Betty Ford was the last first lady to live a normal life before being thrust into the White House. Unimaginable as it is today, when the Fords were the second family in the land they lived in a modest home in suburban Virginia.
In those days there was no vice presidential mansion, no legions of staff and security, no armies of lobbyists whose special interests affected every decision from where the first family vacationed to tax policy.
And in many ways, we were a better country for it.
Our leaders were still connected to the people they governed, they were still real people who got sick, made mistakes, and aged. They weren’t people above us, they were us. Even the name "Betty," is an echo of an earlier time when life seemed simpler.
The White House was an eerily quiet place at the end of the Nixon years, since many of the president’s staff had been dismissed or resigned. Henry Kissinger’s small National Security Council staff, where I worked, remained intact, and Kissinger’s former deputy, Gen. Alexander Haig, was Nixon’s Chief of Staff. It was a small, insular group.
Gerald Ford was Nixon’s vice president, but he had never been elected to the job; he was confirmed by Congress to fill the position after Vice President Agnew resigned in disgrace.
He was the first person to assume the presidency without being elected by the nation.
He took up residence in the Oval Office at a time of national crisis and one that some feared could also become a possible constitutional crisis. Yet Ford did so armed with the common decency and common sense of the common people of America. There were no briefing papers, anxious aides, or poll results to guide him and his family.
It was that same common decency and common sense that was on view later in his presidency as his wife Betty Ford went public about her battle with breast cancer and even later, the revelation about her addiction to alcohol and prescription drugs.
Her candor came in a time before "Oprah" and the public confessional, when people suffered in silence about health issues and personal tragedies.
When First Lady Betty Ford told the world she had breast cancer, people were stunned, but women all across the country started performing breast self-examinations and went for checkups. Countless women’s lives were no doubt saved, including Happy Rockefeller, the wife of the newly confirmed vice president.
Betty Ford did the same thing, all over again when she sought treatment for her addictions and later founded the Betty Ford Clinic.
Somehow if an honest and straightforward couple like the Fords could deal with Betty’s illness, so could everyone else.
When the Fords spoke to the American people about these taboo subjects, breast cancer, substance abuse, the American people believed them, because they spoke from the heart – without TelePrompters, or a legion of speechwriters or spinmeisters.
In reflecting on Betty Ford’s passing, and the passing of a time when politicians were people first, my mind kept coming back to the scene a few weeks ago in New York.
President Obama and his family were in the city to see a Broadway play and have dinner. Park Avenue was cordoned off to all traffic -- cars and people -- for over an hour.
You couldn’t cross the street to get from the East side of town to the West side, because police and cement barriers and dogs and sharpshooters lined the way. When the Obama motorcade finally sped by, you could catch a glimpse of the first family sitting in the back of the bulletproof limo, chatting away, seemingly oblivious to the common folk stuck on the sidewalks.
It’s not the Obama’s fault, of course, but a symptom of the times in which we live.
But it does seem a far cry from the image of Betty Ford making dinner and gathering the family around the table the night to say grace before setting off in the morning with her husband as he prepared to take the oath of office to become president of the United States.
Kathleen Troia "K.T." McFarland is a Fox News National Security Analyst and host of FoxNews.com's DefCon 3. She is a Distinguished Adviser to the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and served in national security posts in the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations. She wrote Secretary of Defense Weinberger’s November 1984 "Principles of War Speech" which laid out the Weinberger Doctrine. Be sure to watch "K.T." every Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET on FoxNews.com's "DefCon3"-- already one of the Web's most watched national security programs.