Betty Ford: The Real Deal

Uploaded by PBSNewsHour on 11.07.2011

JANE ALEXANDER: The 1970's, Watergate, Women's Rights and Vietnam... Tumultuous times catapult
Gerald R. Ford and his wife Betty into the White House. He was plainspoken and she was
outspoken. JOHN ROBERT GREENE: It is impossible to overestimate
the impact that Betty Ford had on the office of first lady. She changes everything about
the role of first lady. ANNE CULLEN: There are thousands of women
who are alive right now and in recovery that wouldn't be there if Mrs. Ford hadn't gone
JANE ALEXANDER: This is her story. In Betty Ford's brief and unexpected reign
as first lady she broke the mold. She was a Pro-Choice Republican who became the first
first lady to take on a feminist agenda and one of the few to differ publicly with her
husband. BETTY FORD: I really always have been probably
what you might say is outspoken -- sometimes to the detriment of my husband's role as president.
JANE ALEXANDER: Her ability to be open and honest about her battles with breast cancer
and drug and alcohol abuse, saved millions. It was an incredible and sometimes painful
journey. In 1947, troops were flocking back home from
the war and in Grand Rapids, Michigan the young and upwardly mobile gathered at Kent
Country Club for Saturday night dances. It was here that hometown belle Betty Bloomer
Warren would first spot the young lawyer Gerald Ford.
JOHN ROBERT GREENE: He was a football hero who had not only been a hero at the University
of Michigan but had been drafted by the pros. He was a bona fide war hero. He was incredibly
handsome. He was the type of guy who would gravitate to a beautiful woman like Betty
Bloomer Warren, and he does. BETTY FORD: We just thought we would be good
friends, companions and so many of our friends were married that it made it handy to have
somebody to do things socially with or go to a movie with but with time I certainly
developed a feeling that this was someone special in my life.
JANE ALEXANDER: It was indeed a special relationship a partnership that would endure for over half
a century propelling Betty Bloomer Warren onto a world stage that would give her the
biggest audience of her life. She was born Elizabeth Anne Bloomer on April
8th, 1918. Her two brothers Bill and Bob, who were 5 and 8 years her senior, called
her Betty. They grew up in a fashionable section of Grand Rapids, Michigan, a small mid-western
city. JOHN ROBERT GREENE: It was the epitome of
middle class America. JANE ALEXANDER: Betty's mother, Hortense Nearh
Bloomer, was from a wealthy family. She was also a perfectionist, whose standards Betty
always tried to live up to. Betty's father, Bill Bloomer worked as a travelling
salesman selling conveyor belts. JOHN ROBERT GREENE: It wasn't a privileged
upbringing but it was a comfortable upbringing. Because of her father's success in sales,
they were able to avoid being hurt very badly by the Great Depression.
JANE ALEXANDER: But that success meant Betty's father was rarely home.
BETTY FORD: My mother was a very independent woman because she had to be. She had been
very much a role model in my life because my father was gone a lot
JANE ALEXANDER: The influence of two older brothers and a strong mother fortified Betty
Bloomer's already independent nature. LILLIAN FISHER: She spoke right out. You always
knew how you stood and what she wanted. She wasn't a namby-pamby pretty little dancing
doll. She was very much a solid character. JANE ALEXANDER: A solid character that became
comfortable performing at an early age. At age eight, Betty Bloomer danced with the Calla
Travis Dance Troupe in their spring recitals and continued dancing through high school.
BETTY FORD: I became very interested in my dancing school. And I spent a lot of time
with that because I enjoyed it so much. I kind of fell in love with dance.
JOHN ROBERT GREENE: So she gravitated to modern dance. Which was an outgrowth of the artistic
scene of the 1920's, was much more expressive, was much more free form. It was perfectly
suited for Betty's adventurous personality. JANE ALEXANDER: Before long Betty was the
star of many dance recitals in Grand Rapids. She even modeled to pay for her dance lessons.
LILLIAN FISHER: She was very popular with the boys. There would be several of us who
would sort of wait and see who is asking her for Friday and Saturday night dates and then
see who was going to be left over for us. JOHN ROBERT GREENE: She dated a great deal,
she smoked early. She says she had her first drink at age 14. This was a young rebel.
JANE ALEXANDER: But Betty's teenage fun and revelry would come to a halt one day when
she came home to discover her father had died. JOHN ROBERT GREENE: He was found in his garage,
in the car, with the motor running and he asphyxiated from carbon monoxide poisoning.
