Commentary Politics

How Betty Ford’s Death Illustrates What Has Been Lost in Our Political Culture

Carole Joffe

Betty Ford’s tenure as First Lady was the last time in American politics someone in that role could inspire bi-partisan admiration—even while expressing her own political views. Her passing reminds us of what has been lost in our political culture.

       How much I appreciated your gracious letter telling of plans for the Western Regional Conference on Abortion and inviting me to attend.

      Although my upcoming personal and official commitments will not permit me to be with you,  I am grateful for this opportunity to convey my warmest greetings to all attending and my hopes for the success of the Conference.

So wrote Betty Ford, in February 1976, to the organizers of one of the first medical conferences on abortion to take place in the U.S. after the Roe v Wade decision in 1973—a message that would have been inconceivable for any of the Republican First Ladies that followed her.  What Betty Ford said publically about abortion and what subsequent Republican women in that role could not, speaks both to the spirited and independent character of the former, who died on July 8 at age 93, and to the sea change in American politics that was to shortly come with the rise of the Religious Right and the role of abortion as that movement’s leading wedge issue.

But even in 1976, a newly emerged Right to Life movement was making clear that presidential candidates would be accountable for their positions on abortion, which had been legalized in 1973 with the Roe v Wade decision.   And President Gerald Ford, running for his first election to the office (after taking over from the disgraced Richard Nixon in 1974) was under attack from antiabortion forces for his “waffling” views on the subject, arguing that  Roe v Wade went too far, and  that the abortion issue should be left to individual states.  In contrast, his wife at that time publically reaffirmed her full support of Roe, stating in a television interview  that the decision took the issue “out of the backwoods and put [it] in the hospital where it belongs. “

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To be sure, it was not only on the topic of abortion that Betty Ford was outspoken. Again, in a way that would be unimaginable for later Republican First Ladies, she identified as a feminist, supported the ERA, and spoke frankly about the realities of premarital sex.  Of course, not all her views were, in today’s terms, “liberal”—she was a strong supporter of the Vietnam War, for example. And the admiration she drew from the public—the New York Times in its obituary stated she was among the most popular of all First Ladies—transcended conventional politics.   It was her candor about her struggle with breast cancer, at a time when the disease was rarely spoken of publically, and even more courageously, her public acknowledgement of her struggle with alcohol and prescription drug abuse (which led to the founding of the Betty Ford Center for treatment of chemical dependency) that arguably is the main source of such lasting affection from the American people.

And what of Betty Ford’s Republican successors as First Ladies?  Did they speak as freely as she did? On the abortion issue, there is reason to believe that all of the women in question—Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, and Laura Bush—were to varying degrees prochoice (as indeed, privately, may have been all their husbands), but all these women felt constrained from speaking frankly. Nancy Reagan’s views are perhaps the most ambiguous, but Lou Cannon, Ronald Reagan’s biographer, has written that while the latter was governor of California, both his wife and father-in-law supported the California Therapeutic Abortion bill signed in 1967. In his memoir the late Donald Regan,  Reagan’s chief of staff during his presidency, quoted Nancy Reagan as saying privately to him, “I don’t give a damn about the right to lifers.” The views of Barbara and Laura Bush are much clearer. The latter in a memoir published after her husband’s presidency stated her support of Roe v Wade.  The former, in the summer of 1992, while her husband was campaigning for reelection, even stated her belief that abortion and homosexuality were “personal choices” that should be left out of politics—though whether this was a case of Barbara Bush acting in a moment of genuine independence  or in a calculated move to draw in support of the rapidly diminishing moderates in the Republican party remains debatable.

What is not debatable is that Betty Ford’s tenure as First Lady was the last time in American politics that someone in that role could inspire bi-partisan admiration—even while expressing her own political views. American politics has become so polarized, and the culture wars so fierce, that First Ladies can only be broadly liked if they suppress their own views on controversial matters. Betty Ford’s passing reminds us of what has been lost in our political culture.

Roundups Politics

Justice Scalia’s Death Separates Presidential Candidates on Supreme Court Nominations

Ally Boguhn

Saturday night’s Republican presidential debate, hosted by CBS News in South Carolina, took place just a few hours after news broke of Scalia’s death, offering a chance for the GOP to weigh in on the matter.

The unexpected death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia on Saturday reinvigorated an ongoing push among presidential candidates to address how they would handle Court nominations should they be elected.

