Renowned political commentator Cokie Roberts honors Betty Ford

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LEGAL NEWS PHOTOS BY CYNTHIA PRICE

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Cokie Roberts, with fame, accolades and several New York Times best-sellers to her name, speaks to audiences as if she is swapping stories at the dinner table.

She is humble, humorous, and down-to-earth, despite the inesca-pable fact that she has been an insider at many of the events of the last several decades.

For example, Roberts told the crowd gathered to celebrate what would have been Betty Ford’s 87th birthday, that she has a volume of the Warren Commission report from her father, who served on it, inscribed, “To Cokie, with all my love, Daddy.”

Service on that commission, which was convened to investigate the assassination of President John F. Kenned, was just one of the ways her father, Rep. Hale Boggs, intersected with Gerald R. Ford.

At a time when  partisanship held less sway and civility was a cherished value, Representative-then-President Ford, a Republican, established a lasting friendship with Democrat Hale Boggs. When Ford was the House Majority Leader and Boggs the Minority Leader, they were able to set aside their ideological differences and their friendship grew.

Their families came to be close as well. In the past, Cokie Roberts has spoken of how helpful Betty Ford was when Hale Boggs was suddenly lost while flying over Alaska in 1972.

The representative’s wife, and Cokie’s mother, Lindy Boggs, also served in the U.S. Congress and after a long career there was appointed as  a U.S. Ambassador.

Roberts has also had a place at the current events table as a result of her chosen career: she is a journalist for both National Public Radio and ABC-TV, a syndicated columnist along with her husband Steven V. Roberts, and a best-selling author whose books include Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised our Nation and Our Haggadah: Uniting Traditions for Interfaith Families, with her husband as co-author.

She is also one of a small group of Americans — including such diverse figures as Cal Ripken Jr., Toni Morrison, and Katherine Graham —  designated as Living Legends by the Library of Congress.

Roberts has won numerous awards, including the Edward R. Murrow Award, the Everett McKinley Dirksen Award for coverage of Congress, and even an Emmy for her role in a documentary about Ross Perot.

At Frederik Meijer Gardens Wednesday, Roberts sang the praises of Betty Ford individually and first ladies in general.

The huge crowd was welcomed by Liesel Meijer, wife of Hank Meijer, who returned later to let people know that at each table one person had won the floral centerpiece, a recreation of 1970s arrangements, which the Meijers had donated.

After the meal, Dr. Judy Smith, Chief of the Spectrum Health Cancer Center, spoke briefly about the role Betty Ford had had in raising awareness about cancer as well as the first lady’s direct role in helping Spectrum provide over 70,000 life-saving mammograms in West Michigan.

“In 1974, she said two words in public that were rarely spoken,  which I think really changed us forever,” said Smith. “The two words were ‘breast’ and ‘cancer.’”

Then Doug DeVos, a board member of the Gerald R Ford Presidential Foundation which sponsored the commemorative celebration, gave a glowing introduction of Susan Ford Bales. He served with her on the commissioning committee for the new U.S.S. Gerald R. Ford, noting that she had really raised the bar for being a ship sponsor and knew everyone involved in the commissioning process from construction workers to captains. As a result, she was just last week given a rare honor, named an Honorary Naval Aviator by the Chief of Naval Operations — an honor only given to only 30 others, of whom she was the first woman.

Bales took the podium and spoke briefly in introduction to Cokie Roberts.

Though the two are 14 years apart in age, a large gap in childhood, they too have developed a friendship over the years. “Mom and Dad would share my big smile to be back together with a member of the Boggs family,” Bales said graciously. “The

special place Cokie holds in our family is unique.”

Roberts started out by saying that she feels the most important reason people like her father and President Ford were able to maintain friendships despite being “strong partisans” was that the women who came to Washington with their husbands understood that  they were “engaged in it together.”

That spirit was important to President Ford. Roberts said, “The last time I interviewed him, Ford said, ‘Cokie, what is wrong with Washington today?’ And what would happen if he saw it today?

“Not to mention the campaign trail...,” she added, which brought the first laughter of many during her remarks.

Roberts talked about Dolly Madison, the subject of some of the books she has written. James Madison’s wife became the First Lady at a time when partisan acrimony was widespread, so she set about creating social situations that brought people together and insisted the attendees remain civil. Roberts observed that although her contemporaries said it was impossible to tell at those functions who were her husband’s friendss and who were his enemies, “I’ve read her letters and she definitely did not like everyone.”

In addition, first ladies form a continuity between administrations that often gets overlooked. Roberts told of a conference in Africa about first ladies where Michelle Obama, whose husband was new to the office, declined to give a speech because she feared it would become a distraction from the focus of the conference, helping African women. She did agree to be interviewed on-stage along with Laura Bush, and Roberts was chosen as interviewer. When she asked Obama why she had agreed to the interview, the First Lady reached across for Laura Bush’s hand and said, “Because I love this lady.”

Roberts also focused on the long tradition of First Ladies espousing causes and using their influence to advocate for change, starting with Martha Washington.

Betty Ford’s enduring gift to the nation was reflected not only in her positive impacts on breast cancer, responsible for the national realization that screening was effective, but also in her even-braver admission that she battled prescription drug and alcohol abuse.

“After she was out of office — that’s the way first ladies say it, ‘after I was out of office’ — Betty stood on another podium, with Susan’s great help, as a crusader for those who are plagued by alcohol and drug dependence,” Roberts said. “I couldn’t get over how detailed her information was on all the stuff associated with that —  she was right up to date on everything until she died. Now Susan carries on that work just brilliantly.

“I’m so glad to be here with you today to honor that incredible legacy of integrity at the helm,” Roberts said in closing.