Reprinted from yesterday's late editions
The husband spoke of her as a wife and mother. He wanted to express for himself and his children their gratitude for "putting up with us, for understanding us, for trying to help us. We cannot express adequately our gratitude, our pride and our love for 30 years of a wonderful relationship, and we thank you so so much, Betty."
That was former President Gerald Ford at the end of a "This Is Your Life" kind of tribute to Betty Ford Thursday night at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. It was an evening that combined honest warmth, show-biz schmaltz and commercialization. At each table in the room that seated 200 for dinner was a reminder of the reason for the tribute - a copy of Betty Ford's autobiography. "The Times of My Life."
It was a final blast in two days of flackery to kick off the book. It is rare to have a former first lady as a publisher's commodity, and everyone played it for all it was worth - from Harper and Row, the Ladies Home Journal, and the Reader's Digest Association (which put on the dinner) to former secretary fo state Henry Kissinger, who gave a 20-minute tongue-in-cheek monologue honoring himself.
After several minutes extolling his alleged omnipotence, Kissinger finally got around to saying "Betty has done more for women than anyone. She is irrepressible, joyful, and she gave class to the White House." Then he finished off by saying, "Like all of you I was thrilled to hear me."
Comedian Flip Wilson recalled how he gave Betty Ford the tag of "First Momma" and said it was simply because she was too real to be merely a first lady.
Singer Tony Orlando, with the excesses that come easily to show-biz personalities, said, "This is a monumental moment for a boy who never got past the 8th grade and was raised in Hell's Kitchen. I used to walk in the White House and have the first lady look at me and say 'How's your grandmother?'"#TThe singer said that when he had a nervous breakdown recently, "Betty Ford was a constant, constant light of hope for me. I asked her how do I handle this? And her answer was, 'You tell people the truth.'"
Orlando then lightened things up by getting Kissinger to sing with him, in one of the worst monotones ever heard, and commanded a red-faced former president to do a little dance with his wife while Orlando sang, "You Are So Beautiful."
Pearl Bailey moved around the room with a mike, cabaret fashion, pulled Mrs. Ford up for an impromptu dance that came off rather well, called Mrs. Ford "my sister" and said "You wrote a book of courage."
When all the praise was over, Betty Ford ended the evening with a light and airy speech. Her manner and voice bore no resemblance to the halting, stilted tone that sometimes surfaced in the days when she was overly sedated.
Reaching for her husband's hand, she said, "There is where my strength is." Of the book and the evening, she said, "I feel as though I have to pinch myself to realize it is all true. I am thrilled to be here and I thank you everyone for coming."
Earlier, the Fords and most of their VIP guests showed up 45 minutes late for a cocktail party. As the cameras planed on the Fords, Kissinger uncharacteristically slid out of the limelight and throughout the cocktail party never moved toward the photographers or members of the press who had been cordoned off behind velvet ropes.
The Fords busily did the hugging routine in a room that included biggies from Harper and Row and The Ladies Home Journal, but mostly the old Republican White House crowd and show-biz types who used to perform there for the Fords.
One prerequisite for being a politician at this party seemed to be that you must no longer hold office - former New York mayor Abe Beame, former secretary of state Kissinger, former vice president Nelson Rockefeller, former president Ford.
Betty Ford's husband was in rare form, relaxed and joking with everyone. He and Nelson Rockefeller were simply talking about old times, he said, not any future political teaming up. Looking very much like he wants to run in 1980, Ford would only say that "I haven't had any time to make any plans."
His wife's new facelift is "just lovely," he said. "I thought she was beautiful before." In a serious moment he said about her book, "The truth is I got tears in my eyes as I read parts of it, particularly some of the parts of the last chapter, which was very dramatic." That chapter deals with the emotional moments when president and Mrs. Ford's children confronted her with her drinking and overuse of pills. Ford said they are happier now than they've ever been.
Mrs. Ford, in a flowing rainbow-colored gown in shades from orange to fuscia, was almost swallowed in a bear hug from Bailey who then held up the book to photographers and said, "I bought it!" She was one of the few in a room full of people who had gotten a free copy.
Wilson, in a black jumpsuit, said, "I've spent about 200 hours in the man's company," referring to Ford, "and we have never talked politics - and I have never voted. He's just my buddy."
Orlando, wearing an outrageously high pair of platform shoes, hugged Mrs. Ford, with whom he had danced in the Ford's presidential box at the 1976 GOP convention. That little act outraged all the Nancy Reagan followers at the convention.