BETTY FORD: It came as a shock because he died quite suddenly. I was 16 years old, which
is a very impressionable age, a very important age.
JOHN ROBERT GREENE: What was more important than how he died was what happened at the
funeral when Betty was told for the first time by her mother that her father was indeed
an alcoholic. JANE ALEXANDER: The revelation of her father's
alcoholism would become more significant as Betty struggled with her own issues later
in life. For now, she watched as her mother carried on with a strength she would try to
emulate. BETTY FORD: She went out and she got her real
estate license and sold houses. That gave me an idea of how independent a woman can
be if she needs to be. JANE ALEXANDER: After high school, Betty went
to a summer dance program at Bennington College in Vermont.
JOHN ROBERT GREENE: It was the complete inverse of Grand Rapids -- very progressive faculty.
And Betty found herself and found her artistic muse in Bennington.
JANE ALEXANDER: Betty's muse was modern dance pioneer Martha Graham who was in residence
teaching a summer workshop. JOHN ROBERT GREENE: Martha Graham wanted the
performer to be able to lay everything on the line in public. There is no better definition
of what Betty Ford would become than that. JANE ALEXANDER: After Bennington, Betty followed
Martha Graham to New York, but after two years she was still not in the principle dance troupe.
Martha saw that Betty enjoyed her social life as well as dance.
BETTY FORD: Martha was very strict. She expected you to give it full attention 24 hours a day.
So I had a lot of talkings-to by Martha. You know if you're really serious about this,
you better settle down. JANE ALEXANDER: Betty decided she wasn't ready
to fully commit to the life of a dancer, and gave into her mother's pleas to come home.
BETTY FORD: She kept talking about all my friends at home who were getting married and
having these lovely weddings and trying to tempt me to come back.
JANE ALEXANDER: Betty did return and married a traveling salesman named Bill Warren, whom
she divorced within five years. She supported herself working as a model and fashion coordinator.
And she lived in an apartment on her own. It was at this time that Yale Law School graduate
Gerald Ford and Betty Bloomer Warren would cross paths.
JOHN ROBERT GREENE: He was a perfect match for Betty Bloomer Warren, who had come back
a much more cosmopolitan person from Bennington, and from New York.
JANE ALEXANDER: With her sense of humor, beauty and sophistication she was the tonic that
loosened up this conservative young lawyer and in turn his serious convictions offered
her a stability that both her father and first husband could not. In a matter of months they
were talking about marriage. JOHN ROBERT GREENE: Gerald Ford was ready
to accept his wife as a professional woman. He was ready to accept her as an outgoing,
outspoken woman. STEVE FORD: But you know, he kept a secret,
he didn't tell her he was running for politics, he says, you know, I want to marry you. But,
I've got a secret. I can't tell you till later. Betty agreed to marry Ford, and soon after
he revealed his secret: he planned to run for Congress, she wasn't thrilled, but though
it was unlikely he would win. STEVE FORD: He was running for Congress in
a very conservative Dutch area, you know. And the idea of him marrying a divorced woman
may not go over that well. I mean, that was politics back in the 1950s.
She swears to this day if she knew he was running for Congress she would have never
ever married a politician. JANE ALEXANDER: Ford won the primary, guaranteeing
him the election in his Republican district. They were married on October 15, 1948, between
the primary and the general election. Betty would get a glimpse into her future
as a political wife, when Ford arrived late to the wedding with muddy shoes from campaigning
at a nearby farm. Janet Ford, the matron of honor, would remark
to the new Mrs. Ford, "You won't have to worry about other women, Jerry's work will be the
other women." RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Their honeymoon consisted
of a University of Michigan football game in Ann Arbor, followed by a decidedly unromantic
trip up to Owasso, Michigan on a cold October night in the outdoors to hear Thomas E. Dewey
orate. And this was sort of her formal initiation into the life of a political wife.
JANE ALEXANDER: On January 3 1949 newly elected Congressman Gerald Ford and his wife Betty
arrived in Washington. RICHARD NORTON SMITH: He was this very promising,
up and coming athletic, you know, former football player from a safe seat in Michigan. Who from
a very early age in Congress had been noticed and taken under the wings of the old bulls
who ran the place. He was a man who expected to spend his entire career in the House.
JOHN ROBERT GREENE: He was also that very rare type of politician who was welcomed on
either side of the aisle. And he could be friends, honest friends with Republican and
Democrat alike. He was affable. He was likeable. He was approachable.
JANE ALEXANDER: And Betty immersed herself in the obligations of a political wife.
BETTY FORD: It was very exciting for me. I had never lived in Washington before.
