Editors' Note: Guest blogger David Mixner is a former strategist and adviser to several presidential campaigns, including those for McGovern, Clinton, and Gephardt. He currently works as an activist for AIDS, LGBT rights, and wildlife.
America had never seen a First Lady quite like Betty Ford when her husband took the oath of office following the resignation of Richard Nixon. This former Martha Graham dancer from Michigan was totally open about her views, her family's lives and her own struggles with addiction. Taking her most vulnerable moments and turning them into a triumph is a story that should be passed down. Because of her willingness to get clean and sober and create the Betty Ford Rehab Center over 90,000 people have sought help in the facility. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she was open with her treatment, spurring many others to get early testing. The First Lady had always been willing to step in front of the crowd and give voice to those who were not be heard.
That was also the case with HIV/AIDS.
In 1985, with the exception of people like Senator Edward Kennedy, it was a rare person who would embrace the struggle of people with HIV/AIDS. Rock Hudson that year had announced he had the disease and it rocked Hollywood. AIDS Project Los Angeles was having its annual black tie Commitment to Life Dinner to raise money for the struggle. It had grown each year but still had difficulty involving Hollywood and Los Angeles society.
First Lady Betty Ford helped to break down that barrier.
Marylouise Oates, who was a society columnist for The Los Angeles Times was a longtime supporter of LGBT full equality and devoted to taking care of those with AIDS. She contacted her friend heiress Wallis Annenberg to see if she would be willing to CoChair the 1985 Commitment to Life Dinner knowing it would open new doors for the cause. Wallis, after some reflection, agreed to join the effort. The two of them thought that the perfect CoChair for Wallis would be First Lady Betty Ford. However, she was well known for refusing to do events except for her clinic. Nevertheless, Wallis agreed to call her Palm Springs friend.
Without hesitation, First Lady Betty Ford not only agreed to CoChair the dinner but also said she would be present for the evening. In 1985 to have someone of Betty Ford's caliber come to the AIDS Project Los Angeles Dinner was astounding. Most prominent political people wouldn't touch the issue and many wouldn't even touch people with HIV/AIDS. Her decision to join us in the battle against the epidemic was courageous, ground breaking and historic.
Because of her involvement, the event took on a new life. For the first time in AIDS Project Los Angeles history they raised over a million dollars in one night. Those in the room will never forget when First Lady Betty Ford rose that evening to the podium. The ovation and tears of gratitude seemed to last forever. As she stood that night among us, she gave us a dignity and respectability like no other person before her. Overwhelmed with the response she proceeded with a moving and humble speech that made us love her even more.
For all the accolades that the former First Lady richly deserves, I will never forget that she stood up against HIV/AIDS and helped us turn the corner. Thank you, Mrs. Ford.