Politics
10:16 pm
Fri July 8, 2011

Former First Lady Betty Ford dies

Betty Ford said things that first ladies just don't say, even today. And 1970s America loved her for it.

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, 18-year-old Susan, was in a sexual relationship (an embarrassed Susan issued a denial).

She mused that living together before marriage might be wise, thought women should be drafted into the military if men were, and spoke up unapologetically for abortion rights, taking a position contrary to the president's. "Having babies is a blessing, not a duty," Mrs. Ford said.

The former first lady died at age 93, family friend Marty Allen said Friday. Details of Ford's death and where she died were not immediately available, and Allen, chairman emeritus of the Ford Foundation, said he would not comment further until he received instruction from the family.

He also said he expected the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum would release information.

Betty Ford's comments weren't the kind of genteel, innocuous talk expected from a first lady, and a Republican one no less. 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.

Candor worked for Betty Ford, again and again. She would build an enduring legacy by opening up 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."

She was a free spirit from the start. Elizabeth Bloomer, born April 8, 1918, fell in love with dance as a girl in Grand Rapids, Mich., and decided it would be her life. At 20, despite her mother's misgivings, she moved to New York to learn from her idol Martha Graham. She lived in Greenwich Village, worked as a model, and performed at Carnegie Hall in Graham's modern dance ensemble. "I thought I had arrived," she later recalled.

But her mother coaxed her back to Grand Rapids, where Betty worked as a dance teacher and store fashion coordinator and married William Warren, a friend from school days. He was a salesman who traveled frequently; she was unhappy. They lasted five years.

While waiting for her divorce to become final, she met and began dating, as she put it in her memoir, "probably the most eligible bachelor in Grand Rapids" — former college football star, Navy veteran and lawyer Jerry Ford. They would be married for 58 years, until his death in December 2006.

When he proposed, she didn't know about his political ambitions; when he launched his bid for Congress during their engagement, she figured he couldn't win.

Two weeks after their October 1948 wedding, her husband was elected to his first term in the House. He would serve 25 years, rising to minority leader.

Mrs. Ford was thrust into a role she found exhausting and unfulfilling: political housewife. While her husband campaigned for weeks at a time or worked late on Capitol Hill, she raised their four children: Michael, Jack, Steven and Susan. She arranged luncheons for congressional wives, helped with her husband's campaigns, became a Cub Scout den mother, taught Sunday school.

A pinched nerve in her neck in 1964, followed by the onset of severe osteoarthritis, led her to an assortment of prescription drugs that never fully relieved the pain. For years she had been what she later called "a controlled drinker, no binges." Now she began mixing pills and alcohol. Feeling overwhelmed and underappreciated, she suffered an emotional breakdown that led to weekly visits with a psychiatrist.

The psychiatrist didn't take note of her drinking but instead tried to build her self-esteem: "He said I had to start thinking I was valuable, not just as a wife and mother, but as myself."

The White House would give her that gift.

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."

Her 2½ years as first lady certainly looked fun. Mrs. Ford embraced pop culture, donning a mood ring, dancing "the Bump" with Tony Orlando, joining in the CB radio craze. In contrast to the stilted Nixon years, the Fords were known for rollicking White House parties with popular performers and dancing late into the night.

She became the first first lady to appear on a TV sitcom, doing a cameo on the "Mary Tyler Moore Show." (Nine years later, Moore would check into the Betty Ford Center for alcohol treatment.)

Reporters kept after her with questions about social issues and family life, but Mrs. Ford refused to wring her hands over the state of America's youth or the "new morality." Perhaps she declined to judge because her own behavior was suspect by 1970s standards: she was divorced, had seen a psychiatrist, admitted taking Valium daily. She considered her personal values decidedly old-fashioned, however.

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.

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.

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.

"There is joy in recovery," she wrote, "and in helping others discover that joy."

Associated Press writers Connie Cass and  Mike Householder contributed to this report