Saturday night’s Republican presidential debate, hosted by CBS News in South Carolina, took place just a few hours after news broke of Scalia’s death, offering a chance for the GOP to weigh in on the matter. When moderator John Dickerson prompted the candidates to speak about what they thought should happen next, most asserted that the president should not make a new nomination, and instead leave the matter up to his successor.

Donald Trump fielded the first question on the topic, telling Dickerson that if he were president, he would “certainly want to try and nominate a justice” given the opportunity, but that the Senate should work to block whomever President Obama put forward.

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Trump went on to pitch the nominations of conservative federal judges Diane Sykes and Bill Pryor for the vacancy, both of whom have expressed anti-choice sentiments in the past.

Sykes, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, once sympathized with anti-choice protesters whom she sentenced to 60 days in jail for blocking access to a clinic, saying of those charged, “I do respect you a great deal for having the courage of your convictions and for the ultimate goals that you sought to achieve by this conduct.” Her nomination to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals was opposed by a number of reproductive health advocates, including NARAL Pro-Choice America, the National Abortion Federation, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

Pryor is a judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. As Gabriel Roth explained for Slate, Pryor’s appointment to the federal appeals court was originally blocked by Senate Democrats, “who cited his description of Roe v. Wade as ‘the worst abomination in the history of constitutional law,’” before George W. Bush subsequently “installed him in a recess appointment, bypassing the confirmation process.”

Trump has so far refused to say outright whether he would only nominate judges to the Supreme Court who would overturn Roe v. Wade, though he has argued that the landmark Supreme Court decision left the country “sliding toward a culture of death.”

The death of Scalia has also prompted Trump to speculate about the conspiracy theories being popularized by some conservative media outlets. On Monday, the host of radio show The Savage Nation alleged in an interview with Trump that Scalia’s death happened “under suspicious circumstances,” asking Trump whether he thought the justice had been “murdered.” Trump responded that while he couldn’t provide a definitive answer to whether he thought Scalia was murdered, he had “just heard” that “they found a pillow on [Scalia’s] face, which is a pretty unusual place to find a pillow.”

As Vox explained, “While the circumstances of Scalia’s death were somewhat unusual—he was pronounced dead over the phone—there’s little out of the ordinary about a 79-year-old man whose doctor reportedly said he had ‘several chronic conditions’ dying in his sleep.” Vox also pointed out that further reporting suggested the pillow was between Scalia’s head and the headboard.

The primary concern of Sen. Ted Cruz (TX) when it came to Scalia’s death was that it could endanger abortion restrictions across the country. “We are one justice away from a Supreme Court that will strike down every restriction on abortion adopted by the states,” Cruz told viewers at the debate. 

“The Senate needs to stand strong and say we’re not going to give up the U.S. Supreme Court for a generation by allowing Barack Obama to make one more liberal appointee,” Cruz added.

Cruz had noted his belief that Scalia should be replaced by the next president in a tweet earlier that night, in which he called Scalia an “American hero” and claimed that “we owe it to him” to ensure that Obama doesn’t decide who is nominated for the Court.

Following the debate, Cruz claimed that Trump could not be trusted to pick a Supreme Court justice. An ad released Monday by the Cruz campaign titled “Supreme Trust” featured footage of Trump in a 1999 interview on Meet the Press in which he called himself “very pro-choice.” The ad warned, “We cannot trust Donald Trump with these serious decisions” on “life, marriage [and] religious liberty.”

That same day, Cruz vowed when speaking with reporters in South Carolina to make the 2016 presidential election a “referendum” on the Supreme Court, claiming, according to Politicothat “Donald said his extreme, abortion-supporting sister [Maryanne Trump Barry, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit] would make a terrific Supreme Court Justice. If the people of South Carolina care about their constitutional rights, we’re one justice away from the Supreme Court writing the Second Amendment out of the Bill of Rights.”

Trump had already told ABC’s This Week on Sunday that he had been joking when he said last August that his sister would be a “phenomenal” choice for the Court, noting that it was “obviously a conflict” of interest for him.

Cruz has made a point of campaigning on a promise to nominate conservative justices to the Supreme Court. “Unlike the very fine individuals on that debate stage, I will be willing to spend whatever political capital is necessary, and sir I give you my word, every justice I put on that court will be a principled constitutionalist jurist with a proven record who will be faithful to the law and will not legislate from the bench,” Cruz said at a January campaign stop in Iowa, according to ThinkProgress.

During the debate, Ohio Gov. John Kasich said he wished “we hadn’t run so fast into politics” after the justice’s death, but nevertheless continued that Obama “should not move forward” with a nomination for replacement.