JANE ALEXANDER: A year after the Ford's arrived in Washington, their first son Michael was
born. BETTY FORD: When we brought home that first
little boy. I was dumbfounded at the love and astonishment that my husband had for this
little darling creature. He was like melted butter.
JANE ALEXANDER: In rapid succession the Fords would add Jack, Steve and Susan to the roost
and build a modest house in Alexandria, Virginia. BETTY FORD: I became very much a full time
mother. I was very active at the church as a Sunday school teacher trying to make a good
role model for our children. JANE ALEXANDER: They were a quintessential
middle American family one thing set them apart dad wasn't always home for dinner at
five. MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: He loved his wife, but
he was an ambitious politician. He wanted to be Speaker of the House. One way to do
that was to get IOU's from people who you helped get elected. As a result, he was on
the road sometimes 200 days a year. She was at home with four children, relatively modest
household income. That was a very tough thing for her to live through.
JANE ALEXANDER: Betty found herself once again, with a husband who was on the road as much
as her father had been. There was no doubt that Ford was a loving attentive father when
he was home, but the demands of a political career took their toll.
JACK FORD: Because Dad wasn't necessarily there all the time, she sort of played that
dual role of trying to be the mom but also trying to play some of the dad role. There
was no question the burden was greater on Mother.
JANE ALEXANDER: And to make matters worse, a simple accident while opening a window would
set her off on a downward spiral. JOHN ROBERT GREENE: She was taken to an osteopathic
hospital and they diagnosed a pinched nerve. They dealt with that pinched nerve which was
an incredible searing pain with prescription drugs. Prescription drugs that by her own
admission Betty begins to take out of the prescribed dosage.
JACK FORD: The pain would be such that she was bed ridden, when you're a healthy young
kid growing up you understand being hurt but you don't understand being hurt in a way that
doesn't get better. The ability to treat those kinds of injuries was pretty primitive. Put
some hot packs on it. You know take a couple of pills and that's about all we can do for
you. JANE ALEXANDER: In 1965 Ford became Minority
Leader of the House and demands on his time increased.
BETTY FORD: And I would read all these things about my husband being someplace, great articles,
but I realized that I was kind of what I considered just nobody. I had no self esteem, kind of
depression, withdrawal. I really felt that I was kind of being left behind.
JANE ALEXANDER: In her memoirs Betty writes: "I hated feeling crippled so I took more pills.
Now I know that some of the pain I was trying to wipe out was emotional."
One day, Susan came home and found her mother hysterically crying.
SUSAN FORD: It was very scary when she had a breakdown and I think it was probably the
stress of four kids and a husband who wasn't home and everything else. I know that she
was hospitalized. JOHN ROBERT GREENE: What was happening to
her actually mirrors what Betty Friedan was talking about in the Feminine Mystique.
JANE ALEXANDER: Betty Ford mirrored the independent women in Friedan's book. Published in 1963,
it showed women marrying and devoting their lives to their husbands' careers while burying
their own to ambitions and losing their identities. Some, unhappy and depressed, turned to drink.
BETTY FORD: One of my doctors suggested I see a psychiatrist which I did. And we worked
through it as far as my role in my life. He said you need to take one whole day for Betty
and do whatever you want. Be out with friends or whatever appeals to you.
JANE ALEXANDER: And Betty returned to what she loved best -- dance.
BETTY FORD: When I started the modern dance class with these other women that was kind
of pressure relief. That was the relief valve. JANE ALEXANDER: But it was not enough, in
her memoirs Betty admits that when Jerry was away she began a routine of having her, "five
o'clock drink at a neighbor's house another fixing dinner and then a nightcap watching
television." Something she never discussed with her psychiatrist.
JANE ALEXANDER: A landslide victory in 1972 put Republican President Richard Nixon back
in the White House but Congress would remain Democratic dashing Ford's dreams of becoming
House Speaker. Much to Betty's relief, Gerry began to discuss leaving politics all together.
BETTY FORD: We had plans to retire and we talked about it and we said well he would
serve out that term with President Nixon and then we would retire.
JOHN ROBERT GREENE: I think clearly and some of the children point this out in later interviews,
they saw that their father was now more aware of how fragile his wife had become. They start
talking about retirement and then Spiro Agnew changes everything.
PRESIDENT NIXON: I do solemly swear... JANE ALEXANDER: The triumph of President Nixon's
re-election quickly lost its luster when a burglary in Democratic National Committee
headquarters at the Watergate ballooned into televised Senate hearings linking the president's
staff and possibly the President himself to the break in.
