidential couple who shared a lasting love, and left the presidency better than the way they found it.
Cy Twombly, who died at the age of 82 recently, was what you could honestly call an important American artist, the kind of figure that the American art world periodically produces and certainly needs. He was also controversial in that if you entered a museum showing of his works you could get an argument started about the value and merit of his work without too much effort.
He wasn’t beyond category since people, writers, admirers and non-fans often tried to bag him into an ism: neo-expressionism, abstract expressionism, even pop-ism, if you will, and he was often compared to others: De Koonig, Pollock, etc., etc. etc. One critic who was not a fan lumped him into the dada camp. He was perhaps too much written and talked about in his times, not so much over-rated as rated over and over again to the point of distraction.
I’d say he was one of a kind, mysterious, paintings full of sharp, swirly lines, and in later days after he moved to Rome, full of words, too, scribbles that seemed to require some explanation, as if they were captions written not in this century but some other times.
To many he was a titan, to others in today’s parlance, not so much. The nice thing when it comes to Twombly was that he didn’t give a hoot what they were saying in New York. He was never a fad, but his work could be maddening and moving all at once.
A major retrospective at the National Gallery of Art a number of years ago proved to this writer to be alternatingly light and sometimes, quite often in fact, haunting. I think it’s as if the lines, the mind and Twombly’s vision turned way backward, the painter getting a whiff of thousand-year-old dust and grains of sand, dried blood, and ancient stories. I could have done without the words, and because of the haunting aspects, the lightness was sometimes unbearable.
Titan? Not for me to say. We can always look again, and then again, and that’s where we’ll find him, like a fragment from “The Iliad.”