To the vast majority of people the words “Betty Ford” refer to the alcohol and substance abuse recovery center in Palm Springs. They should think that. The center was created in 1982 by the woman whose name it bears. It’s central to her legacy. But it is hardly all of it.
In just two years, five months and eleven days, Betty Ford in the unelected position of First Lady did what those elected to national office rarely accomplish – she changed the real lives of real people. Yesterday was her birthday. She turned 93 years old, the third longest-living First Lady in history. After more than a half-century of public appearances, she’s withdrawn since the January 2007 state funeral of her husband, the late President Gerald Ford, the longest-living in history. Not yet a grandmother when she was in the White House, she’s now a great-grandmother and her time is for her family. The foundations she began laying two generations ago, however, continue to change the lives of those who now likely have no idea of who she is – and that’s the way she prefers, her efforts never being about her.
Once the storms of Vietnam and Watergate broke, before the acid rain of hostages and AIDS, was a smiley-face pause that sprang People Magazine, avocado-colored polka-dot bubble umbrellas, rust-colored rayon leisure suits and Bicentennialism into the national consciousness. The cultural changes seeping through the late Sixties had relaxed into middle-class Middle American life.
The imagination correctly conjures 1974 with maternal pleasantness and welcoming comfort, tied up in a daisy yellow ribbon of straight talk as “The Year of Bettys.”
On February 18, 1974, spiffy Betty Furness began looking out for housewives as not just theToday Show’s consumer advocate but for NBC’s evening news as well, her smoky voice ratting out manufacturers of household goods for high costs and poor quality. On September 14, 1974, after five guest appearances a year before, veteran actress Betty White joined the television sitcom cast of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, appearing as the character Sue Ann Nivens, who hosted a show called “The Happy Homemaker,” dishing out frank-and-beans-on-a-budget as easily as sex advice.
And on August 9, 1974 Betty Ford became a White House wife, at ease before the press whether dispensing chicken hash recipes as evidence of her inflation-fighting meals, making the case for women’s reproductive rights, or pondering whether her kids might have tried pot or how they’d handle pre-marital sex like the nation’s Den Mother chatting over a backyard fence. On the face of it, she was traditional, her Episcopal faith a rock in times of difficulty, her love of husband unabashed and demonstrated in public. The first sign this was a First Lady like no other has been attributed to a reporter asking the startling question of how often she slept with the President and Mrs. Ford shrugging, “As often as possible.”
In truth, it came that muggy Washington afternoon when the incumbent Vice President Ford, just after assuming the presidency following the resignation at noon of President Nixon spoke words never uttered before or since by a Chief Executive in an Inaugural Address, acknowledgment of his wife’s role in his success He promised the country that he was under obligation to no man, and “only one woman.” Mrs. Ford held the Bible on which he laid his hand to repeat the presidential oath, the modest blue “Inaugural dress” she wore that day now on permanent display at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Never dodging questions on issues of the day, she was honest with the press from the get-go, mentioning that she had consulted a psychologist and that therapy had proved helpful to her as she managed virtual single-parent while her Congressional spouse spent more days traveling than at home. It set the pace that became her pattern so that when, barely a month after her husband assumed the presidency, she learned she had breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy, Mrs. Ford became one of the first public figures to openly discuss the issue, compelling hundreds of thousands of women around the world to seek a mammography, saving untold lives.
She talked about her first marriage and divorce, and the realization of how the legal system was often stacked against women – a reason she became the leading Republican voice calling for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, and supporter of the Supreme Court’s pro-choice decision on Roe vs. Wade in regard to abortion. She took some credit for her husband naming a woman to his Cabinet, though frustrated he didn’t put a woman on the Supreme Court or chose one as his vice-presidential running mate when he ran for his own term in 1976. Although the First Lady’s views represented the moderate-liberal wing of the Republican Party ata time when the conservative movement was making inroads into it, she also unwittingly influenced many liberal Democrats to vote for Ford in ’76.
She was never a timepiece, however. Long after leaving the White House, she continued to address issues, whether important to her personally or as a matter of principal. The great shock came when she went public with her addiction to alcohol and prescription pain killers, which led to the opening of the treatment center which carries her name. As she developed an indepth understanding ofaddiction issues, she connected it to other demographics, one of the first to address the needs of those who had contracted HIV or developed AIDS, recognizing the unique problems which led women to substance abuse, testifying on Capitol Hill in favor of health care coverage. In real-life or before the cameras, she is the same person, her Midwestern open-heartedness and humor immediately evident.
Like Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton, Betty Bloomer Ford was born in the Midwestern metropolis of Chicago. Raised in small Grand Rapids, Michigan, once renowned for its furniture manufacturing, she was extremely close to her mother and two brothers but faced a shocking early loss when her father died from accidental asphyxiation while repairing his car.
As a young woman she joined her mother in regular visits to local hospitals for disabled children and first witnessed the potential reclaiming of life through rehabilitation. Just prior to World War II, she worked in New York as a fashion model, and pursued her love of modern dance by studying and performing with Martha Graham’s company.
She taught modern dance back in her conservative home town where she also worked as a buyer for a department store. During her first marriage, she moved everywhere her salesman husband found work, between Akron and Syracuse, even working in a frozen food factory during World War II.
She refused alimony after her divorce, and continued working. Just three months after marrying lawyer Jerry Ford, they went to Washington where he began what would be a quarter of a century career in Congress.
She had three sons and a daughter, balancing the life of a 50s mom with that of an engaged political wife. It had hardly been a traditional road to the White House, but her personal experiences influenced her unique reshaping of the First Lady role, due for a rehaul and changed forever because of her.
Few anecdotes are more revealing about a presidential family than the story of what happened later in the afternoon of the day Gerald Ford became President of the United States.
According to their son Steve, his parents and siblings returned to the small, brick suburban Alexandria, Virginia where they had lived for some twenty years, ate dinner together (Steve even thought his mother may have cooked it), and after Jerry helped wash dishes, they began packing their clothes and necessities into cardboard boxes to be brought to their new home, the White House. For ten days, however, the Ford home in the suburbs served as the temporary White House.
This author’s own professional writing career on the political and social influence and power of First Ladies was a direct result of Mrs. Ford’s willingness to first cooperate with a young, previously unpublished historian and then to help foster it. Someday, a more detailed account of her role and support will be recorded.
For now, however, this brief review serves as tribute to a woman who trusted and gave generously of energy, thoughtfulness and wisdom.
Another healthy and happy year to Mrs. Ford.