Betty Ford would have turned 94 today. When she died last year, Judy Bachrach remembered the unique First Lady. Originally published July 2011 on Obit-Mag.com.
Here’s what Betty Ford was asked back in 1975: What would she do if she found out her daughter Susan, then 18, was having an affair?
“Well, I wouldn’t be surprised,” she answered. “I think she’s a perfectly normal human being like all young girls.”
This from a Republican First Lady, a successor to Pat Nixon, who never once in all her White House years opened her mouth. No, not even when her husband, Richard, had to resign the presidency in disgrace, and she and he handed the reins over to a pair of bumpkins from Grand Rapids, Michigan.
In this Feb. 26, 1975 file picture, first lady Betty Ford wears an Equal Rights Ammendment button given to her by demonstrators at the hotel where she was staying with her husband, President Gerald Ford, in Hollywood, Fla. (AP Photo)
Betty Ford, an accidental First Lady, wife of Gerald Ford, the briefly tenured president who appeared perpetually puzzled and dismayed by the vagaries of fate, harbored none of her spouse’s reticence on arriving at Pennsylvania Avenue. In fact, once ensconced, she went on to opine on almost everything: abortion (she considered the Supreme Court’s favorable ruling on the procedure “a great, great decision” because it would help bring the procedure “out of the back woods and put in the hospitals where it belongs”); breast cancer (she knew exactly what guests at state dinners were thinking as they gaped at her silken-gowned figure after the radical mastectomy on her right breast: “Now which one did they say it was?”); the hopelessly doomed Equal Rights Amendment, which she championed despite her husband’s firm opposition; face lifts (she had one and was openly satisfied with the results). And of course alcoholism and addiction: that above all, although it wasn’t until Betty Ford returned to private life that she could bring herself to face the subject head-on.
But it was her flatly delivered, plain-spoken remark on 60 Minutes about her daughter’s possible sex life that caught the attention of the American public. Frankly, no one could believe she’d talked about it, especially not White House aides. Within seconds after the CBS broadcast ended, I received a bleak phone call from Sheila Rabb Weidenfeld, Betty Ford’s press secretary and a friend.
“What did you think?” asked Weidenfeld, without preamble.
“Amazing,” I said. “I’m full of admiration.”
“Really?” said the press secretary.
“Really. Everyone’s having sex, teenagers especially. It is not a new thing.”
“And the American public? How do you think they’ll take it? I’m really worried.”
Well, the American public was somewhat different back then, or maybe Betty Ford just gave them more credit than do her more fervent and ideological Republican successors on the public stage. One cannot quite imagine, say, a Michele Bachmann or a Mary Pawlenty offering those vigorous arguments. (In this way Betty Ford is emblematic of the way the Republican Party has changed in the last 3 ½ decades.) Gerald never quite knew what was coming next. “I’m really proud her polls are better than mine,” he said. What else could he say? Her approval rating was at 75 percent – and this was after she noted to McCall’s magazine that she’d been asked everything on earth except how often she and her husband had sex.
“And if they’d asked me I would have told them,” she added. “As often as possible.” Nor did her revelations stop there. She and her husband, she told interviewers, shared a White House bed. “He really doesn’t have time for outside entertainment because I keep him busy.”
Gerald and Betty Ford hold hands in the presidential limo (Wikimedia Commons/National Archives)
In any event, her passion for untrammeled expression was not why Gerald Ford lost the 1976 presidential election. (He lost because he pardoned Nixon, an unindicted co-conspirator in the various crimes of Watergate. The Ford decision was a surprise, by the way, which his wife thought politically ill-advised, and warned him against.)
All her life Elizabeth Bloomer Ford maintained a certain matter-of-fact simplicity and straightforwardness, which so often accompany clarity of thought, ambition and desire. She was, you might say, the Harry Truman of First Ladies: unabashed, unspoiled and direct. She never needed much time to think things out. When her father died of carbon monoxide poisoning while working on the family car, she became a teenage model to earn extra money. When she considered a career in dance, she moved to Greenwich Village at age 20 and joined the Martha Graham auxiliary troupe, praying for the soaring talent that would fuel her on-stage dreams. That exceptional gift, she soon realized, would never be granted.
So for a while, a pretty long while, she foundered. Unhappy during an early marriage to a Grand Rapids furniture dealer who drank himself sick, she divorced him after five years, and – rare for the era – never demanded alimony. One year later, she married a bulky former college football star with a smooth expanse of forehead who used to describe himself, with perfect accuracy, as “A Ford, not a Lincoln.” He became a congressman, later Minority Leader, and she, as she would later recollect, a particularly isolated and lonely housewife and mother of four who felt the need to search for identity through psychotherapy.
“On the one hand I loved being ‘the wife of,’” she would later reflect. “On the other hand, the more important Jerry became, the less important I felt I became.”
Some of this zeal for self-awareness must have been in her DNA. At least she thought so. Amelia Jenks Bloomer, the famous 19th century suffragette, abolitionist, and creator of the eponymous undergarment that allowed women greater freedom of movement than did bone corsets, was, Betty Bloomer Ford always believed, a relation, and she spent considerable time in later life trying to investigate the connection. But part of her bent for self-expression came, as she knew only too well, from her own vulnerabilities. She was deeply ashamed of them and – at the same time – drew comfort from the knowledge that she had plenty of company.
Betty Ford was, as another White House aide (not Weidenfeld)) once told me, “so bombed on her campaign flights around the country that we thought sometimes we’d have to carry her off the plane.” These drinking benders, along with prescription painkillers, exacted a toll that did not go unnoticed by family members, although during those White House years, doubtlessly taking political considerations into account, no one did much to help her.
“I was a bad enabler,” Gerald Ford once said. “I made all kinds of excuses, I made all kinds of alibis.” But in 1978, the family congregated in the Fords’ Palm Springs home and begged her to get help. She did, and she remained sober until her death, this past weekend at 93.
Four years after they confronted her, she helped found -- with a massive endowment from the industrialist Leonard Firestone -- the Betty Ford Treatment Center. It drew into its 14 gorgeous acres south of Palm Springs a clientele that might accurately be described as lushes with loot. Elizabeth Taylor, Liza Minelli, Mary Tyler Moore, Daryl Strawberry. You didn’t have to be famous and rich, of course, to go there, but given the cost of treatment at the place, it helped.
“It’s hard to make anyone understand what it’s like to have your name on something…” Betty Ford once wrote. “I’ve been at meetings where someone turned and thanked me, and I hugged the person and said, ‘Don’t thank me, thank yourself, you’re the one who did it, with God’s help.' From the beginning, we have wanted every patient at the center to feel, ‘I’m important here, I have some dignity.”
Very likely that’s how she felt, at long last. But it took some doing. And it took some living.
Betty Ford's official White House photo, 1974 (Wikimedia Commons/Library of Congress)
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