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THE SUNDAY PROFILE : Living Out Loud : Betty Ford has a few regrets. And since she's a grandmother, she's 'not nearly so zany.' But the woman who made honesty chic still has a few choice words about politics and addiction.

November 12, 1995|PAMELA WARRICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RANCHO MIRAGE — Very soon now, the President, as he still is known in this household, will be walking through the front door. He will call out, "Hi, honey. I'm home," as husbands do, and she will drop what she's doing and rush to greet him with a kiss.

He has been gone only a few days this time, and in 47 years, there have been many longer separations. But that does not diminish the joy of this particular homecoming.

For Betty Ford, 77, and Jerry, 82, every reunion, every sliver of togetherness is precious. "Because you never know what tomorrow is going to bring," says Betty matter-of-factly. "Because you really have to take advantage of each day."

On a shimmering blue morning in the desert, it is hard to imagine a more glorious spot for seizing the day. Lavender granite mountains loom like giant moon rocks beyond the manicured greens of a favorite Ford fairway. Hummingbirds zip between glossy lemon trees and Betty's own garden of tangerine-colored roses.

Taking it all in from her green-and-white quilted chair, the former First Lady smiles and sighs. "Yes," she says, "this must have been what the Garden of Eden looked like."

At last, paradise found for Betty Ford.

And who, one might ask, deserves it more?

She has lost a breast to cancer, undergone heart bypass surgery, waged an excruciating battle against arthritis, and succumbed to and overcome addictions to painkillers, sleeping pills and alcohol.

And, in typical Betty Ford fashion, she has done it all in full public view. "Well, you know, that's just the way I am," she says. "In my usual vocal way, I've always told everybody what I was going to do."

In politics, living out loud is not always prudent. Some Republicans still believe her outspokenness on such touchy topics as abortion, premarital sex, smoking pot and the Equal Rights Amendment hurt Jerry Ford's 1976 campaign to stay in the White House.

And if she has any regrets, the possibility that she cost him the election would certainly top the list. But just as history has forgiven President Ford for forgiving Richard Nixon, so has Betty been pardoned for her all-too-candid performance as First Lady.

The woman who made honesty chic still speaks her mind (and still goes barefoot when nobody's looking). But, as she often reminds visitors, she's a grandmother now and "not nearly so zany."

Although her fragile health has made it easier in recent years to stay close to home, she continues to travel on behalf of the Betty Ford Center and its work with alcoholics and addicts.

"Not long ago," she says, "I was in an airport shop buying newspapers when a woman rushed up to me and took my hands in hers and said, 'You have saved my life. I owe you my life .'

"Other people will say, 'You know, we share the same disease' and then thank me for what I've done. I'm grateful, of course, but I often wonder which disease it is they're talking about--alcoholism or breast cancer or arthritis. . . .

"Whatever it is, I know I am not the one responsible. Each of us is responsible for ourselves. At most, [my experience] may have given them a little bit of a nudge."

Her own nudge to give up drugs and alcohol was administered 17 years ago right here, smack in the middle of her beige-carpeted living room.

And it wasn't so much a nudge as it was a shove.

Three months after the Fords left the White House, and two weeks after they moved into this modest desert home, daughter Susan gathered family members, doctors and therapists for what in the recovery business is known as an intervention.

By then, the woman who had casually mentioned to the entire national press corps that she was popping a Valium a day was now popping all sorts of "gourmet medications."

"I had pills to go to sleep, pills to wake up, pills for pain, pills to counteract the reactions of all the other pills. And each of these, please note, was from a doctor's prescription."

Mix all that with a few martinis a day, which Betty often did, and you get, as Susan said, "an absent and unreliable mother and wife."

Her speech was slurred, her gait was shuffling. She was lonely, she was miserable, she was hooked. "I was dying," Betty recalls, "and everybody knew it but me."

After a month of therapy and detox at the Long Beach Naval Hospital, she returned home to host a long-planned cocktail reception for about 100 curious Republicans.

"Can you imagine coming back to that? It was almost too much for me. I was sober but was I ever scared."

Several months later, on her first trip back to New York sans chemicals, her sobriety almost ended.

"I began to think, 'How am I going to face all these people?' Just then, they wheeled into the suite a tray of preparations for a reception we were hosting. "My anxiety level," she says, thumping her chest, "was just rising. I had no Valium. I had nothing to calm me down.

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