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Betty Ford dies at 93; former first lady

The wife of President Gerald R. Ford drew on her own experience with addiction in founding famed rehabilitation clinic.

July 09, 2011|By Marlene Cimons, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Betty and Gerald Ford embrace in the White House in 1974. Her taboo-busting honesty — about abortion, sex, gay rights, marijuana and the Equal Rights Amendment — was a bracing antidote to the secrecy and deceptions of the Watergate era.
Betty and Gerald Ford embrace in the White House in 1974. Her taboo-busting… (AFP/Getty Images )

Former First Lady Betty Ford, who captivated the nation with her unabashed candor and forthright discussion of her personal battles with breast cancer, prescription drug addiction and alcoholism, has died. She was 93.

Ford died Friday at the Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, according to Barbara Lewandrowski, a family representative. The cause was not given.

As wife of Gerald R. Ford, the 38th president of the United States and the only person to hold that office without first being elected vice president or president, she spent a brief, yet remarkable time as the nation's first lady. But after he left office and even after his death in 2006 at 93, she had considerable influence as founder of the widely emulated Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage for the treatment of chemical dependencies.

Photos: Life of former First Lady Betty Ford

"Throughout her long and active life, Elizabeth Anne Ford distinguished herself through her courage and compassion," President Obama said Friday in a statement. "As our nation's First Lady, she was a powerful advocate for women's health and women's rights. After leaving the White House, Mrs. Ford helped reduce the social stigma surrounding addiction and inspired thousands to seek much-needed treatment. While her death is a cause for sadness, we know that organizations such as the Betty Ford Center will honor her legacy by giving countless Americans a new lease on life."

Former First Lady Nancy Reagan also offered a tribute in her statement: "She has been an inspiration to so many through her efforts to educate women about breast cancer and her wonderful work at the Betty Ford Center. She was Jerry Ford's strength through some very difficult days in our country's history, and I admired her courage in facing and sharing her personal struggles with all of us."

Former President George H.W. Bush added, "No one confronted life's struggles with more fortitude or honesty, and as a result, we all learned from the challenges she faced."

Ford was an accidental first lady who had looked forward to her husband's retirement from political life until Richard Nixon chose him to replace Vice President Spiro Agnew, who had resigned amid allegations of corruption. When turmoil engulfed Nixon during the Watergate scandal, she told anyone who asked that she did not want to be first lady, but the job became hers when the president resigned on Aug. 9, 1974.

The groundbreaking role she would play as first lady may have been foreshadowed in President Ford's inaugural address.

"I am indebted to no man and only to one woman — my dear wife, Betty," he told the nation. Over the next 800 days of his tenure, she would outshine him in the polls, and when he ran for election in 1976, one of the most popular campaign buttons read "Betty's Husband for President."

Her taboo-busting honesty — about abortion, sex, gay rights, marijuana and the Equal Rights Amendment — was a bracing antidote to the secrecy and deceptions of the Watergate era. Although her opinions may have cost him some votes, historians and other observers would argue later that Gerald Ford could not have ended "our long national nightmare" without Betty leading the way.

"I was terrified at first," she once said about her sudden elevation to first lady. "I had worked before. I had raised a family — and I was ready to get back to work again. Then, just at that time, this thing happened. And I didn't have the vaguest idea what being a first lady was and what was demanded of me."

The solution? "I just decided to be myself," she said.

Ford caught the attention of a scandal-weary America with her opinions on her children's dating habits and their possible marijuana use, and on her and her husband's decision not to follow the White House tradition of separate bedrooms.

She enthusiastically campaigned for feminist causes that she believed in — the Equal Rights Amendment, for example, and the nomination of a woman to the Supreme Court. Her vigorous support of the women's movement inspired leading feminist Gloria Steinem to remark that she "felt better knowing that Betty Ford was sleeping with the president."

Two months after Ford moved into the White House, a malignancy was discovered in her right breast. She underwent a radical mastectomy, followed by chemotherapy.

At that time, breast cancer was a taboo subject, so it was remarkable news that she not only disclosed the illness but openly talked about it and her treatment. "It's hard for anyone born perhaps after 1980 or even in 1970 to understand that these things were not talked about," Dr. Patricia Ganz, director of cancer prevention and control research at UCLA's Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center, told The Times in 2006.

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