“I really wish the president would think about not nominating somebody. If you were to nominate somebody, let’s have him pick somebody that’s going to have unanimous approval, and such widespread approval across the country that this could happen without a lot of recrimination,” said Kasich. “I don’t think that’s going to happen, and I would like the president just to for once here put the country first.”

Earlier that evening, Kasich had released an initial statement on Scalia’s death that took no stance on whether Obama should nominate a replacement, instead focusing on what he deemed a “serious loss to our nation and the Court.”

Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-FL) statement at the debate on Scalia’s passing also expressed condolences. Rubio has noted before that it is the “next president” who should nominate Scalia’s successor, a claim that Rubio reiterated later during the debate.

“I do not believe the president [Obama] should appoint someone,” said Rubio. “And it’s not unprecedented. In fact, it’s been over 80 years since a lame-duck president has appointed a Supreme Court justice.”

PolitiFact later rated Rubio’s assertion that Obama’s nomination would lack precedence “mostly false,” explaining that President Ronald Reagan had nominated Justice Anthony Kennedy during Reagan’s second term and confirmed Kennedy during Reagan’s final year in office.

Rubio told the Christian Broadcasting Network in December that nominating judges to the Supreme Court will be “one of the biggest things the next president is going to do,” elaborating that the Court would need justices who understood that “there is no way that you can read that Constitution and deduce from it that there is a constitutional right to an abortion.”

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush dismissed the notion during the debate that it wasn’t within Obama’s rights to pick a new member of the Court. “Of course, the president … has every right to nominate Supreme Court justices,” Bush said.

However, Bush expressed doubts that the president could find a replacement who would be approved by the consensus in the Senate.

“I’m an Article II guy in the Constitution,” Bush said, referencing the portion of the document that grants a president executive power. “We’re running for the president of the United States. We want a strong executive for sure. But in return for that, there should be a consensus orientation on that nomination, and there’s no doubt in my mind that Barack Obama will not have a consensus pick when he submits that person to the Senate.”

Bush doubled down on that stance Sunday during an appearance on CNN’s State of the Union. Speaking with network host Dana Bash, Bush again acknowledged that the president was fully within his rights to nominate a justice at any point during his term. “That’s his prerogative, he has every right to do it,” the presidential candidate said, before noting that “the Senate has every right to not confirm that person.”

“Given his choices of Supreme Court justices in the past, the Senate of the United States should not confirm someone who is out of the mainstream,” Bush concluded.

While Democrats expressed their condolences upon learning of the death of Scalia, they also condemned members of the GOP for claiming it would be inappropriate for Obama to move forward with nominating a new justice.

“My thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends of Justice Scalia as they mourn his sudden passing. I did not hold Justice Scalia’s views, but he was a dedicated public servant who brought energy and passion to the bench,” said Hillary Clinton in a Saturday evening statement.

“The Republicans in the Senate and on the campaign trail who are calling for Justice Scalia’s seat to remain vacant dishonor our Constitution. The Senate has a constitutional responsibility here that it cannot abdicate for partisan political reasons,” continued Clinton’s statement. 

Later that night, Clinton elaborated, addressing GOP legislators’ intention to block or delay a Supreme Court nominee. “Barack Obama is president of the United States until Jan. 20, 2017, and that is a fact, my friends, whether the Republicans like it or not,” Clinton told the crowd while speaking at a Democratic dinner in Denver, Colorado, according to the Huffington Post. “Elections have consequences.”

“Some might say that a confirmation process would take too long for this president to complete during his remaining days in office,” said Clinton. “But the longest successful confirmation in the past four decades was Clarence Thomas, and that took roughly 100 days,” she continued, pointing out that the president has substantially more time than that left in office.

Speaking in East Las Vegas, Nevada on Sunday, Clinton discussed the importance of appointing a new justice given that the Court has agreed to review the case against Obama’s expansion of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) program.

“In the Supreme Court, because of his passing, there will most likely be a tie, four-to-four, on important issues that affect so many people in our country. And the most important is the decision about President Obama’s actions” under these programs, Politico reported Clinton as saying.

“In the case of the decision regarding DACA and DAPA, if there is no new justice appointed, then as with other cases before the court, the decision that was decided will stay in place” in the case of a tie, the former secretary of state continued, referring to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision to pause Obama’s actions on immigration. “And that was a bad decision, I disagreed with it, I don’t think it was the right legal interpretation, I believe President Obama had the authority to do what he did.”

