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January 19, 2024

The Story Behind the Iconic Photo of Betty Ford Dancing on the Cabinet Room Table on January 19, 1977

First Lady Betty Ford strikes a pose on the Cabinet Room table on January 19, 1977, before she and the President were to leave the White House. Said Mrs. Ford, “I always wanted to dance on the Cabinet Room table!”

On January 19, 1977, the White House was filled with cardboard boxes, moving men and staff gathering for bittersweet goodbyes. People remember the cold. The Washington Post would report that the capital was “glistening with ice” as President Gerald R. Ford went about his last full day in office. He granted a pardon to Iva D’Aquino, a Japanese-American woman convicted of being one of the radio propagandists known collectively as “Tokyo Rose.” He telephoned Soviet Communist Party leader Leonid I. Brezhnev to say goodbye. He awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Donald Rumsfeld, his secretary of defense, the youngest in history at age 43. In a photograph taken that day by David Hume Kennerly, he captured an amazing scene of the first lady Betty Ford dancing on the Cabinet Room table, before she and the President were to leave the White House.

“I walked over to the West Wing to say goodbye to members of the staff who had served President Ford so well,” Betty Ford recalled. “On the way back to the family quarters I passed by the empty Cabinet Room and thought, ‘You know, I’ve always wanted to dance on the Cabinet Room table.’”

Kennerly was 29 years old, bearded, funny, loyal, profane and talented. He had already won a Pulitzer Prize for work he’d done in Vietnam in 1971 for United Press International and was working for Time magazine when, on the night of Ford’s hurried inauguration after President Richard M. Nixon resigned in August 1974, the new president asked him to be the White House photographer. Over the next 895 days of the Ford administration, Kennerly grew close to the president, who died in 2006, and he remains friendly with Betty Ford. When she voiced her idea about dancing on the Cabinet Room table to him, he recalled, “I said, ‘Well, nobody’s around.’” There was a Secret Service agent discreetly outside the door.

Betty Ford: “So I took off my shoes, hopped up there, and struck a pose.”

Kennerly: “She said, ‘I just think I’m going to do this.’ Then she’s on the table. She’s a tiny woman, really, in very good shape. Very graceful, as a former dancer with the Martha Graham company. She got up there.”

Kennerly snapped a few frames in black-and-white with his small Leica Rangefinder camera. The photographs show the long oval table, the studded leather chairs and what appear to be ... candy dishes? “Ashtrays! The president had his pipe,” he said. “Tip O’Neill with his cigars. Dick Cheney [then White House chief of staff] smoked cigarettes like a chimney. I smoked. Everybody smoked.”

Kennerly said he did not know why Betty Ford danced on the table, but he has a guess. “Very few women have had a seat at that table. I bet you could count them on one hand at that point, and knowing her support for the Equal Rights Amendment”—she endorsed it—“she was tap-dancing in the middle of this male bastion. She was storming the walls of the gray suits and gray-haired eminences.”

Betty Ford: “It was a wonderful and whimsical ending to that magical time I spent as the first lady.”

Betty Ford comforted her son Jack in the Oval Office after her husband’s defeat.

The Fords.

Normally, Kennerly would see contact sheets of everything he shot, but not this time. “The next day I was out of a job when Jimmy Carter was inaugurated at noon. So the picture disappeared—for 16 years—into the archives at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It was first published in Kennerly’s book Photo Op (1995) and republished in his Extraordinary Circumstances: The Presidency of Gerald R. Ford.

So, in 1994, Kennerly showed the photograph to the former president. “And it’s like one of those cartoon moments where his eyes come bulging out, and he goes, ‘Oh, Betty isn’t going to like this.’ Remember, he knows her better than anybody. I’m sunk. But he doesn’t say anything when she comes in, and she looks at the picture and she starts laughing. She says, ‘Oh, I forgot all about this. That is so great.’ And I ask her, you won’t mind? And Mrs. Ford says, ‘No! It’s a terrific picture.’

“Then President Ford says, ‘Well, Betty, you never told me you did that.’ And she smiles at him and says, ‘There’s a lot of things I haven’t told you, Jerry.’”


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