Betty Ford had her own voice, and she used it
By Joyce Saenz Harris
The Dallas Morning News
December 29, 2006
For 58 years, they were a couple whose love story was the bedrock of their lives. So it was no surprise that Betty Ford herself broke the news to the nation that the 38th president, "Gerald Ford, our beloved husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather," had died at age 93.
Mrs. Ford, 88, will return to the national spotlight Friday as several days of services for her husband begin with private prayers for the family at St. Margaret's Episcopal Church in Palm Desert, Calif.
She was her husband's biggest fan, but when he was thrust into the White House in August 1974 by a quirk of history, she carved her own distinctive niche as first lady. Not since the days of Eleanor Roosevelt had any first lady spoken so freely on topical issues.
She was an overt feminist who worked for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment and supported the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision that legalized abortion. She also encouraged her husband to appoint women to Cabinet-level posts and major ambassadorships.
Before her White House years, though, Betty Ford was a fairly anonymous congressional wife. She married Gerald Ford just before his first election to Congress in 1948. He was a Navy veteran-turned-lawyer in Grand Rapids, Mich.; she was a former Powers model and Martha Graham dancer, recently divorced.
Mr. Ford hadn't even told his bride about his political ambitions, but she coped gamely with the demands of Washington life. The Fords moved to suburban Alexandria, Va., where they raised their four children during his long career in Congress.
All those years, they lived modestly in a large two-story colonial in Alexandria. They didn't move to the White House for 10 days after the president was sworn into office in 1974. On Mr. Ford's first night as president, Dallasites Margaret and Trammell F. Crow were among the close friends who gathered at the Ford home for an informal dinner. The only change she noticed, Mrs. Crow recalled this week, was that a couple of White House servants came over to help prepare and clean up.
A call to duty
Though the Fords had agreed he wouldn't run for Congress again after 1974, Mr. Ford felt compelled to accept when he was asked to be Richard Nixon's vice president after Spiro Agnew resigned amid scandal. Mrs. Ford supported his decision, despite her deep ambivalence about remaining in public life – a reluctance that would be underscored two years later when, as president, her husband survived two assassination attempts within 17 days.
Former White House staff assistant Andy Stern, now chairman of Sunwest Communications in Dallas, vividly recalls the second attempt in September 1975 in San Francisco. Afterward, Mr. Ford was hustled into a limousine and rushed to the airport to board Air Force One.
Mrs. Ford, who'd just arrived from a day in Monterey, was waiting for her husband in the plane's private quarters. Some 40 minutes after takeoff, she emerged to find the White House staff and press pool in the main cabin, watching television coverage of the assassination attempt.
That, Mr. Stern said, was the first that Mrs. Ford had even heard about it.
"And she was absolutely furious," he added with a laugh. "But the president's answer was, 'Hey, I'm here! I'm OK.'
"It was typical that neither one of them wanted to burden the other. They were a remarkable couple."
Now hear this
Shortly after moving into the White House in August 1974, Mrs. Ford held a formal news conference, something no first lady had done since 1952. She announced her plans to support the arts and to help underprivileged and mentally challenged children. But she startled the press corps when she voiced support for the Equal Rights Amendment and Roe vs. Wade, and when she said she wanted more women to get involved in politics.
Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum Gerald Ford met Elizabeth Bloomer Warren while practicing law in Grand Rapids, Mich., after World War II. They were married on Oct. 15, 1948, just before his election to Congress.
Suddenly, everyone knew where Betty Ford stood on women's issues, and everyone had an opinion about her. The president's opinion was that the first lady was entitled to speak her mind.
"Jerry has supported me in the things I've said," Mrs. Ford said at the time. "At least he hasn't stepped on my toes yet." She was beginning to enjoy the power of her new influence: "After 25 years of coping, it's very satisfying."
The next public shock came when Mrs. Ford learned she had breast cancer, six weeks after her husband took office. In her 1978 autobiography, The Times of My Life, Mrs. Ford wrote that "there had been so much cover-up during Watergate that we wanted to be sure there would be no cover-up in the Ford administration. So rather than continue this traditional silence about breast cancer, we felt we had to be very public."
Her candid disclosure and her willingness to discuss her mastectomy were unprecedented. The news sent millions of women for screenings that saved lives – including that of Happy Rockefeller, the wife of Mr. Ford's newly appointed vice president, Nelson Rockefeller.
Mrs. Ford later served as co-chairwoman in 1982 when Nancy Brinker formed the Dallas-based Susan G. Komen Foundation.
The Komen Foundation is named after Ms. Brinker's sister, who died of breast cancer. As Ms. Brinker wrote on the foundation's Web site: "A major turning point in Suzy's struggle for survival came from a surprising source, Mrs. Betty Ford. ... Her bravery touched a place inside of Suzy that none of us could possibly understand because we hadn't gone through it ourselves."
When Ms. Brinker faced breast cancer in 1984, Mrs. Ford was among the first people to call her.
"I can't tell you what it meant to me to hear her voice," said Ms. Brinker, who now lives in Palm Beach, Fla. "Betty has always been a role model to me, and she's an extraordinary person. When someone who has blazed a trail turns around and gives you a hand, it's the greatest gift you can receive.
"My heart is so heavy for Betty now. It didn't get better than President Ford – he was the most supportive husband. He was a really compassionate man. They were an amazing couple."
Drugs and alcohol
After she left the White House in 1977, Mrs. Ford disclosed that she had struggled with alcohol and drug dependencies and depression since 1970. She thought she had conquered her problems, but she went through another low period after returning to private life and once again slipped into dependency.
This time, after a family intervention and hospital rehabilitation, Mrs. Ford emerged with a new cause: championing drug and alcohol rehab services. In 1982, she co-founded the Betty Ford Center for Drug and Alcohol Rehabilitation in Rancho Mirage, Calif., which has become arguably the best-known institution of its kind in the world. Of this achievement, her husband often said, "I couldn't be more proud."
"He truly wanted this to be her place, her mission, so he purposely stayed in the background, but he was always there," said John Schwarzlose, the center's president. "They were just two down-to-earth Americans who wanted to give alcoholics and addicts a chance to get well."
Mr. Ford always acknowledged the depth of their personal and public partnership. In April 1997, at the rededication of the Gerald R. Ford Museum in Grand Rapids, he said: "In my first remarks as president, delivered at a time of national as well as personal soul-searching, I said I was 'indebted to no man, and only to one woman, my dear wife.'
"In truth, there are no words to fully express how much I owe to Betty. For almost 50 years she has borne with my shortcomings, and I have rejoiced in her graces."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.