and both served as President for less than three years each, but they bookend a ten-year period marked by both progressive and destructive forces that permanently altered the way the world perceived the U.S. and the way the U.S. perceived its leaders.
The sense of a hopeful future being lost when Kennedy was assassinated didn’t spring from sentimentalism alone. Within months, the U.S. escalated its military presence in Vietnam, with massive numbers of ground troops, chemical weaponry, and unrelenting bombings. Every night at dinnertime, Americans saw the carnage for themselves in the evening news broadcast on color T.V. sets. The nation splintered bitterly between those protesting the war and those who felt such a reaction was unpatriotic. It bred the hateful mistrust which undermined and degraded the consecutive presidencies of Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon, the immediate successor of Kennedy and the immediate predecessor of Ford, respectively.
The end of Kennedy’s presidency marked the beginning of this era and the beginning of Ford’s marked the end of it. Under Ford, the Vietnam War finally drew to a close. With liberation now more an aspect of liberty, Ford’s 1976 Bicentennial Commission fostered a more inclusive telling of the national story, crediting women, immigrants, former slaves, and working-class white men whose contributions had been previously ignored. The naively optimistic trust of government’s best intentions prevalent in Kennedy’s era might not return, but the honest integrity of Jerry Ford’s intentions lifted the America of his time into recovery and renewal.
Striving to become President, Kennedy shaped his personality into an irresistible media persona. Ford, on the other hand, had never pursued his long career in Congress with any intention of ending up President. His Midwestern middle-class background may have provided the reassurance of solid trust so necessary after Watergate but his inculcated modesty inhibited Ford from widely disseminating in the media the reasoning for his controversial pardon of Nixon. In fact, when President Kennedy’s brother, Senator Edward Kennedy presented the 2001 Profiles in Courage Award to former President Ford, he remarked:
At a time of national turmoil, America was fortunate that it was Gerald Ford who took the helm of the storm-tossed ship of state. Unlike many of us at the time, President Ford recognized that the nation had to move forward, and could not do so if there was a continuing effort to prosecute former President Nixon. So President Ford made a courageous decision, one that historians now say cost him his office, and he pardoned Richard Nixon. I was one of those who spoke out against his action then. But time has a way of clarifying past events, and now we see that President Ford was right. His courage and dedication to our country made it possible for us to begin the process of healing and put the tragedy of Watergate behind us. He eminently deserves this award, and we are proud of his achievement.
As much as any policy, what lingers in the general public’s mind about his presidency, from August 9, 1974 to January 20, 1977, is how vitally First Lady Betty Ford engaged the nation in a candid dialogue on the sweeping societal changes challenging average American families in that era and thus helping define the character of it for history. With the now-immediate recognition of the name “Betty Ford,” however, Jerry Ford’s wife made her most enduring contribution to his presidential legacy.
Jackie Kennedy worked as a former First Lady in her Cape Cod home to intentionally ensure her husband’s legacy (see the previous article: https://carlanthonyonline.com/2012/02/07/a-presidents-residence-saved-the-kennedy-family-compound-with-rare-photos-of-their-real-life-there/), Betty Ford’s work as a former First Lady in her desert home unintentionally did the same for her husband. Her mission was helping to save thousands, if not millions of lives mired in alcoholism and drug addiction, well beyond those who sought treatment in the nearby facility with her name carved over its door, “The Betty Ford Center.”
For one-third of a century, from the moment she disclosed she was seeking treatment for her own struggle with alcoholism and drug addiction in 1978 until her death last July, Betty Ford dedicated her life to recovery treatment, whether by granting thousands of media interviews in which she often corrected misconceptions about addiction, addressing crowds from college campuses to women’s prisons, reviewing new research on the disease, studying proposed changes in methodology, or responding to tens of thousands of letters from those relying on her emotional inspiration and practical guidance as a role model. With a commitment running so deep and long, Betty Ford helped forge a permanent societal change which, however chronologically recent it may seem, is ultimately historic. Equally historic is the place from which she did all this, the so-called “Ford Desert House,” in Rancho Mirage, California, where she lived with her husband longer than any other place. It is historic not just for being the home of a former U.S. President, but as a symbolic birthplace of the modern addiction recovery movement resulting from his wife’s work.
Among all former Presidents of the United States, only Zachary Taylor and Gerald R. Ford lack an historic site where the public can learn how they lived, be it birthplace, childhood home, summer White House or retirement retreat.
Not only did the “Ford Desert House” go on public sale two weeks ago but all of its original furnishings remain in place there and available for purchase with it, offering an unprecedented but fleeting chance for its historic preservation. In light of the possibility that it will not be saved, here at least is a glimpse inside its rooms, with photos from the real estate websites la.curbed.com and the Desert News. Also here is a photo essay on “The Temporary Ford White House,” the family’s suburban Virginia house which served as the official presidential residence for ten days in August 1974, and a briefer entry on the Fords’ “Summer Mountain Home” in Colorado, with photos from the National Park Service, Gerald Ford Library, and Associated Press.
