Betty Ford dies at 93: Former first lady founded iconic clinic

July 8, 2011

Betty Ford, a self-proclaimed “ordinary” woman who never cared for political life but made a liberating adventure out of her 30 months as first lady, died Friday at age 93.

“I decided that if the White House was our fate,” she once said of Gerald R. Ford’s brief presidency, “I might as well have a good time doing it.”

To the surprise of some and the consternation of others, Mrs. Ford evolved as an activist first lady whose non-threatening manner coupled with her newfound celebrity provided the women’s movement with an impressive ally. Undaunted by critics, she campaigned for ratification of the ill-starred Equal Rights Amendment, championed liberalized abortion laws and lobbied her husband to name more women to policymaking government jobs.

“Perhaps it was unusual for a first lady to be as outspoken about issues as I was, but that was my temperament, and I believed in it,” she said in an interview for this paper at her Rancho Mirage, Calif., home in 1994. “I don’t like to be dishonest, so when people asked me, I said what I thought.”

Her husband, who died in 2006, was a longtime Michigan congressman who became House minority leader. He served as Richard M. Nixon’s vice president before the Watergate scandal led him to succeed Nixon, who resigned Aug. 9, 1974, and become the nation’s 38th president. Mrs. Ford had not wanted her husband to be president, but once he took office, she was determined that Americans know him as one with integrity.

“I was against a pardon,” she said of Ford’s decision to release Nixon from his Watergate offenses, which critics viewed as a secret deal between the two men in exchange for Nixon’s resignation.

Fearing the pardon would undermine Ford’s still-fragile presidency, she said she argued that “it would be very detrimental. I saw the anger as far as Watergate was concerned and the anger at President Nixon. I said, ‘It’s not going to be popular, it’s not going to look good.’ And I wanted him to look good.”

In the end, she acquiesced to Ford’s rationale that he needed to “get the country going.” Impeachment proceedings “would have taken months in court, and he didn’t think the country could stand that kind of thing,” she said. “When you’re trying to turn things around because of the distrust and all that was out there, you’ve got to do something. And sometimes you have to do something extreme.”

Within weeks after Watergate claimed Nixon’s political life and the Fords were settled at the White House, she soared from nonentity to national heroine because of her candid disclosure that she had a nodule in her right breast and was entering Bethesda Naval Medical Command. When a biopsy showed the lump to be malignant, she underwent a radical mastectomy.

Although intended in part to suggest a new period of openness in the White House, the announcement had another — and unexpected — effect that she said had not occurred to her: Women across the country began seeking checkups for breast cancer.

“Circumstances made it appropriate for us to speak up about what was happening to me because we were in such a spotlight. I became the conduit and I was very glad to be one,” Mrs. Ford said. “The public needed to know that this didn’t have to be swept under the rug anymore, that this needed to be open and discussed.”

Although she once characterized political wives as dutiful “appendages” and early in her husband’s career had reconciled herself to being simply “Congressman Ford’s wife,” the Betty Ford whom Americans eventually came to know was no shrinking violet.

When interviewers asked brash questions about the family’s private lives, Mrs. Ford ingenuously responded in kind. She quipped that she slept with her husband “as often as I can,” would try marijuana if she were young again and she “wouldn’t be surprised” if her teenage daughter Susan were to have a premarital affair.

“I always had a more liberal view,” she said. Just because she was first lady didn’t mean she felt any different, Mrs. Ford said at one point. It could happen to anyone. “After all,” she said, “it has happened to anyone.”

Her unconventional opinions outraged some Americans who considered it a first lady’s obligation to be morally accountable in word as well as deed. Many of her detractors were fellow Republicans; many of her fans Democrats.

“I felt the public had a right to know where I stood,” she wrote in her 1978 autobiography, “The Times of My Life.” When Ford proclaimed indebtedness “to no man and only one woman” in his inaugural remarks, his wife said she, too, felt she had a moral obligation to uphold his pledge of candor and openness in his administration.

Thus, for Mrs. Ford, a frank, plain-spoken Midwesterner, going public became a pattern of action that would also punctuate her post-White House years. In 1978, she disclosed that her use of alcohol and mood-altering prescription drugs had become a serious dependency.

In what she has described as a painful “intervention” when her family confronted her with her problem, she agreed to enter the drug and alcohol rehabilitation program at Long Beach Naval Hospital. Of that experience came the momentum to establish the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, a live-in treatment program for alcoholics and drug abusers.

As “very much a believer” in fate, she often thought about how her life and those of others suffering from cancer or alcohol and drug addictions might have played out had her husband never become president.

