Honesty in marriage, like in politics, can be a gift or a weapon. Betty Ford's husband Jerry loved her fizzy candor, her firm commitment when she believed in something and her refusal to pretend when she didn't. She wore a mood ring, but that was redundant; she wasn't one to hide an attitude anyways, any more than she'd hide how much her psychiatrist had helped her or what she thought of her children's sex lives or which breast doctors had removed when she got cancer. So as the country wrestled with the role it wanted women to play, she marched with Betty Friedan in support of the Equal Rights Amendment. As the political stars realigned for a generation around Roe, she called the court's abortion ruling "a great, great decision." As the trauma of Vietnam lingered, she discussed amnesty for draft dodgers. When after six weeks in office she discovered the cancer, she bared her pain in public. She was unlike any other First Lady and yet perfectly suited to her time, 29 months in the White House during which America was catching its breath and checking its pulse to see if basic institutions and assumptions could survive the shock of the Nixon presidency. Her long combat against addiction brought all kinds of suffering out of the shadows. When she died Friday at the age of 93, America lost one of its most unlikely and unmatched healers.
Transparency is not the normal First Lady format: Life in the White House means trying to keep your sanity, keep your husband grounded and keep out of trouble. This is always easier to manage as a porcelain figurine propped at the president's side than as a living, breathing, conspicuously imperfect and opinionated partner with weaknesses she didn't try to hide. Betty Ford was by no means the first strong and influential First Lady, but she was the first to take her personal power public in ways that changed the role and the country at the same time. (See Betty Ford's life in pictures.)
As a child growing up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Betty Bloomer met a fortune teller who read the tea leaves and told her that one day she'd meet kings and queens. If that image lodged anywhere in her daydreams, she would do so as a great dancer, for that was her passion. She began dance lessons when she was eight years old, and was serious enough to pass up college and head instead to New York City to join Martha Graham's auxiliary dance group. This represented a full immersion course in rule breaking and graceful defiance; the fierce, barefoot priestess of modern dance, Graham was both a revolutionary and "a great disciplinarian," Ford said, "and that has given me the strength to carry on. Had I not had that association with her I might not have been able to do as well." (See the top 10 colorful First Spouses.)
That strength was useful when she moved back to Grand Rapids in 1941 and married a local furniture dealer named William Warren; the marriage didn't take - she called it "a five year misunderstanding" - but even as they prepared to go their separate ways, he fell suddenly into a diabetic coma, and she spent the next two years nursing him back to health, before eventually divorcing.
At 29, she fell in love with a hometown hero, a former college football star and rising young lawyer who failed to mention that he was running for Congress until after she agreed to marry him. Gerald Ford was elected to the House two weeks after their wedding in October 1948, and together they began their long, unplanned and unlikely journey towards the White House.
Betty Ford never got to prep for the role. She hadn't slogged through a national campaign, hadn't had months or years to envision herself as Mrs. Leader of the Free World. Her husband's election as House Minority Leader in 1965 meant a grueling work and travel schedule, which left her home alone much of the time, raising four children and maintaining as much of a sense of normalcy as Washington life allowed. She was actually heading out of politics before fate threw her deeper in; the toll of de facto single motherhood, along with the chronic pain from a pinched nerve, left her mental and physical health sufficiently fragile that Ford wasn't going to run for Congress again after 1974. That intention somersaulted when Spiro Agnew resigned in disgrace and Ford was drafted as Nixon's Vice President in October of 1973. Ten months later, Betty Ford was First Lady.
In her 1978 autobiography, The Times of My Life, Ford described her vault into the center ring. "I was an ordinary woman who was called onstage at an extraordinary time. I was no different once I became first lady than I had been before. But, through an accident of history, I had become interesting to people." When she held the Bible for her husband's swearing in, she said later, "I really felt like I was taking that oath too." (See the top 10 memorable state-dinner moments.)
President Ford was a wise and good man, but uncommonly common in his manner for a president; this made Betty's colorful character all the more apparent. She was the one who liked to tell off-color jokes, which she'd have to explain to him. She was First Mama on her CB radio; she made a cameo on the Mary Tyler Moore show; she wore pantsuits, lobbied her husband to name a woman to his Cabinet (which he did: Carla Hills, his Housing secretary. "I'm working on getting a woman on the Supreme Court as soon as possible," she noted.) She was among the 12 women named Women of the Year by Time in 1975. "I'm the only First Lady to ever have a march organized against her," she bragged after a choir of women dressed in black gathered in front of the White House chanting their disapproval of her lobbying for the ERA. But by and large her popularity grew faster than the controversy she generated. She could go for a walk on a beautiful day in Georgetown and people would stop to give her a present; a florist would run out with a bouquet. "I think they like to see me as a normal human being, doing the same things they are doing," she said then. "Betty's Husband for President" read the buttons during the '76 campaign.
She knew that some of her predecessors could felt trapped by the White House. "It could be considered a goldfish bowl or a gilded cage," she said in an interview with TIME in December of 1975. "But I made up my mind that I wouldn't let it be that way. I would go ahead and live my life the way I normally would. I've done it. I'm having fun."See how Gerald Ford rose to the occasion as president.
