Ex-president's death reminds nation of Betty Ford's candor

December 28, 2006|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,sun reporter

When her husband unexpectedly became the nation's 38th president, Betty Ford was suddenly and reluctantly transformed from congressional wife and former department store fashion coordinator to first lady of the United States.

Her candor and common sense quickly won over a nation that had never before heard a president's wife talk so openly about taboo topics, including her own addictions and her battle against breast cancer. Gerald R. Ford's death this week once again is pushing Betty Ford into the spotlight, introducing her to a new generation of Americans.

Now 88, the former first lady lives in Rancho Mirage, a city near Palm Springs, Calif. Though reportedly slowed by arthritis, she continues to serve as founding chairman of the nearby Betty Ford Center, a facility treating the alcohol and drug dependencies that she famously overcame in 1978 after her husband left the presidency.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's editions of The Sun about former first lady Betty Ford misidentified former New York governor and presidential candidate Thomas E. Dewey as a Democrat. He was a Republican.

At that time, many still considered such addictions to be more a matter of morals than medicine. However Betty Ford's candid discussion of her reliance on prescription painkillers and alcohol helped people perceive chemical substance abuse as a disease, says Joseph A. Califano, former secretary of Health, Education and Welfare and founder of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse.

"In one fell swoop, she got the medical community to understand the problem now known as polysubstance abuse," he says. "She brought it home to people that very few people in this day and age are addicted to alcohol alone. ... She had a phenomenal impact."

In addition, her vigorous fundraising created a world- renowned treatment center that has served roughly 60,000 people during the past two decades.

"Rarely does anyone's name become a noun. Everyone knows what you're talking about if you say, `I'm going to Betty Ford,'" says historian John Robert Greene, author of Betty Ford: Candor and Courage in the White House.

That wasn't the life she had planned.

On Aug. 9, 1974, the day her husband became president, the 56-year-old congressional wife reluctantly put aside thoughts of winding down to retirement, as Gerald Ford had promised. It's a day she has recalled as the "saddest of my life" because of her devastation at Richard M. Nixon's resignation as president.

But in a little more than two years, she not only managed to embrace her new job but to leave a lasting impression on the nation.

For Americans devastated by the subterfuge and lies of Vietnam and Watergate, Betty and Gerald Ford represented an honest new season of government. Betty Ford quickly established herself as accessible and controversial - especially about women's rights.

"I tried not to dodge subjects," she writes in her autobiography The Times of My Life. "I felt the public had a right to know where I stood. Nobody had to feel the way I felt, I wasn't forcing my opinions on anybody, but if someone asked me a question, I gave that person a straight answer. ...

"I've been told I didn't play it safe enough, but my husband has always been totally supportive. ... He's never turned around and complained, `Now that was a dumb thing to say!'"

Betty Ford stumped for the Equal Rights Amendment. She told Barbara Walters that she believed in a woman's right to choose a safe and legal abortion. And, in front of a television audience of millions, she refused to balk when Morley Safer on 60 Minutes asked what she would do if her 18-year-old daughter, Susan, came home and said, "Mother, I'm having an affair."

"I said, `Well, I wouldn't be surprised. I think she's a perfectly normal human being, like all young girls. If she wanted to continue it, I would certainly counsel and advise her on the subject. And I'd want to know pretty much about the young man,' " she recalls in her autobiography.

On that 1975 show, Safer pressed other hot buttons: Premarital sex? Ford said it might lower the divorce rate. Drugs? She said she didn't think her children were very interested in them.

Such a personal discussion with a first lady might surprise viewers even today.

"Betty's candor at dealing with questions about the Ford family was brand new," author Greene says. " "No one would have asked Jackie Kennedy a question like this. This was an indicator of how the press had changed after Vietnam and Watergate. The broadcast media in particular had gotten burned on Watergate, and Ford was the first recipient [of questions] by a press corps on steroids.

"Everyone wanted to be seen as a little [Bob] Woodward. Betty started getting questions that no first lady, and no president, had ever gotten. She could have retired behind a good press secretary. Instead, she actually answered the questions. And this wasn't Ladies Home Journal we're talking about. It's 60 Minutes - the most respected news show on television and the most potentially lethal if you're not careful."

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