Betty Ford: A Singular First Lady

When Gerald Ford became president after Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974, he proclaimed himself “indebted to no man and only to one woman.” His job was clear: to heal a nation torn apart by Watergate and Vietnam. But what about that woman? Betty Ford has called Aug. 9, 1974, “the saddest day” of her life. The transition was not easy. Her press secretary, Sheila Rabb Weidenfeld, remembers her first job interview with the new First Lady. She asked Ford what a First Lady’s press secretary should do. Ford replied: “How should I know? I don’t even know what I am supposed to do.”

Within a month, Ford and Weidenfeld had their answer. Ford was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. Weidenfeld says it was at Ford’s insistence that the press statement talked honestly about the First Lady’s health. It was a decision Ford made “on the operating table,” Weidenfeld says. At the time, it was a radical move. “Cancer was not a word that could be mentioned out loud,” Weidenfeld says. “You never saw cancer in obituaries.” The effect of that openness was electric. “This changed the landscape for breast cancer for women everywhere,” says John Schwarzlose, president and CEO of the Betty Ford Center, who has known Ford for more than two decades. “Women came out of the shadows and stood in line for a mammogram. No longer because of Mrs. Ford’s courage and candor was breast cancer a disease of secrets.”

From that point on, openness became the First Lady’s trademark. “Basically,” says Weidenfeld, “she was saying, ‘Don’t be ashamed of your problems. Deal with them.’ ” In part, it was her personality. “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” Ford told Weidenfeld when they first met. In other words, Betty was going to be the same person she always was. “When she was asked a question, she would answer very honestly,” Weidenfeld says. And there were plenty of questions. In the first month of her husband’s administration, she gave 200 interviews. “I’ve been asked everything except how often I go to bed with my husband,” she told a friend. “If they had asked me, I would have told them.” (Years later, she told another interviewer that her answer would have been “as often as possible.”) She was an outspoken advocate of women’s rights and was strongly pro-choice on abortion. Her standard statement on the issue: “It’s out of the backwoods and into the hospital where it belongs.”

Her straightforward answers sometimes drew criticism, even from her husband. One sticky moment came after she told Morley Safer on “60 Minutes” that she would not be surprised if her daughter Susan, then a teenager, had sex before marriage. “She got in a terrible flap for it,” recalls Kaye Pullen, her speechwriter. “I remember somebody telling her how great it was and she replied that the President was so mad at her.” But she never considered saying anything else, recalls Maria Downs, her social secretary. “She was sorry it had the effect it did,” Downs says, “but she told me that she could not go out and say that if her daughter had an affair, she would abandon her.”

Weidenfeld says she never thought her boss should muzzle herself. “It was important to have a First Lady who was honest,” says Weidenfeld. “We were coming out of a period where no one trusted government or politicians. People felt they had been lied to. It was important to have an open administration.” Rebecca Black, now dean of the Gerald Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, was in her early 20s during the Ford presidency and remembers being impressed by Betty Ford even then. “This is not what you expected of a First Lady,” Black says. “She was stepping out of the role to become a real person. It was not sugar coated. It was very honest.”

The First Lady became an unexpected folk hero. Weidenfeld’s husband had a CB radio and he gave it to Ford, who adopted the handle “First Momma” and would call truckers from the White House and ask their location. She loved the language that the truckers used and talking to people on the road, Weidenfeld says. That down-to-earth attitude won her millions of fans from all over the political spectrum. At many points during the Ford presidency, Mrs. Ford’s popularity in the polls soared well above her husband’s—a situation that pained her, former staffers say. But she never considered hiding her real self. “She was never a hypocrite,” says Downs. “She didn’t say one thing in public and another in private.”

Ford’s road to the White House began unconventionally. Born Betty Bloomer in 1918, she grew up in Grand Rapids, Mich. As a teenager, she developed a passion for dance and spent two summers studying dance at Bennington College in Vermont. She then became a member of the Martha Graham troupe and lived for a while with a roommate in the Chelsea section of Manhattan. It was a little too daring for her mother, who begged her to come back to Grand Rapids for a few months before settling permanently in the big city. She did, and ended up marrying a local salesman. It was an unhappy union that lasted five years and ultimately ended in divorce. Not long after she became single again, Jerry Ford—then considered the most eligible bachelor in Grand Rapids—asked her out. They were married on Oct. 15, 1948, and soon after headed for Washington and Jerry Ford’s first term in Congress. For the next 25 years, as her husband rose in Congress and traveled the country (sometimes away 200 nights a year) raising money for the Republican party, Betty Ford essentially raised their four children on her own.

Those years were difficult for her and by the early 1970s, with the children mostly grown, Mrs. Ford wanted a change. Just before her husband was named vice president, she had made him promise to retire after the 1976 election. But when he ultimately lost that campaign, she was devastated and fell deeper into substance abuse—specifically alcoholism and an addiction to pain medication originally prescribed years earlier for arthritis and a chronic neck injury. As First Lady, she was able to hide the extent of her addictions, staffers say, but those closest to her couldn’t help noticing that something was wrong. Weidenfeld says she worried all the time about Mrs. Ford’s health although she blamed the pills, not alcohol. “She had to cancel events often,” Weidenfeld says. Pullen remembers a couple of occasions when Mrs. Ford seemed “out of it” but staffers attributed it to fatigue or stress. “She was under so much more pressure than we really understood,” Pullen says. “She was just carrying an enormous load.” Once that load was lifted and she and her husband left Washington, she seemed to fall apart. In her 1987 book, “Betty: A Glad Awakening,” Mrs. Ford describes the intense family intervention that forced her to face her problems and enter rehab. “I was dying,” she wrote, “and everyone knew it but me.”

In recovery, she became an advocate for treatment, dedicating the Betty Ford Center in 1982. “In the early years of the center,” says Schwarzlose, “there was still an incredible stigma on women alcoholics. Often, Mrs. Ford would get letters from middle-class and upper-middle-class women begging her to give them direction of what to do. She always took the time to write to them personally and give them advice.” Many of those women ended up at the Betty Ford Center. When one seemed on the verge of giving up, the staff would call Ford and she would come over and meet one-on-one with the woman. “The Center clearly became the No. 1 mission in her life,” says Schwarzlose. Her work at the Betty Ford Center and with breast-cancer groups has made her an icon for many women. “After he left the presidency and was essentially in retirement, she started a whole new career by starting the Betty Ford Center,” says Black of the University of Michigan. “It has become a model for lots of programs,” drawing not only celebrities but also lots of ordinary people.

People who’ve known the former president and First Lady over the years say their marriage has always been a strong one, even during the toughest times. At the Ford Center, Black has spent a lot of time observing the couple together and she says they had a remarkable partnership. “Together, they were a lovely couple in every sense of the word,” she says. “They function very much together.” Downs says Mrs. Ford was never a docile wife, agreeing with everything her husband said. “They were always going back and forth at each other,” she says. Ford’s standard line on what it takes to make a successful marriage was typically blunt, Weidenfeld recalls. “Marriage isn’t 50-50,” she would say. “It’s 70-30 on both sides.” When she gave up drinking, her husband did as well, even though he wasn’t an alcoholic. Her recovery strengthened their marriage, Ford wrote in “A Glad Awakening,” noting that her husband told her that because of it she became much more of an equal partner and he became more openly emotional. “It just knocks me for a loop that he’s learned to express his feelings,” she wrote.

Whenever he was out of town, Gerald Ford would call his wife and say, “I just want to tell you that I love you and I miss you.” And now, for the first time in 58 years, she is truly on her own.