Her adamant normality had a revolutionary tint when it came to dealing with the press. She was both a victim and vanquisher of the media monster that roared onto the scene after the revelations of Watergate, when a newly empowered press corps felt leave to ask anyone anything. A stoic Yankee of more private disposition might have struggled with the expectations; Betty Ford's Midwestern reflex was to answer whatever she was asked. "You're very foolish if you try to beat around the bush," she observed. "You just meet yourself coming around the bush the other way." Some Ford advisors wanted to keep her under wraps, warning that she was costing her husband conservative votes. But others understood the deeper message she was sending. The previous Administration, including a president re-elected in the greatest landslide in history, had turned out to be full of liars and rogues. The institutional machinery of law enforcement and tax collection and intelligence gathering had all been rewired for political ends. It was hard to know whom to trust anymore - and the kind of fearless, unembarrassed honesty she projected was the only antidote to sustained suspicion.
So when Morley Safer pressed her on 60 Minutes about whether her kids had smoked pot, she said she assumed they had experimented with it. Asked how she'd react if her 18-year-old daughter Susan were found having an affair, she said she wouldn't be surprised, and would want to know "if the young man were nice or not." A Harris poll following the interview found that the public approved of that view by 64% to 23%: "I was completely dumbfounded," Ford said. When she told a Washington columnist that about the only question she had not been asked was how often she slept with her husband, the columnist replied, "Well, how often do you?" "As often as possible!" she replied. And she made no secret of her political priorities, particularly in the area of women's rights and the mentally ill.
But it would be matters even more personal that truly put her transparency to the test. Ford learned about her breast cancer six weeks after her husband became president. There was not much time to debate what to say - nor much need. "There had been so much cover-up during Watergate that we wanted to be sure there would be no cover-up in the Ford administration," she wrote in her memoir. "So rather than continue this traditional silence about breast cancer, we felt we had to be very public." (See Betty Ford's battle with cancer.)
No public figure had discussed her treatment, including a radical mastectomy, so bluntly or in such detail. "I felt very self-conscious," she said later, recalling the aftermath of the surgery. "The first time I walked down those stairs for a formal reception and everyone was waiting for us to arrive, I knew they were saying, 'Which breast did she say it was?'" But her discomfort was a price she willingly paid; millions of women began doing self-exams, going for screenings - and telling Ford that she had saved their lives by helping them detect cancer early, a group that included the Vice President's wife, Happy Rockefeller. In fact the explosion of screening meant that the reported incidence of the disease rose, which some researchers called the Betty Blip.
The second test was an even greater challenge, since it involved the battle she had waged against addiction since she started smoking at 14. Betty Ford's mother Hortense used to say that her youngest child "popped out of a bottle of champagne." Betty said she always liked that idea - though the day would come when she almost drowned in one. By the mid 1960s, Betty Ford was struggling with her role as political wife, single mother and civic leader; In 1964, when she was 46, she pinched a nerve trying to get a window open. She was put in traction, did physical therapy, but the pain, combined with arthritis, left her dependent on prescription drugs and her evening cocktails. Within a year she had fantasies about running away from home just to make her family worry. That's when she began seeing a psychiatrist.
Her tenure as First Lady was in a way therapeutic. It gave her a direction and focus, and so maybe it wasn't surprising that, like many presidents, she felt a sense of anticlimax after they left office and settled into an early retirement in a nice house in Rancho Mirage, Ca.
It took only three months before her daughter Susan arranged the intervention, with the whole family and some Navy doctors present. There was no suitable rehab clinic for her in those days; she entered the Long Beach Naval Hospital in California for alcohol and drug treatment. There was no hiding this crisis either; she didn't want people to think her cancer had returned. "It's an insidious thing, and I mean to rid myself of its damaging effects," she said of her multiple addiction. "There have been too many things that I have overcome to be forever burdened with this." Four years later, with the help of tire magnate Leonard Firestone, she cut the ribbon on the 80-bed facility in Rancho Mirage that bore her name, after a last minute run to K Mart for soap and shower curtains. See Gerald Ford's life in pictures.
And so her very name became a noun, synonymous with intensive, serious rehab treatment for a disease that can hit anyone - a disease, she explained, and not a matter of loose morals or lack of willpower.
She was worried about naming the facility the Betty Ford Clinic - not because of the notion of a stigma forever attached to her name, but because of her fear that she might slip, and fail to live up to the example she wanted to set. "I liked alcohol, it made me feel warm," she wrote in her 1988 memoir, Betty: A Glad Awakening. "And I loved pills, they took away my tension and my pain. So the thing I have to know is that I haven't got this problem licked; to my dying day, I'll be recovering."
She was no figurehead: she ran the center, served on the board, greeted support groups at the center by saying "Hi, my name is Betty and I'm an alcoholic." She walked the grounds, straightened the pictures, worked the budget. Sometimes, especially when an older woman would check in, wary or resentful, counselors would call her at home and she would come to the center, sit in their room, hold their hand, and talk.
The center kept her busy, while her long marriage helped keep her happy. In their later years, she and Jerry would eat dinner on trays watching Jeopardy!, or playing gin, rather than drinking it. When he died in 2006, the world remembered how strong and tiny she was, standing with her children around her as the nation laid her husband to rest.
Betty Ford was once asked if she was on a mission. She said no, that would be presumptuous. "I don't think God looked down and said, 'Here's Betty Bloomer, we're going to use her to sober up alcoholics.' But I do think people relate to someone who has the same problems they have and overcomes them. And I think God has allowed me - along with thousands of others - to carry a message....there's help out there, and you too can be a survivor. Look at us. Look at me."