I’ll Race You for It!

As we celebrate Women’s History Month, we honor Sheila Rabb Weidenfeld, who served as Mrs. Ford’s Press Secretary (and as a Special Assistant to President Ford) during the Ford administration. In her memoir, First Lady’s Lady, Weidenfeld provided a nearly day-by-day recounting of her experiences in this role. Of her book, Weidenfeld said “It’s about male chauvinism, White House style.”

First Lady Betty Ford poses with Sanford Fox, former Chief of White House Social Entertainment, and past and present Press and Social Secretaries of the First Lady.  (Left to right: Lucy Winchester, Liz Carpenter, Sheila Rabb Weidenfeld, Mary Jane McCaffree, Connie Stuart, Betty Ford, Helen Smith, Sanford Fox, Bess Abell, Reathal Odum, and Nancy Lammerding.
A2915-11A/NAID: 186790
Courtesy Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library

Early on in her tenure there, Weidenfeld advocated repeatedly for more East Wing staff but was rebuffed each time. Her retelling of a February 1975 exchange with Ron Nessen, the President’s Press Secretary, shows the lengths to which Weidenfeld was willing to go to get more staff assigned to the East Wing. While the two were near a hotel pool (and both were in bathing suits), Weidenfeld challenged Nessen to a swimming race. If she won, Nessen would relinquish one of his forty-five staff persons to Weidenfeld. If Nessen won, Weidenfeld would stop asking. Nessen agreed to the terms.

I dived in. My body seemed to go on automatic pilot. I remember hearing Mrs. Ford cheering me on, yelling and clapping. I don’t remember breathing. I reached the finish line before Ron had reached the halfway point. Victory!

Mrs. Ford and Sheila Weidenfeld (in orange) at the Diplomat Hotel’s swimming pool on February 26, 1975.
A3458 (contact sheet)
Courtesy Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library

It may not surprise you that Nessen did not turn over one of his staffers to Weidenfeld after his loss. In fact, it seems there was no love lost between the two throughout the remainder of the administration, as evidenced in this press report (see the last few paragraphs).

Sheila Weidenfeld Files, Box 20, “11/29/75-12/8/75 – China (4).”
Courtesy Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library 

As we honor women throughout the month of March, this writer has just one thing to say about Sheila Rabb Weidenfeld – “You go girl!”

Author: Brooke Clement