SEN. HOWARD BAKER: What did the President know and when did he know it.
And while America focused on one scandal another erupted.
JANE ALEXANDER: On October 10th 1973, Vice President Spiro Agnew, who had been under
investigation for accepting bribes while Governor of Maryland, resigned. He was the first Vice
President in American history to do so. MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Americans saw their Vice
President taking cash and envelopes in his office. They saw their President covering
up a burglary and other crimes. These were things that Americans never could have imagined.
They felt they were really in unchartered territory.
STEVE FORD: Dad's name was on the list of maybe ten people that might be selected by
Nixon as the next vice president. I think we all thought Nixon needed him in Congress
to help get legislation passed. JOHN ROBERT GREENE: Nixon, who has got his
own Watergate problems at that time goes in a shrewd move to Capitol Hill. And he says
I want someone who is going to guaranteed to be approved. And in every poll Gerald Ford
headed the list. BETTY FORD: I had been in my slacks, usual
getting dinner for the family. My husband had come home to have dinner and then he was
planning to go back to the White House for that announcement.
JANE ALEXANDER: It was an ordinary night until... STEVE FORD: The phone rang at the house and
dad got on the phone. I think General Alexander Haig was on the other end of that line, letting
dad know that President Nixon was calling to ask him to be vice president.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: And it's only then that Mrs. Ford learns in effect that her whole
life is about to be turned upside down, and oh by the way in 2 hours you have to be in
the east room of the White House to be introduced to the country.
STEVE FORD: I remember my mother saying to dad. She wasn't crazy about him being Vice
President. She'd just got him ready to resign and dad said, "Betty, don't worry, vice presidents
don't do anything." PRESIDENT NIXON: My fellow Americans, I proudly
present to you the man whose name I will submit to the Congress of the United States for confirmation
as Vice President of the United States, Congressman Gerald Ford of Michigan.
BETTY FORD: I was very much in awe of the situation. This recognition that he was receiving
seemed to just also flow out to me. And I felt, I felt very important.
JOHN ROBERT GREENE: Nixon when it's all over turns to Betty and says congratulations and
she looks at him and says, congratulations or condolences.
JANE ALEXANDER: On Dec. 6, 1973, Ford was sworn in as vice president.
Betty is thrust out of the anonymous role of congressional wife onto the public stage
while she admitted she was terrified of television interviews, nevertheless she always spoke
out candidly. DOUGLAS KIKER: Mrs. Ford, I'll ask you a political
question. How do you stand on the Woman's Liberation Movement?
BETTY FORD: I would say I am for Women's Lib because I feel very strongly that/ a woman
should certainly receive equal pay for equal compensation as any man would. I think I'm
a feminist really. JACK FORD: People may think that Mother became
an activist when she got to the White House. But anybody who knew her over the years will
know that she was always one to speak her mind. She and the rest of the family were
very blessed in that Dad was one of those people who encouraged people to think for
themselves and he wasn't threatened by it. JANE ALEXANDER: And the new second family
was a big hit with the media. DICK CAVETT: Hello I'm Dick Cavett you may
wonder what I'm doing here. I'm right in front of 514 Crown View Drive and the reason for
that is the man living here suddenly became the 40th Vice President of the United States.
JANE ALEXANDER: Cavett was invited in to meet the family.
But the introduction to the Ford family was being drowned out by the drumbeat of Watergate.
PROTESTERS: Impeach Nixon now. RICHARD NORTON SMITH: People were distrustful
of the political process, cynicism had taken root, people had been lied to. The country
was coming apart at the seams over an unpopular war in Vietnam and a scandal called Watergate.
HOWARD K. SMITH: On Saturday the house judiciary committee recommended that President Nixon
be charged with obstructing justice in the Watergate case.
BETTY FORD: We had literally prayed that this whole thing would blow over and President
Nixon would continue to serve out his term: It just began to get bigger and bigger.
JANE ALEXANDER: The final blow would come when the Supreme Court ordered President Nixon
to turn over white house tape recordings that linked the president to the cover-up.
NEWSCASTER: President Nixon stunned the country today.
NEWSCASTER: The Republican Party today gave up on Richard Nixon.
DAN RATHER: White House aides say privately, quote, "It is over."
JANE ALEXANDER: On August 8th, 1974 a shocked nation watched President Nixon's final broadcast.
PRESIDENT NIXON: I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow. Vice President
Ford will be sworn in as President at that hour in this office.
