‘The First Lady’ follows the challenges and victories faced by three American first ladies in the time surrounding their stints in the White House. The show delves into the stories of Michelle Obama (Viola Davis), Betty Ford (Michelle Pfeiffer), and Eleanor Roosevelt (Gillian Anderson), following each of them as they navigate the hurdles of their particular eras.
Despite being set in vastly different decades, there are some distinct parallels in the challenges faced by all three first ladies. In a particularly poignant moment on the show, a retired Betty Ford sends Michelle Obama a letter soon after the latter becomes the first lady. Considering the show draws quite a bit from historical sources, let’s take a look at whether Betty Ford sent Michelle Obama a letter in real life.
Betty Ford’s Letter to Michelle Obama
As it turns out, Betty Ford did send a letter to Michelle Obama. The former, then in her 90s, sent the latter a letter in 2009, shortly after Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration. Thus, Michelle Obama did, in fact, receive a letter from Betty Ford soon after she moved into the White House. Though the letter is described as “warm,” its contents are not entirely known. It appears to be part of private correspondence from an experienced first lady to a new one. However, on a related note, Ford reportedly said to her daughter, Susan, “I don’t know if she knows what she has gotten into. She is really going to be busy.”
The Showtime series depicts Michelle getting the letter from Betty during a particularly rough time for the Obama administration. In it, the former first lady says, “First ladies and their teams are often the vanguards of social progress in this country,” before continuing on to pacify Michelle by claiming that each first lady makes her own way through the duties. This essentially echoes the overarching message that the show attempts to propagate.
Thus, the series is historically accurate in the sense that Betty Ford did send Michelle Obama a letter while the latter was the first lady. However, the contents of the letter, as depicted on the show, could be fictionalized. The show’s creators have brought the stories to life by following a strategy of historical fiction, which, apart from adding some drama to the narrative, attempts to make accurate guesses as to what actually went on behind closed doors.
Thus, the contents of Betty Ford’s letter to Michelle Obama are quite likely a product of historical fiction. The real-life letter was likely a more formal piece of communication, whereas the one depicted in the show seems quite dramatic and tailored to fit into and reinforce the show’s narrative.