Feature

Betty Ford, 1918–2011

The First Lady who elevated candor to a public virtue

Betty Ford believed in speaking her mind. In 1975, she appeared on 60 Minutes to answer questions about her family and her life as First Lady to President Gerald Ford. Asked what she would do if her then 18-year-old daughter, Susan, told her she’d had premarital sex, Ford replied, “Well, I wouldn’t be surprised. I would think she’s a perfectly normal human being, like all young girls.”

Socially conservative Americans were outraged, said E.J. Dionne in The Washington Post. But even they must have seen that Ford’s “genuineness and candor” were a “refreshing rebellion against the convention of politics.” Having a First Lady willing to cut against the grain showed the country it could “absorb the social changes of the previous decade without falling apart.” In the end, her outspokenness would go far beyond sex to cancer, abortion, and, most famously, addiction.

Ford was born Elizabeth Ann Bloomer, and brought up in Grand Rapids, Mich., said the Grand Rapids Press. After working as a model and a dancer in New York City, she returned to Michigan to marry insurance salesman William Warren in 1942. That marriage ended in 1947—just months before she met Gerald Rudolph Ford Jr., a Grand Rapids lawyer five years her senior.

The two were engaged to be married in 1948, said The Washington Post, and Ford only learned of her fiancé’s political ambitions on the day he announced his candidacy for Michigan’s 5th Congressional District seat. “If I had known he was going to run for Congress,” she later said, “I don’t think I’d have married him.” The future president waited until after he won to tie the knot so that “what he feared might be unpopular with Republican voters, marrying a divorced woman, would no longer pose a problem for him.”

It was not until Ford was thrust into the presidency in 1974 that his wife actually did begin to pose a problem with Republican voters, said CBSNews.com. “Funny and down-to-earth,” the First Lady quickly got a reputation for saying what she really thought, whether it was about sleeping with her husband “as often as possible,” praising Roe v. Wade as “a great, great, decision,” or fighting for equal rights for women. When she contracted breast cancer in 1974, she discussed her mastectomy “in the days when people didn’t say the ‘C’ word out loud.” Her outspoken nature got her into trouble with conservatives, but she quickly became a feminist icon. When her husband ran for president in 1976, campaign buttons said, “Elect Betty’s husband for president.” More than one commentator later voiced the suspicion that the president’s controversial wife may have cost him the election.

Candor was always one of Ford’s “defining characteristics,” said USA Today, and never more so than when she “revealed a longtime addiction to painkillers and alcohol” a few months after leaving the White House. The former First Lady admitted to taking as many as 25 pills a day, washed down with vodka and tonics, and said her family had encouraged her to seek help. She balked, calling them “a bunch of monsters,” but did go for a stint in rehabilitation at Long Beach Naval Hospital. That experience inspired her to establish the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif., in 1982. Since then, it has treated 90,000 people and helped develop advanced techniques for treating addictions.

Although Betty Ford “claimed a more public role than any previous First Lady,” said David Frum in CNN.com, she was also one of the last “old-fashioned First Ladies,” taking a modest political role outside of the president’s orbit. But while the likes of Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama may have chosen not to emulate Ford’s unvarnished openness, you can bet they envied the free space she created to speak her mind. “That was my temperament, and I believed in it,” she later said. “I don’t like to be dishonest, so when people asked me, I said what I thought.”

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