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The outspoken first lady who changed the world

New biography presents a moving portrait of Betty Ford

Created date

October 22nd, 2018
Betty Ford opened the Betty Ford Center in 1982. Since then, it has treated more than 100,000 people.

Betty Ford opened the Betty Ford Center in 1982. Since then, it has treated more than 100,000 people.

People say that being America’s first lady is among the most challenging and thankless jobs in government. They are wrong. In fact, the first lady receives no salary. She’s a volunteer. 

Though their official capacity is largely ceremonial, modern first ladies have taken on a long list of responsibilities. They host foreign dignitaries, champion worthy causes, and represent the nation at international events.

In modern times, perhaps no first lady had more of a challenge than Betty Ford, wife of America’s 38th president, Gerald Ford.

Suburban housewife

At the start of 1973, Betty Ford was a suburban housewife. Before year’s end, she became second lady when her husband was appointed vice president in the wake of Spiro Agnew’s resignation.

Ten months later, on Aug. 9, 1974, Betty held the family bible as her husband took the oath of office for president of the United States. The ceremony was small and somber since the nation was still reeling from the Watergate scandal.

Shortly after being sworn in, Gerald Ford addressed the nation in a televised address. “My fellow Americans,” he said, “our long national nightmare is over.”

For Betty, however, the nightmare was just beginning. According to the empathetic new biography Betty Ford: First Lady, Women’s Advocate, Survivor, Trailblazer (Life Stories) by Lisa McCubbin, Aug. 9, 1974, was the saddest day of Betty’s life.

She loved her husband dearly and wanted to help him in every way possible, but especially early on, she feared that she would not live up to the demands of being first lady.

Moving up

The Fords became the first family on such short notice the White House wasn’t ready for them. The Nixons’ belongings were still being packed as President Gerald Ford addressed the nation.

Hours after being sworn in, Gerald, Betty, and their four children returned to their home in suburban Virginia.

Trailing them were a team of Secret Service agents and a mob of reporters. As the motorcade pulled onto Crown View Drive, the Fords were delighted to see the neighbors lining the street to cheer them on.   

Despite the Fords’ rapid rise to prominence, Betty was determined to stay true to herself. “Okay, I’ll move to the White House,” she said, “do the best I can, and if they don’t like it, they can kick me out, but they can’t make me somebody I’m not.”

Her down to earth nature was immediately apparent to Dick Hartwig, the special agent in charge of her Secret Service detail. “She wasn’t a rock star; she didn’t want to be a rock star. She just wanted to be Betty Ford,” Hartwig told McCubbin.

Breast cancer

Soon after the Fords moved into the White House, Betty received a terrifying diagnosis. She had breast cancer. Weeks after becoming first lady, she underwent a mastectomy.

At that time, the word “breast” was not spoken in polite society, and even cancer wasn’t discussed.

Though it would have been perfectly acceptable for Betty to keep her diagnosis private, she chose to announce it without shame or embarrassment.

“When other women have this same operation, it doesn’t make any headlines,” she told Time. “But the fact that I was the wife of the president put it in headlines and brought before the public this particular experience I was going through. It made a lot of women realize that it could happen to them. I’m sure I’ve saved at least one person—maybe more.”

Her decision and the impact it had on everyday Americans was part of her enduring legacy.

At her funeral, historian Richard Norton Smith said, “Where women’s health issues are concerned, American history is divided into two unequal parts: before Betty and after Betty.”

Addiction and recovery

Despite her initial misgivings, Betty genuinely enjoyed being first lady. However, there was no denying that the position was inherently stressful. There were long days with a lot of travel and no matter what was going on or how she felt, Betty needed to maintain her poise.

Nervous by nature, she found that taking Valium helped her relax. And she relied on powerful prescription pain medication to ease the debilitating pain of a pinched nerve in her neck.

In the evening, alcohol helped her unwind. She’d have one or two cocktails before dinner and perhaps a few more later on.

After her husband lost his election bid in 1976, the Fords moved to Rancho Mirage, Calif. One thing Betty took with her from the White House was her reliance on prescription drugs and alcohol.

It got so bad that the Ford family staged an intervention. Like most in the grip of addiction, Betty initially refused to acknowledge her problem.

How could she be an addict if physicians prescribed all her medications, she wondered.

Eventually, she relented. True to herself always, Betty did not try and hide her addiction from the public. She released a written statement before entering treatment.

For the rest of her life, Betty devoted herself to increasing awareness of drug and alcohol addiction. She was a vocal proponent for building more treatment centers, and in 1982 she opened The Betty Ford Center.

Betty Ford died in 2011 at the age of 93. She will be forever remembered as the first lady who spoke her mind—the first lady who said out loud frightening and stigmatized words like “breast cancer” and “addiction.”

Her candor saved lives and remains at the core of her legacy.

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