By Bill Minor
JACKSON – Betty Ford’s funeral service two weeks ago was an exquisite example of comity across party lines and genuine inter-political friendships under Washington’s Capitol Dome that has sadly disappeared in today’s brawling cauldron at the apex of the nation’s governance.
At the top of Mrs. Ford’s list of eulogists at her funeral was another former First Lady, none other than Rosalynn Carter, wife of Jimmy Carter, the Democrat who defeated Gerald Ford for the presidency in 1976.
The two First Ladies became warm friends over the years, long before former President Ford’s death in 2006. Remember, of course, Ford was a Midwestern Republican and former President Carter was a Southern Democrat.
It also must be noted that another of Betty Ford’s pre-chosen eulogists was Cokie Boggs Roberts, an ABC political commentator and NPR analyst, whose affinity with Mrs. Ford stemmed from a long-ago congressional across-the-aisle friendship between Democratic Congressman Hale Boggs of Louisiana and Republican Congressman Gerald Ford of Michigan.
Boggs, Cokie Roberts’ father, had been House Majority leader in much of the 1960s. He died in 1972 when his private plane went down on a snow-capped Alaskan mountain. Ford became House Minority leader the late 1960s. In 1972, he was elevated to the vice-presidency by President Nixon when V-P Spiro Agnew, facing criminal conviction for bribery as Maryland’s governor, resigned. Then when Nixon, facing Senate conviction in the Watergate scandal, resigned in 1974, Ford became the nation’s first un-elected president.
Roberts’ mother, Lindy Boggs, won a special election to succeed Hale and held the Louisiana congressional seat for 10 years. The Boggs-Ford bond grew even stronger as the children of the two families happily used the U.S. Capitol as a playhouse, Cokie recalled in her eulogy.
(I didn’t know Hale Boggs personally, but he was a close reader of mine in my days as The (N.O.) Times-Picayune Mississippi correspondent. His family for years owned one of the mansions on the beach at Pass Christian where he more or less grew up. When Hurricane Camille devastated much of the Gulf Coast in 1969, Boggs sent me a long telegram recommending what Gov. John Bell Williams (formerly his House colleague) needed to do for Coast recovery. Williams, who for three weeks headquartered 24/7 at the Air Guard base in Gulfport, shrugged off Boggs’ proposals.)
As an ABC TV reporter, Roberts remembered interviewing President Ford several years before his death, and when the cameras were turned off, Ford lamented that Congress was no longer a place like the days when he and Hale Boggs – leaders of opposite parties – could slip away, sit down to have a drink, argue their different points of view, then leave arm-in-arm back to the great domed Capitol. If Gerald Ford was upset about the lack of comity on the Hill back in 1998 during the reign of Newt Gingrich et al, he must be twisting in his Michigan grave while Eric Cantor and Michele Bachman make a mockery of friendly partisan rivalry.
Back in the 1960s, the Kennedys were anathema to Mississippians. But behind the scenes in D.C., crusty Sen. Jim Eastland and Attorney Geneal Bobby Kennedy were big friends – so much so that RFK got Big Jim to convince Gov. Ross Barnett in May, 1961 to provide National Guard protection for the first “Freedom Rider” bus to arrive in Mississippi.
But 16 months later when Barnett’s showdown with the Kennedys over James Meredith’s enrollment at Ole Miss neared explosion, Eastland backed off advising Barnett. Asked by me if he would accompany RFK to Oxford, the cagey old senator said: “I told him I would go with him as far as Memphis.”
Columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at firstname.lastname@example.org.