Alcoholism had been a ghostly companion throughout Mrs. Ford’s life, starting with her father, a traveling salesman, and continuing with a brother after he returned from World War II. It also contributed to the dissolution of her first marriage when, as she later wrote, “I probably encouraged my husband to drink.”

Although she eventually thought she was “born alcoholic” and the pressures in her life had not suddenly transformed her into one, in “Betty: A Glad Awakening” (1987), she wrote that she always saw herself as a “controlled drinker, no binges.”

“I never thought it would touch me anymore than you expect cancer or diabetes,” she said.

Survivors include three sons, Mike, Steve and Jack Ford; a daughter, Susan Ford Bales; and her grandchildren.

Born Elizabeth Ann Bloomer on April 9, 1918, in Chicago, she was the only daughter and youngest of three children of William Stephenson and Hortense Neahr Bloomer. When she was 2, they moved to Grand Rapids, Mich. When she was 12, she went to her first dance, with a boy she married 12 years later.

Her father’s death by carbon monoxide poisoning in a garage accident when she was 16 came at the height of the Great Depression. By then she had an after-school job modeling in a local department store and on Saturdays gave dancing lessons in her aunt’s basement.

“Dancing was my happiness,” she wrote of her short-lived career, which included two summers at the Bennington School of Dance in Vermont, a winter in New York City under the tutelage of modern dance pioneer Martha Graham and, back in Grand Rapids, teaching dance for a bit before marrying insurance salesman William Warren in 1942.

“I could have as easily skipped it,” she said later of the marriage, which ended in divorce in 1947 with her vow never to remarry, particularly someone who traveled for a living. Within months Gerald Rudolph Ford Jr., a Grand Rapids lawyer five years her senior, changed her mind.

“If I had known he was going to run for Congress, I don’t think I would have married him,” she said in a 1973 interview with this reporter. “I really thought I was marrying a lawyer, and we’d be living in Grand Rapids.”

She first learned of his plans to run for Congress when he announced his candidacy for Michigan’s 5th Congressional District seat in the 1948 elections. Only later did she learn why Ford didn’t want the marriage to take place until late that fall. By then the primary election would be over and what he feared might be unpopular with Republican voters, marrying a divorced woman, would no longer pose a problem for him.

She later admitted that she had not understood what running for Congress meant or how unprepared she was to be a political wife. Told by a future sister-in-law that there would never be another woman in Ford’s life because he was married to his work, she never expected to have an even more demanding rival: politics.

Politics, in fact, had been an alien and contentious world to the attractive former John Robert Powers model. “I ignored it,” she said.

Still, she was apolitical enough to realize that she could live with her husband’s moderate Republican positions. When she married him on Oct. 15, 1948, at Grand Rapids’ Grace Episcopal Church, “that made up my mind” about a political affiliation.

They honeymooned by making the rounds of campaign rallies. She voted Republican for the first time by casting her ballot for her new husband. (Later, she made no secret of occasionally splitting her vote, to the chagrin of party loyalists.) Years afterward, when Ford’s White House advisers warned that her liberal feminist views could damage his 1976 presidential bid (“If Jerry Ford can’t control his own wife, how can he run the country?” went a popular refrain of the day), Mrs. Ford countered that she was “merely raising another voice within the party.”

The close-knit society of congressional wives that Mrs. Ford joined in January 1949 offered bipartisan friendships but imposed strict protocols, some glamorous but most of them duty-driven. In the shadow world where she lived with their four children, born from 1950 to 1957, wives were caretakers of family, hearth and husband.

Her dependency on prescription drugs began around 1964, when she was hospitalized for a pinched nerve in her neck, the result of an earlier injury while shoving up a kitchen window. As her pain increased, so did the dosages of pain-killing and mood-altering prescription drugs, among them Valium, which she took daily. Her physical discomfort, Ford’s frequent absences and her growing resentment over his preoccupation with work reached a point where she sought the help of a psychiatrist.

Then in 1972, with Democrats retaining control of the House, Ford realized he no longer had any realistic hope of becoming speaker. He promised his wife he would seek one more term and then retire from political life in January 1977. But Vice President Spiro Agnew’s fall from grace with his response of “nolo contendere” to charges of taking bribes forced the Fords to alter their timetable.

Although Nixon’s list of vice presidential nominees included longtime friend and political ally Ford, Mrs. Ford never took seriously speculation that he would choose her husband. Unknown to her, however, Ford had met on several occasions with Nixon chief of staff Alexander Haig and eventually Nixon himself.

