Betty Ford, Again Putting On A Brave Face

The former first lady spoke openly about challenges such as her drug and alcohol addiction.
The former first lady spoke openly about challenges such as her drug and alcohol addiction. (By Anna Moore Butzner -- Grand Rapids Press Via Associated Press)
By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 29, 2006

There is an old saying that you don't know who you are in this life until you get knocked down.

Betty Ford has been getting knocked down for a long time, by things that ruin lives and flatten people. Divorce. Cancer. Alcohol. Addiction. And now, the death of her beloved spouse.

She has always taken the punch and done it one better. You would not want to go to the wall with Betty Ford on resilience. She didn't become the most admired woman in America during one of the most turbulent periods in national history because she made nice. She was so admired in the mid-1970s, and is beloved by a wide swath of the nation today, because she was bluntly honest and because, after everything life has thrown at her, she never quit.

"Betty Ford did things that public women hadn't done before, not just first ladies," says John Robert Greene, one of her biographers. "She had three debilitating diseases -- arthritis, alcoholism, cancer -- and she survived all of them."

Now 88, she will be in Washington once again this week for the processions and funeral for Gerald Ford, the football star she wowed back in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Hemingway, a man who wrote well but lived badly, famously described courage as "grace under pressure."

This has not been Elizabeth Ann Bloomer Ford's forte. Pressure ate her up.

She suffered from the solitude, while her husband traveled as congressman and vice president and president. With recurring pain from a pinched nerve in 1964, and the prescription pills she became addicted to. Raising four kids almost alone. Breast cancer. The Watergate-era laser light of media coverage. She drank. Popped Valium. She was late to everything.

Her great strength was to beat all of that. She was more like the rest of us than many public figures like to let on, human and flawed, not bulletproof and immune. And she was open about all of it, the depression and foibles and addictions and brandy, and it touched a country polarized by cynicism and the government mendacity of the Nixon years.

She had a breast removed, a devastating emotional and physical blow. Here was her response: She invited photographers into her hospital suite and let them photograph her in her housecoat. She then became a national spokeswoman for cancer awareness, for the importance of women doing self-examinations. When asked how she would handle her daughter having a premarital affair, or her kids smoking marijuana, she said she'd talk with them about it.

"They brought such a sense of humanity back to the White House," Sheila Rabb Weidenfeld, Betty Ford's press secretary during her years as first lady, said yesterday. "They were real people who lived there."

Betty Ford was born in Chicago and, although Episcopalian, was raised in the predominantly Dutch Calvinist town of Grand Rapids. Her dad, Bill Bloomer, was a traveling salesman for the Royal Rubber Co. He was successful and always gone, and he drank and drank and drank. He died when she was a teenager, either the result of an accident in the family garage or suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning.

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