Anne Armstrong, a longtime powerful Republican who served as U.S. ambassador to Great Britain during the Ford administration, died Wednesday at a Houston-area hospice after battling cancer, her assistant Kay Hicks said. She was 80.
Armstrong and her late husband, Tobin, were Republican stalwarts. She was a national leader of the Republican Party and Cabinet-level advisor to Presidents Nixon and Ford.
She also was said to have made Ford’s vice presidential “short list” in 1976 in his race against Jimmy Carter, according to news reports at the time.
Her name was again in the news in 2006 when Vice President Dick Cheney accidentally shot and wounded a fellow hunter during an outing at the Armstrong family’s cattle ranch in south Texas.
Armstrong was the first woman to serve as U.S. ambassador to Great Britain, taking the post in 1976.
At her swearing-in, President Ford quipped that his wife was “always needling me” to appoint women to such posts. Armstrong replied that “I have the feeling Abigail Adams would have been just as excited as Betty Ford and I” about her selection, referring to the wife of the second president, who also served as minister to Britain.
A couple of months into her tenure, the New York Times reported that the British had “taken an instant liking to her . . . because she is visible and direct and informal without turning informality into a cloying down-home soupiness.”
More recently, Armstrong was an advisor on foreign intelligence to Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
“Her public service was exemplary and set a high standard for all who recognized that government service is vitally important to our way of life,” former President Bush said in a statement. “Anne was a great sportsman, fantastic shot and a wonderful friend to the Bush family. We send condolences to her family and mourn her death.”
During the Nixon administration, she became the co-chairman of the Republican National Committee and the sole female White House counselor, a Cabinet-level post. The women’s liberation movement was in high gear, and she was a strong Republican advocate for reform, supporting the Equal Rights Amendment.
“Republican men know there’s been a change in Republican women,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1972. “Confidence breeds confidence.”
That same year, she was a keynote speaker at the Republican National Convention, becoming the first woman from either the Republican or Democratic party to give such an address.
The top woman in Nixon’s administration, she established the first White House Office of Women’s Programs to recruit women to high-level positions in government. A Nixon supporter until just before he resigned, Armstrong kept her position after Ford became president.
Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who was Armstrong’s press secretary at the Republican National Committee, said Armstrong had been her greatest mentor for more than 30 years.
“Women have benefited from the barriers she overcame in government, diplomacy and politics throughout her career,” Hutchison said.
Armstrong also served on the boards of American Express, General Motors, Halliburton and others.
In 1987, Reagan awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her service to the country.
Armstrong was born Anne Legendre on Dec. 27, 1927, in New Orleans. Her father was a coffee importer who moved the family to Brazil for a year when she was young.
In 1949, she earned a bachelor’s degree at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., where she had been active in Democratic campaigns. She switched her party registration after marrying her husband and moving to Texas in 1950.
The 50,000-acre ranch south of Corpus Christi in Kenedy County had been in the Armstrong family since the 19th century. Tobin Armstrong’s grandfather, John Armstrong III, who settled it, had earned his fame as the Texas Ranger who captured notorious outlaw John Wesley Hardin.
The Armstrongs had played host to many Republican politicians at the ranch, as well as helping to fund their campaigns. Tobin Armstrong died in 2005.
She is survived by their five children: J. Barclay Armstrong, Katharine Armstrong Love, Sarita Armstrong Hixon, James Armstrong and Tobin Armstrong Jr.; a sister, Katharine Legendre King; and 13 grandchildren.