Betty Ford, the delightfully frank former First Lady and crusader against alcoholism and addiction, died last night at the age of 93 in Palm Springs, California, only a few miles from the famous rehabilitation center that carries her name. Within minutes, eulogies of Ms. Ford — pre-written to be sure, yet wonderfully intimate all the same — were posted online by the nation’s newspapers. In them is remembered a woman who had never planned to be in the White House, and never wanted to either, yet in the wake of the Watergate scandal chose to embrace the power-for-good afforded her as First Lady and made it the best kind of bully pulpit. (For the record, Betty Ford was against pardoning Nixon, which her husband, then-President Gerald Ford, ultimately did.)
Barely weeks in the White House, she let America watch as she was diagnosed with breast cancer, had a radical mastectomy, underwent chemo, and was declared (two years later) completely clean. Her openness has since been credited with easing millions of women toward the idea of regular breast exams. She also pushed hard for the Equal Rights Amendment, which passed Congress but has yet to be ratified by all the states, as well as (unsuccessfully) for her husband to nominate a woman to the Supreme Court. She spoke candidly about topics that were then and still are anathema to Republicans, such as abortion (it should be legal) and marijuana use (she’d try it if younger), and once even said on-camera that she “wouldn’t be surprised” if her then-teenage daughter, Susan, had premarital sex.
Her most lasting legacy, however, grew from her personal struggle with alcoholism and addiction to painkillers, both of which started in the sixties. It was only after leaving the White House that Betty’s family confronted her on her substance abuse, and though she initially lashed out at them as “a bunch of monsters,” she soon sought out treatment. A few years later, on October 3, 1982, the fourteen-acre Betty Ford Center was dedicated. And while famous for its celebrity clientele — the Liz Taylors and Liza Minnellis — Betty Ford and her clinic are often applauded for helping spread the idea that alcoholism and drug addiction can, in fact, be treated.
It also seems appropriate now, as we consider anew the role of the political wife, to take a lesson or two from the life of Betty Ford. Firstly, the strength to step out of the background, like when she delivered her own husband’s concession speech after Jimmy Carter’s victory in 1976 (Gerald Ford had lost his voice), and secondly the importance of keeping alive a bit of whimsy, like when she borrowed a skeleton from a hospital, dressed it up in her hat and coat, and sat it in a bedroom chair to greet her husband. All because he had called her skinny. Hers was a life both painfully public and yet rooted in a private self that survived intact the Washington years.
And so, a warm farewell to you, Betty Ford.