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NOTIONS: Writing to Betty Ford, wishing for another Jerry

January 8, 2007

Dear Mrs. Ford:

I'm sorry for your loss. I'm sorry, too, that you've had to bear your burden so publicly. Having lost my wife a few years ago, I know private sorrow is sufficient. The newly widowed ought not have to grieve with network cameras focused relentlessly upon them, hoping they'll sob just a bit for the viewers at home.

That said, I found it distressing that your lack of tears during your late husband's National Cathedral memorial service was portrayed by some as a sign of "strength" and "toughness." Such statements perpetuate the notion that tears are a sign of weakness.

I didn't cry at my late wife's service, either. But I hardly attribute that to strength. Jitters, perhaps. Or the aftershock of hearing, for too many years, about how "well" some bereaved soul is "holding up" by not choking up. But not strength.

On the contrary, at one point during your late husband's service, I saw former President Clinton weeping openly. I envy him the strength and toughness it takes to express emotions so freely.

Which brings me to the real reason for this letter, for I write not to discuss mourning in America, but to share some observations inspired by you, your late husband and your family.

We've never met, Mrs. Ford. And while I once photographed your husband from afar, I never met him, either.

But because you, President Ford and your family were such a breath of fresh air-especially in the wake of the secrecy and paranoia of the Nixon administration-I feel I know you.

Your daughter, Susan, is almost exactly my age, so I watched her as something of a peer as she came of age in the White House.

Like Susan, I was a budding photojournalist, so I celebrated the access your husband gave to photographer David Hume Kennerly, and studied his images of your administration with a passion.

And when I turned 18, I cast the first vote of my life, in the 1976 Indiana primary, for Gerald R. Ford. Having read recently of your husband's feelings about that election, I think you'll appreciate how that vote came about.

You see, I was much enamored of Jimmy Carter that year. But by the time Indiana's May primary rolled around, he had the Democratic nomination sewn up. So I used my vote in the Republican primary as a protest. I simply wasn't fond of Ronald Reagan's trying to wrest the nomination from a sitting president and wanted Indiana to help shut him down. So I pulled the Ford lever. (Full disclosure: I voted for Carter that fall.)

I recently read three books while on vacation. By chance, all touched on the notion of secrets, the impact on the keepers of those secrets, and the ripple effect on people in their lives and others far beyond.

Thus, when your husband died, I read and watched within that context many stories about your family, your White House years, and President Ford's posthumously revealed concerns about the current administration and the war in Iraq.

And having done so, I'm left with a mix of admiration, gratitude, regret and hope.

The admiration and gratitude spring from many sources:

The chutzpah it took to pardon Richard Nixon;

The even greater courage required to finally end the unwinnable Vietnam War and grant clemency to draft evaders and deserters;

Your willingness to go public with breast cancer and your long-standing work to keep that previously hush-hush issue on the public agenda;

Your advocacy of the Equal Rights Amendment;

Your public battle with an addiction to painkillers and alcohol and your conversion of that battle into a legacy that will long outlive you;

Your public discussion of drug use, sexuality and other swept-under-the-rug issues affecting your children and millions of others.

That you Midwestern, Republican, Fords Next Door experienced such things, had the guts to confront them, and were willing to broadly share with the rest of us-instead of worrying about the impact on your own reelection-was, well, refreshing.

My regrets, Mrs. Ford, are that you didn't get more time at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. to keep that candor going, and-more recently-that your husband's wise counsel against the war in Iraq wasn't heard or heeded by his former lieutenants before 3,000-and-counting Americans had to die for a questionable cause.

My hopes, Mrs. Ford, are these: that you will find peace and that the rest of us will soon find another Jerry Ford-someone with the chutzpah and candor to rescue us from our current quagmire, just as your husband was there 33 years ago to set ego aside and lift us from the follies of Watergate and Southeast Asia.



Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bhetrick@ibj.com.
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