“While I differed with Justice Scalia’s views and jurisprudence, he was a brilliant, colorful and outspoken member of the Supreme Court,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) said Saturday in a brief statement expressing his condolences to Scalia’s loved ones. “My thoughts and prayers are with his family and his colleagues on the court who mourn his passing.”

Later that night, Sanders joined Clinton in criticizing Republicans for speaking out against the president’s intent to nominate a replacement for Scalia.

“It appears that some of my Republican colleagues in the Senate have a very interesting view of the Constitution of the United States,” Sanders said in Denver, according to an ABC News report. “Apparently they believe that the Constitution does not allow a Democratic president to bring forth a nominee to replace Justice Scalia. I strongly disagree with that.”

Commentary Abortion

Star Parker, CURE Exploit Gosnell Case to Promote Debunked ‘Black Genocide’ Narrative

Imani Gandy

On Tuesday, Star Parker is hosting a Gosnell pearl clutchathon, during which she will promote virulent, racist, and untrue facts about abortion in the Black community, with the help of far-right white conservatives like John Ashcroft and Ed Meese.

On Tuesday, Star Parker, founder and president of the Center for Urban Renewal and Education (CURE), along with several anti-choice organizations, will hold a press conference to discuss the impact of the Kermit Gosnell case on Black America, in what will surely be yet another opportunity for the “fetus first” crowd to wring their hands and feign concern about the plight of Black Americans.

The Gosnell lawsuit fallout has been a boondoggle for fetus enthusiasts. The fact that Gosnell is Black and that he was serving a predominantly Black community has led to the expected rhetorical boxing match: Anti-choicers cast Planned Parenthood as monstrous perpetrators of Black genocide who have set up shop in “the ‘hood” to ethnically cleanse Black people out of existence, while those of us who reside in the reality-based world counterpunch with facts and statistics about how, in fact, only one in ten abortion clinics are located in predominantly Black communities.

Black genocide simply isn’t a thing that is happening in the United States, though this meme has been floating around anti-choice circles for years. White anti-choice organizations failed to make it stick, so they enlisted a handful of Black folks to help spread the message in the Black community in what Paris Hatcher, director of Spark Reproductive NOW, calls “tokenized leaders within a White movement floating an agenda.”

Who better to float the white anti-choice agenda than Star Parker, with a helpful assist from white-backed anti-choice organizations like Protecting Black Life (which is a front for the very white and very conservative Life Issues Institute, founded by Dr. Jack Willke). After all, Parker used to be one of those “welfare queens” that President Reagan warned everyone about, before she reinvented herself as a conservative author and speaker and president of an organization purportedly dedicated to “jumpstarting a national dialogue on race and poverty.”

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Remember when Ann Coulter claimed “our Blacks are better than their Blacks?” Star Parker is one of those “good Blacks.” She’s so good, that in her capacity as president of an “urban renewal” organization, she dutifully parrots lies popularized by conservative white anti-choicers. Here’s Parker writing for Town Hall, with commentary appended:

According to the Centers for Disease Control, blacks accounted for 35.4 percent of abortions performed in 2009, despite representing, according to the 2010 census, just 13.6 percent of the US population.

Let’s not be deluded that this is an accident.

Analysis of 2010 census data by an initiative called Protecting Black Life shows that 79 percent of Planned Parenthood abortion clinics are located in walking distance of minority neighborhoods – 62 percent within 2 miles of primarily black neighborhoods and 64 percent of Hispanic/Latino neighborhoods. [The claim that most abortion clinics are in Black and Latino neighborhoods is false and does not become more true the more you repeat it. -Ed.]

Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider, systematically targets minority women for abortion. [No it doesn’t. -Ed.]


In 1957, Mike Wallace interviewed Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, and asked her if she believed in sin.

Sanger, whose racist and eugenicist views are well documented, replied, “I believe the biggest sin in the world is parents bringing children into the world that have disease from their parents, that have no chance in the world to be a human being practically. Delinquents, prisoners, all sorts of things just marked when they are born.” [The “Margaret Sanger was a racist and eugenicist” canard has been debunked, repeatedly. Stop it. -Ed.]

It is a sign of these dismally confused times that it was our first black president, Barack Obama, who, last week, became the first sitting American president to address Planned Parenthood.

In his address, the President did not use the word “abortion” once, nor was there a single reference to the current trial and murder charges against Philadelphia abortion Doctor Kermit Gosnell. [Abortions comprise 3 percent of the health services that Planned Parenthood offers; moreover, Gosnell’s clinic does not represent the sort of abortion care that is legal or that Planned Parenthood (or any pro-choice activists, for that matter) supports or offers. -Ed.]

