Betty Ford offers a prayer for JNF president Maurice Sage, who had collapsed moments earlier(Courtesy Gerald R. Ford Library)

News reports and obituaries flooded in this past weekend in both the mainstream and Jewish press announcing the death of former first lady Betty Ford at the age of 93, though perhaps none caused as much of a stir as Rick Perlstein’s Times op-ed Monday.

Praising the first lady-turned-activist’s outspoken and progressive outlook, Perlstein wrote, “It made her a threat to some. The Christian right was especially cruel. In 1976, when a rabbi collapsed of a heart attack beside her at a ceremonial dinner, she courageously took the lectern to lead a prayer for his life. The rabbi “was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital a short time later,” Christianity Today mocked in its next issue.”

Christianity Today’s David Neff responded quickly, flatly denying Perlstein’s claims. Regardless of interpretation, the story remains that on June 22, 1976, at a Jewish National Fund dinner in New York City inaugurating the American Bicentennial National Park in Israel, JNF president Rabbi Maurice Sage collapsed just before presenting a bible to the first lady. Amidst the chaos of rescue attempts, Ford took the stage to lead the group in a prayer for the rabbi, who died later that evening at the age of 59.

Ford, whose funeral took place yesterday, and who had characteristically organized much of it in advance, was a champion of the unspoken causes in society. “Betty Ford always seemed to be vindicated in the controversial things she kept doing,” Perlstein wrote in his op-ed. “Which, of course, is one of the definitions of a genuine leader.” Perhaps proof of the former first lady’s enduring hold on the international Jewish community, a Tel Aviv restaurant, said to exude 1950s retro and 21st century chic, is named Betty Ford.