Her candor on cancer, women’s rights and addiction moved many
LOS ANGELES – Betty Ford, the former first lady whose triumph over drug and alcohol addiction became a beacon of hope for addicts and the inspiration for her Betty Ford Center in California, died at age 93, a family friend said late Friday.
Her death Friday was confirmed by Marty Allen, chairman emeritus of the Ford Foundation. Family spokeswoman Barbara Lewandrowski said later that the former first lady died at Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif. Other details of her death were not immediately available.
“She was a wonderful wife and mother; a great friend; and a courageous First Lady,” former President George H.W. Bush said in a statement on Friday. “No one confronted life’s struggles with more fortitude or honesty, and as a result, we all learned from the challenges she faced.”
While her husband served as president, 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, Betty Ford’s openness was refreshing.
And 1970s America loved her for it.
According to Betty 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,” the first lady said.
“Mother’s love, candor, devotion, and laughter enriched our lives and the lives of the millions she touched throughout this great nation,” her family said in a statement released late Friday.
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 she 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 in 1982. Betty 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.
Betty Ford met and began dating Gerald Ford while waiting for the divorce from her first marriage to become final. They would be married for 58 years, until his death in December 2006.
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.
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.
In 1973, as Betty 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.
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.
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.
After Gerald Ford lost narrowly in his bid for another term in 1980, 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, Betty 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.
She credited their “intervention” with saving her life.
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