You’d think he was addressing Ronald McDonald House, not an organization that provided 333,964 abortions last year, disproportionately on black women. [Or you’d think he was addressing an organization that provides much-needed and overwhelmingly not-abortion-related health-care services to communities, including low-income Black communities, that desperately need such services because of conservative economic and social policies. -Ed.]

President Obama, you see, doesn’t care about Black women or the plight of Black urban America. Star Parker and her “urban renewal” organization, on the other hand, do. Or so they would have you believe. A review of CURE’s advisory board roster, however, tells a different story.

John Ashcroft—yes, that John Ashcroft—is on CURE’s advisory board. John Ashcroft is well-known for being the songbird attorney general during the Bush administration who taught Americans how to properly fear Muslims. Before that, however, Ashcroft served as attorney general for the state of Missouri, where he bravely fought tooth and nail to keep St. Louis and Kansas City schools segregated. So bravely did he fight against school desegregation, that the official supervising the racial integration plan called him “obstructionist.” In addition, Harvard professor Gary Orfield said that Ashcroft “had no positive vision and constantly stirred up racial divisions” over the issue, ultimately calling Ashcroft “an unrelenting opponent of doing anything in St. Louis.” A man who opposes “doing anything” in underserved communities is just the sort of guy we need to help poverty-stricken urban areas, wouldn’t you agree?

Ed Meese, emeritus fellow for the Heritage Foundation (well-known for its work in fighting racial and social injustice) also sits on CURE’s advisory board. Meese, you may recall, was Reagan’s attorney general. Meese famously tried to convince Reagan to block the extension of the Voting Rights Act. And later, Meese actually convinced Reagan to grant tax exempt status to Bob Jones University, a school that proudly practiced racial discrimination and refused to allow interracial dating on campus until 2000. With such pro-Black bona fides, of course Ed Meese is the perfect person to develop social policies that will help urban minorities.

And then there’s Michael Medved, the Grand Wizard of the advisory board. Medved subscribes to the most virulent white supremacist theory about genetics and intelligence. Back in 2007, Medved explained that Black Americans simply didn’t display the sort of risk-taking that European immigrants did when they journeyed to the United States. I reckon Black folks were just too stupid to not get themselves snatched up by white slave traders. He also seems to think that slavery wasn’t that bad because, essentially, a dead slave is a useless slave—a position that ought to endear him in the hearts of the urban Black folks that CURE claims it wants to help.

Ashcroft, Meese, and Medved are but a handful of the conservabros that are overseeing CURE’s putative urban renewal efforts. That far-right conservatives who proudly espouse racist views sit on the advisory board of an organization that lists “jumpstarting a national dialogue on race and poverty” as one of its goals is as funny as it is preposterous. Star Parker doesn’t care about Black women or Black women’s health care. If she did, she would support Black women’s access to a full range of health-care services, including contraception, prenatal care, AIDS prevention, and abortion. She would support more funding for public assistance programs like SNAP. She would advocate more funding for Medicaid and Title IX. You want to renew the urban core, Star? Focus on education, jobs, affordable housing and, yes, healthcare, including reproductive healthcare.

But Star would rather be the new star of the far-right conservative movement than do anything that might actually help her people. And so at tomorrow’s press conference, Parker will lead a group of conservatives and anti-choicers in a group pearl-clutching over the Gosnell trial. They will complain, despite documented evidence to the contrary, that the media has been complicit in a coordinated media blackout about Gosnell, his crimes, and his trial. They will lament the “murder” of Black babies by “evil” Planned Parenthood. They will claim that the solution to Gosnell and the Black abortion rate is no abortion ever. They will do their damnedest to pretend to care about Black women without doing anything that might actually help Black women, like trusting Black women to make their own reproductive health choices and trusting Black women to speak for themselves. But most of all, they will push their anti-choice agendas by repackaging the same white conservative policies in Black urban wrapping paper in the hopes that Black people won’t know the difference.

But we do know the difference. We know that the answer to the Black abortion rate is more choice and more access to quality care. We know that the answer to Gosnell is not fewer abortions, but better abortion care. We know that banning abortion will not end abortion, but rather will drive abortion underground and into back alleys, where clinics like Gosnell’s will pop up like payday loan shops.

And where will the likes of John Ashcroft, Ed Meese, and Michael Medved be when that happens? Probably tut-tutting to one another about Martin Luther King being a Republican, and how much better life was for Black folks before the Emancipation Proclamation.