McALLEN, Texas (AP) - Anne Armstrong, a powerful Republican in the 1970s and '80s who advocated a greater role for women and served as U.S. ambassador to Britain in the Ford administration, died Wednesday. She was 80.
Armstrong had battled cancer and had been in a Houston hospice for about a week before her death, her assistant Kay Hicks said.
She and her husband, Tobin, were Republican stalwarts. She was a national leader of the Republican Party and Cabinet-level adviser to Presidents Nixon and Ford. Armstrong was also 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.
Armstrong's name was again in the news in 2006 when Vice President Cheney accidentally shot and wounded a fellow hunter during an outing at the Armstrong family's ranch in South Texas.
She was the first woman to serve as U.S. ambassador to Great Britain, taking the post in 1976.
At her swearing-in, 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.
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 adviser 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.
During the Nixon administration, she became the co-chairman of the Republican National Committee and the sole female White House counselor. The women's liberation movement was in high gear, and she wa s a strong Republican advocate for reform.
"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 one of three keynote speakers at the Republican National Convention, blasting Democratic candidate Sen. George McGovern and saying "a small group of radicals and extremists has assumed control of the national Democratic Party."
When Nixon was under fire as the Watergate scandal unfolded in the spring of 1973, Armstrong broke with other White House aides by saying publicly that she agreed with Sen. Barry Goldwater that the scandal was hurting the GOP. But she maintained that Nixon was taking steps "to see that we get to the bottom of this."
In 1978, journalist Clayton Fritchey, in a column for The Washington Post, made the case for Armstrong to be the GOP's presidential candidate in 1980. Armstrong, he said, "is frequently spoken of as a possible vice p r esident. But why not president?" He cited her wide experience and added, "To top it off, she has looks and charm, plus that great political asset, the gift of gab."
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.
Former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who also served as the elder Bush's campaign manager and Reagan's chief of staff, called Armstrong "a pioneer among women in politics and public service."
"Working with her was a joy, and sharing her friendship a real treasure," Baker said in a statement. "Anne Armstrong was one of a kind, and she will be sorely missed."
President George W. Bush called Armstrong a "pillar of Texas."
"Anne set an example for generations of Americans intere s ted in public service," Bush said in a statement. "She leaves behind a proud legacy."
In 1987, Reagan awarded Armstrong the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her service to the country.
Armstrong was born Anne Legendre in New Orleans in 1927, and attended Vassar College on a scholarship. She got into politics as a Democrat, volunteering for Harry S. Truman in 1948, but later switched to the GOP.
She married Tobin Armstrong in 1950 and moved to his family's ranch in Kenedy County, which his grandfather had settled in the 19th century. He 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.; and 13 grandchildren, as well as a sister, Katharine Legendre King.
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