“The Temporary Ford White House”
When the President and Mrs. Ford moved to Rancho Mirage, California in January 1977 from the White House, following his defeat by Jimmy Carter for the presidency, they left behind a life in Washington of nearly thirty years, all but two and a half of them spent as a congressional couple.
Except for their first six years in Washington when they lived in the suburban Virginia “Park Fairfax” garden apartment complex (where, coincidentally enough Congressman Richard Nixon and his wife Pat Nixon had been fellow residents), and their last two and a half years, in the White House, the Fords called a modest brick house on Crown View Drive, in suburban Alexandria their home. Built by an architect from Ford’s Grand Rapid, Michigan district on a plot of land they bought in a housing development, they took possession of it in 1955.
Eventually, the Fords converted the garage into more needed room, not anticipating their second two children after having their first two. They raised their four children in the Alexandria home – or rather, Betty Ford did, mostly, she later admitted. As a congressional leader, Jerry Ford spent more days of the year out on the road campaigning for colleagues than he did at home with his family and it was his wife who often had to play the role of both parents for them. This was in addition to the social and charitable duties expected of congressional wives. It created great stress, and she later admitted that alcohol offered temporary relief at times. While raising a kitchen window there one day in 1965, she pinched a neck nerve that left her not only severely impaired but in chronic pain; doctors readily prescribed strong pain medication for it.
In October 1973, following Vice President Spiro Agnew’s resignation amid growing scandal, President Nixon named Ford, by then the House Minority Leader, as his new Vice President. The Fords began making plans to move across the Potomac River to become the first family to occupy Admiralty House on the grounds of the Naval Observatory, a Victorian mansion that had recently been designated as the first official residence of the Vice President. Rather than Admiralty House, however, the family’s next home proved to be the White House. With less than a week’s notice, Nixon’s impending resignation from office on August 9, 1974 found the Fords making hasty arrangements to vacate their Crown View Drive home. For the first ten days following the new President’s inauguration, however, the family still lived there, making it the temporary Ford White House.
Once the Fords moved into the White House, their Alexandria house was left empty but guarded. Soon after, it was bought by a neighbor after the Ford presidency ended. Used as a rental property for nearly thirty years it had a neighborhood reputation for loud parties as groups of post-college young adults leased it. No effort was made to purchase it for use as a house museum, an admittedly difficult prospect in a quiet, residential neighborhood. Finally, in 2009, Tim and Helen Lloyd bought the Crown View Drive home to make their own, and the latter has written a lively, personal and accurately-detailed account of their effort to retain elements of the Ford occupancy: https://clovercollegepark.com/president-fords-connection-to-the-neighborhood.html
The fulfillment of having her own opinions affect positive change as First Lady, and the large White House staff no longer necessitating many of her previous chores converged to temporarily reduce some of the stress Betty Ford had endured beforehand. Despite his 1976 election loss, as a former President and First Lady, both Fords would find their activities and interests still garnered media attention, an important factor as their story continued to unfold in the post-presidential years.
“The Summer Mountain Home”
Having always spent winter holidays skiing and summer months enjoying the alpine setting of Vail, Colorado, the former President and First Lady would purchase a home in Beaver Creek, Colorado to escape their California desert home in the extreme heat of summer. Actively engaged in the community, a park of alpine gardens was even created and dedicated to the former First Lady there. Typically, they spent the late spring, summer and early autumn there. The house itself is large and richly-appointed. It was often busy with political and personal friends, their children and children-in-law, and growing circle of grandchildren. It was sold for $6.65 million in 2007 by the Ford family and has since been on the market again for a figure twice that.
“The Ford Desert House”
With the former President’s grand obsession of golf, however the Fords had decided to make their primary home base in the Palm Springs, California area, long a bastion of legendary figures, mostly moderate Republicans, of the generation just previous to their own, with famous residents including Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Ginger Rodgers, George Burns and Jane Wyman (the first wife of Ronald Reagan). Settling on a 1.37 acre parcel which they purchased from former ambassador and tire heir Leonard Firestone in the town of Rancho Mirage, it sits on the 13th fairway of the Thunderbird Country Club.
For what they had in mind as a living and work space compatible with the view of nearby sandy mountains and desert flaura and fauna, and the emerald golf greensward that would be just outside their window, the Fords commissioned the famous mid-century modern Los Angeles architectural firm of the late Welton Becket to design a home based on a 6,316-square-foot single-story floor plan.
The Becket firm created a five-bedroom, six-bath house for the Fords, with a flat-planed rouge-colored roof and generous window taking advantage of its southern exposure and mountain views. It placed guest rooms on one side of the building, with the family rooms on the other. In the center, a courtyard of sorts, is a large pool, with a flowing fountain to the side, designed and built to the former President’s specifications, since he swam there twice daily. The other structures on the compound include a 5,284-square-foot staff office and ceremonial one where the former President welcomed prominent guests, and a Secret Service guard “shack,” the converted former home of Ginger Rodgers, both buildings on the same road leading to the Ford Desert House.