On Oct. 12, 1973, the same day the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that Nixon must make available eight subpoenaed Oval Office tapes critical to the Watergate case, Nixon announced his nominee. In private, Nixon had assured Ford that he need not worry about becoming the party nominee in 1976 because he would be backing Treasury Secretary John Connally for president. According to Mrs. Ford, Nixon’s promise made her husband’s nomination palatable.

She received reporters in the Fords’ unpretentious split-level Alexandria home, to talk readily about her children, openly about her physical problems and optimistically about seeing more of her husband as vice president.

But an early clue that behind the stereotypical political wife there was a little-known feminist came in an interview with Barbara Walters. On the condition that they not discuss political issues, she faced up to Walters, whose first question was what she thought of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 decision on Roe v. Wade, which effectively legalized abortion.

As Mrs. Ford later recalled the encounter, “I just said, ‘Well, I’m delighted because I’m glad they have taken abortion out of the backwoods and put it into the hospitals.’ And, of course, that was the beginning. Nobody realized that I had ever had an opinion. I mean, ‘All those children? She couldn’t!’ ”

That September, at her debut news conference as first lady, she moved publicly closer to the liberal roots of her youth, confirming her earlier statement on abortion by aligning herself with the abortion rights position of vice-president-designate Nelson Rockefeller. She expressed her support of the Equal Rights Amendment, five states short of ratification, and urged women to take a more active role in politics. Mrs. Ford’s August 1975 taped interview with CBS “60 Minutes” correspondent Morley Safer earned her the lasting animus of scandalized Republican conservatives and provided them another excuse to champion Ronald Reagan as the party challenger in 1976.

If Ford thought his wife “a little mouthy” about ERA, she said in 1994 that their children were indignant that they had become the subject of speculation about whether they had smoked marijuana (“Probably,” Mrs. Ford told Safer), premarital sex (it might reduce the divorce rate, she mused) and how she might respond if daughter Susan told her she was having an affair (“She’s a perfectly normal human being. . . . I would certainly counsel and advise her on the subject.”)

Privately, Ford pitched a pillow at her when he watched the program later. Publicly, he joked that his wife cost him “10 million votes,” then in a further attempt to minimize the political consequences with facetious exaggeration, upped the figure to 20 million. Anti-Ford forces were incensed that the president and his wife appeared to condone immorality and told her so in a barrage of critical mail.

Attempting to defuse her remarks, Mrs. Ford subsequently wrote in a letter to her critics that “the emotion of my words spoke to the need of this communication, rather than the specific issues discussed.”

By year’s end, however, her approval rating jumped from 50 percent to 75 percent, making her the nation’s most admired woman.

When the 1976 presidential campaign got underway, it was Mrs. Ford who drew the crowds and inspired the campaign buttons that read: “Elect Betty’s Husband for President.”

Former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter’s defeat of Ford by 2 percentage points raised the question of whether some of Mrs. Ford’s intemperate remarks had contributed to her husband’s loss. In California, where the Fords moved to establish a life away from Washington, she spoke of feeling unwanted, unnecessary and alone. She grappled with empty-nest syndrome by taking as many as 25 pills a day. By evening, she added before- and after-dinner vodka and tonics.

In April 1978, confronted with her addictions by her worried family, she agreed to seek help at the Navy’s rehabilitation facility in Long Beach. This time when Mrs. Ford returned home, fate handed her another assignment: point person in a fundraising campaign to build a $7.6 million chemical dependency recovery facility.

Four years later, the Betty Ford Center opened on the grounds of the Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, with its namesake as chairman of the board. She later was instrumental in expanding its services to include a family therapy program and a women’s treatment center.

She was an early proponent of help for AIDS victims and continued her support for women’s rights. As namesake of the Betty Ford Comprehensive Center for Breast Cancer at the old Columbia Hospital for Women in Washington, she remained a symbol of the importance of early detection.

In 1993, feeling they would have more impact together than as individuals, Mrs. Ford and her former campaign rival Rosalynn Carter joined forces to urge the White House and Congress to include in any health-care reform legislation being written coverage for mental health and substance abuse.

Although it would be another 17 years before a health-care package was enacted, Mrs. Ford, who had helped advance the role of future first ladies from dutiful “appendages” to activist partners, remained convinced that making the effort had always been worth it.

“When you have so much,” she said, “it is just human nature that you see the needs of others and you want to help.”

Radcliffe, a longtime Washington Post journalist, died in February 2010.

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