It’s difficult to articulate the impact former First Lady Betty Ford had on my life as well as on our country during her era, so her passing is a real blow – frankly, it actually feels like a personal loss.
Mrs. Ford died last night at 93. She was a towering, iconic figure on behalf of women’s health and reproductive rights – not to mention alcohol and addiction treatment services.
I was in high school when she burst onto the national scene, and remember her vividly. At a time when the wives of presidents were best known for what they wore and not what they said, the wife of Gerald Ford, the 38th president of the U.S., said things, important things about social issues, that first ladies never said – then or even now. And, she was a Republican!
She spoke frankly about sex, once famously saying that she would be sleeping with her husband during their White House years.
According to Mrs. Ford, her young adult children probably had smoked marijuana – and if she were their age, she'd try it, too. She told "60 Minutes" she wouldn't be surprised to learn that her youngest, then 18-year-old Susan, was in a sexual relationship (an embarrassed Susan quickly issued a public denial).
Mrs. Ford mused that living together before marriage might be wise; thought women should be drafted into the military if men were; and spoke up unapologetically in favor of abortion rights, taking a public position contrary to the president's.
"Having babies is a blessing, not a duty," Mrs. Ford said.
Her unscripted comments sparked tempests in the press and dismayed President Gerald Ford's advisers, who were trying to soothe the national psyche after Watergate. But to the scandal-scarred, Vietnam-wearied, hippie-rattled nation, Mrs. Ford's openness was refreshing and she remained hugely popular throughout her life.
Candor worked for her, and she built an unplanned, enduring legacy by opening up about the toughest times of her life as public example.
In an era when cancer was discussed in hushed tones and mastectomy was still a taboo subject, the first lady shared the specifics of her breast cancer surgery. The publicity helped bring the disease into the open and inspired countless women to seek breast examinations.
Her most painful revelation came 15 months after leaving the White House, when Mrs. Ford announced that she was entering treatment for a longtime addiction to painkillers and alcohol. It turned out the famously forthcoming first lady had been keeping a secret, even from herself.
She used the unvarnished story of her own descent and recovery to crusade for better addiction treatment, especially for women. She co-founded the nonprofit Betty Ford Center near the Fords' home in Rancho Mirage, Calif., in 1982. Mrs. Ford raised millions of dollars for the center, kept close watch over its operations, and regularly welcomed groups of new patients with a speech that started, "Hello, my name's Betty Ford, and I'm an alcoholic and drug addict."
Although most famous for a string of celebrity patients over the years — from Elizabeth Taylor and Johnny Cash to Lindsay Lohan — the center keeps its rates relatively affordable and has served more than 90,000 people.
"People who get well often say, `You saved my life,' and `You've turned my life around,'" Mrs. Ford once said. "They don't realize we merely provided the means for them to do it themselves, and that's all."
In 1973, as Mrs. Ford was happily anticipating her husband's retirement from politics, Vice President Spiro Agnew was forced out of office over bribery charges. President Richard Nixon turned to Gerald Ford to fill the office.
Less than a year later, his presidency consumed by the Watergate scandal, Nixon resigned. On Aug. 9, 1974, Gerald Ford was sworn in as the only chief executive in American history who hadn't been elected either president or vice president.
Mrs. Ford wrote of her sudden ascent to first lady: "It was like going to a party you're terrified of, and finding out to your amazement that you're having a good time."
She was 56 when she moved into the White House, and looked more matronly than mod. Ever gracious, her chestnut hair carefully coifed into a soft bouffant, she tended to speak softly and slowly, even when taking a feminist stand.
“The point is, I am an ordinary woman who was called onstage at an extraordinary time," Ford wrote in her autobiography, "The Times of My Life." "I was no different once I became first lady than I had been before. But through an accident of history, I became interesting to people."
Her breast cancer diagnosis, coming less than two months after President Ford was whisked into office, may have helped disarm the clergymen, conservative activists and Southern politicians who were most inflamed by her loose comments. She was photographed recovering at Bethesda Naval Hospital, looking frail in her robe, and won praise for grace and courage.
"She seems to have just what it takes to make people feel at home in the world again," media critic Marshall McLuhan observed at the time. "Something about her makes us feel rooted and secure — a feeling we haven't had in a while. And her cancer has been a catharsis for everybody."
The public outpouring of support helped her embrace the power of her position. "I was somebody, the first lady," she wrote later. "When I spoke, people listened."
She used her newfound influence to lobby aggressively for the Equal Rights Amendment, which failed nonetheless, and to speak against child abuse, raise money for handicapped children, and champion the performing arts.
Historians have said it's debatable whether Mrs. Ford's frank nature helped or hurt her husband's 1976 campaign to win a full term as president. Polls showed she was widely admired. By taking positions more liberal than the president's, she helped broaden his appeal beyond traditional Republican voters. But she also outraged some conservatives, leaving the president more vulnerable to a strong GOP primary challenge by Ronald Reagan. That battle weakened Ford going into the general election against Democrat Jimmy Carter.
Carter won by a slim margin. The president had lost his voice in the campaign's final days, and it was Mrs. Ford who read his concession speech to the nation.
The Fords retired to a Rancho Mirage golf community, but he spent much of his time away, giving speeches and playing in golf tournaments. Home alone, deprived of her exciting and purposeful life in the White House, Mrs. Ford drank.
By 1978 her secret was obvious to those closest to her.
"As I got sicker," she recalled, "I gradually stopped going to lunch. I wouldn't see friends. I was putting everyone out of my life." Her children recalled her living in a stupor, shuffling around in her bathrobe, refusing meals in favor of a drink.
Her family finally confronted her and insisted she seek treatment.
"I was stunned at what they were trying to tell me about how I disappointed them and let them down," she said in a 1994 Associated Press interview. "I was terribly hurt — after I had spent all those years trying to be the best mother, wife I could be. ... Luckily, I was able to hear them saying that I needed help and they cared too much about me to let it go on."
She credited their "intervention" with saving her life.
Mrs. Ford entered Long Beach Naval Hospital and, alongside alcoholic young sailors and officers, underwent a grim detoxification that became the model for therapy at the Betty Ford Center. In her book "A Glad Awakening," she described her recovery as a second chance at life.
And in that second chance, she found a new purpose.
“I'm not out to rescue anybody who doesn't want to be rescued," she once said. "I just think it's important to say how easy it is to slip into a dependency on pills or alcohol, and how hard it is to admit that dependency."
"There is joy in recovery," she wrote, "and in helping others discover that joy.”
Her beloved husband died in 2006, he was also 93.
One commentator referred to Betty Ford as a "rascal." Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley agreed with that assessment: "I remember there's a photograph of her just dancing on the desk in the Oval Office. This was something that wasn't previously done. Certainly Jackie Kennedy had brought in a new sense of style and flair and fashion [to the White House], but Betty Ford was a truly liberated woman.”
Amen to that, and may your unique and amazing soul continue to soar!
— The Curator