Unlike their crowded Alexandria, Virginia home and the grand sylvan mountain retreat at Beaver Creek, Colorado, the Ford Desert House was a durable sanctuary, tasteful and bright but quiet and peaceful. Except for the eye-popping green shades here and there, the entire tone is one of pale and subtle sand, orange and pink, attuned to with the desert land and sky. The tiling and white-brick walls, some detached from the ceiling, provide coolness. It is in marked contrast to the showplace of nearby Sunnylands, the recently-restored home of former Ambassador and publisher Walter Annennberg and his wife Lee, just opened as a house museum to the public.
By the time the Fords had settled into their new desert life, however, the combination of drugs and alcohol was taking a heavier toll on Betty Ford. She slurred her words, her perception so altered that she did not recognize her Secret Service agent and introduced herself to him. In fact, her life was at risk. Her family, led by daughter Susan who initially lived with her parents in Rancho Mirage, became alarmed at the growing change in her and organized an intervention. From there, the former First Lady sought “rehab,” or more precisely, recovery from her addictions. While at Long Beach Naval Medical Hospital, she decided to go public with it in hopes of reducing the stigma attached to the disease. She made the case that if a former First Lady could be alcoholic and addicted to drugs, publicly admit it and then recover perhaps it could encourage others struggling with the issues to do likewise and, further, help alleviate some of the secondary emotional shame usually felt over it.
Once she had processed some time in her own recovery, she teamed with friend and neighbor Leonard Firestone to create the recovery center at nearby Eisenhower Medical Center which now bears her name, The Betty Ford Center. She didn’t stop there
All through her 70s and 80s, the former First Lady continued to write books, including an explicit account of her own addictions, Glad Awakening, grant interviews on the subject, develop specialized treatment programs for women addicts and others addressing the repercussions on family members of those with addictions, and prepare speeches she gave on the subject around the country. All of this unfolded behind the gates of the refreshing Ford Desert House, where the shifting daily light played on the mint green furnishings through a multitude of skylights, light-wells, a glass-walled living room and the sparkling pool fountain.
It was also from this house that the former President began to learn about the issues of addiction and to work with his wife in her post-White House career as a pioneering leader of the recovery movement, becoming an informed proponent on the issue in his own right. The widespread cultural shift from hiding addiction as a secret to honestly embracing it with the goal of recovery gained its global currency as a direct result of Betty Ford’s high visibility. Despite the misconception that she just lent her name to it, the former First Lady also continued to work on a smaller scale, going daily to the Betty Ford Center not just for business meetings but to counsel patients, introducing herself by Alcoholics Anonymous protocol, “Hello, my name is Betty and I’m an alcoholic…”
Evoking the independence of her lobbying as First Lady for the Equal Rights Amendment, however, Mrs. Ford wanted equal his-and-her offices for herself and her husband, and here she did her paperwork and correspondence.
What can practically be done to preserve this site , significant as both a presidential home and symbol of the recovery movement?
Since it was a built with security and privacy as priorities, it is isolated enough from nearby private residences and with a large enough entrance drive to accommodate more than a modest and limited stream of daily visitors. With tourism being the greater Palm Springs area’s primary draw, anchoring it with an historic home of this magnitude would only help the local economy.
It would seem ideal for the fully-furnished historic home to become the property of the nearby Betty Ford Center, perhaps along the lines of what the Edward M. Kennedy Institute intends for the Joe and Rose Kennedy House in Hyannis Port, as both a study center and museum. A foundation related to other issues Betty Ford worked in, like breast cancer or gender equity might also make use of the property as one group has done in purchasing the Reagan Ranch in Santa Barbara with its furnishings intact. Certainly there is enough wealth in the region so that a consortium of interested locals could purchase it, if even to just buy time to consider preserving it as an historic site before a private buyer could then rightfully alter it as their own home. Even agent Nelda Linsk of H.K. Lane Real Estate who is handling the property’s potential sale at the asking price of $1.7 million (comparatively modest to nearby properties), with the furnishings also available, expressed the hope that the town might buy it to preserve it as an historic site:
It might be hard for those in 2012 to think of a house built and furnished in the late 70s as anything but “modern.” In short time, however, it will go from “dated” to “period,” and then (if it can dodge the wrecker’s ball), “historic.” When Harry Truman’s Missouri home first opened to the public in the late 80s, the father of young children laughed as he pointed out an old toaster “just like the one in grandpa’s house.” Those kids can now point it out to their kids, like the one in great-grandpa’s house.
- A President’s Residence Saved: The Kennedy Family Compound with Rare Photos of their Real Life There (carlanthonyonline.com)
- Desert Home Of Late President Ford Available For $1.6M (losangeles.cbslocal.com)
- On the Market: Own the Desert Compound That Gerald and Betty Ford Built (curbed.com)