JANE ALEXANDER: It was an historical first. The next day, the Fords accompanied Nixon
and his wife Pat, to the helicopter that would take them back home to San Clemente, California.
BETTY FORD: It was in my mind the saddest day of my life. I can't remember when I felt
so totally unable to handle something. JANE ALEXANDER: Minutes after the Nixons departed,
Gerald R. Ford was sworn in as President of the United States.
PRESIDENT GERALD FORD: So help me God... My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare
is over. I have not campaigned either for the presidency or the vice presidency. I am
indebted to no man, and only to one woman -- my dear wife.
JANE ALEXANDER: Seldom had the nation seen a President pay such homage to his wife and
partner. But, they both knew the journey ahead would not be easy.
BETTY FORD: I felt that the burden and responsibilities of assuming the role of first lady would be
very confining. JANE ALEXANDER: Nixon's resignation was so
sudden Ford had to commute to the White House for the first few weeks of his presidency
while the Nixon's belongings were being packed up.
STEVE FORD: I'll just never forget my mom kind of standing over the stove that night
and cooking and doing some stuff. And the thought of, you know, Jerry, something's wrong
here. You just became President of the United States and I'm still cooking, you know I mean,
that was our reality. Dad's president and we're still in Alexandria living in suburbia.
JANE ALEXANDER: It was birth by fire for the first lady. Just days after Ford became president
the King and Queen of Jordan arrived for a long-planned state visit. Betty rose to the
occasion. Her reluctance and fear of assuming her new role seemed to dissolve as she sacheted
across the dance floor. RICHARD NORTON SMITH: I think she really did
blossom in the White House. It was the belated you know kind of coming out that she had been
denied all these years. The Martha Graham dancer got to showcase the arts in the White
House. She was a marvelous hostess, who really threw herself into preparations.
JANE ALEXANDER: The White House parties reflected Betty Ford's personality they were relaxed
and fun It was an altogether hip new White House with
a first lady who was talking about women's rights.
BETTY FORD: As my husband occasionally makes the remark when I discuss equal rights, equal
opportunity. We kid about it and I often say I can remember well there was time when we
couldn't even vote. SUSAN HARTMANN: Betty Ford was the first first
lady to really speak consistently publicly about women's rights and women's issues. She
was the most visible Republican feminist. BETTY FORD: Certainly equal rights and equal
pay JANE ALEXANDER: Both Betty and Jerry were
right for their time. STEVE FORD: They were the perfect couple to
be in the White House after Watergate. Because Watergate, you know, was all about secrets.
It was all about enemies lists and this and that. And again, it goes back to here was
Betty and Jerry Ford from the Midwest. Willing to open up their lives and share who they
truly were with-- with everybody. SHEILA WEIDENFELD: They were very human people
who from the time the first photos were taken of President Ford toasting toasting his English
muffins/Americans loved this first family. JANE ALEXANDER: Initially, they enjoyed a
glorious political honeymoon. But that would soon end a month later.
PRESIDENT FORD: I Gerald R. Ford do grant a full, free and absolute pardon unto Richard
Nixon. JANE ALEXANDER: Ford claimed the pardon would
allow the nation to move beyond the dark cloud of Watergate. But there were perceptions that
Nixon and Ford had made a secret deal about the pardon that would dog his presidency.
But, two weeks after the pardon a more personal crisis erupted. Betty Ford was diagnosed with
breast cancer. Rather than hide the fact, she went public.
BETTY FORD: It was unusual to be public about it. But because my husband when he was sworn
in had made it very clear that there would be no cover up. Our family all agreed that
he should tell them exactly what I was going for surgery and the outcome of it.
JANE ALEXANDER: The day of the first lady's surgery, the president addressed an economic
conference. PRESIDENT FORD: Just one personal note if
I might. I just returned from the hospital where I saw Betty, as she came from the operating
room. Dr. Lukash has assured me that she came through the operation all right.
JANE ALEXANDER: President Ford's open display of emotion and affection for his wife was
something the American public had not witnessed in past presidents. The photos that emerged
became a powerful story. SUSAN HARTMANN: She was one of the first,
most important women to come out publicly and talk about breast cancer. So she made
just an enormous impact in terms of women paying attention to their bodies and paying
attention to the possibility of breast cancer and catching it very early.
JANE ALEXANDER: Thousands of women rushed out to get mammograms after seeing the first
lady's ordeal. At the time, breast cancer was the leading killer of women aged 40-45
in the U.S., but less than half of those women were receiving regular exams.
JOHN ROBERT GREENE: She realized as a result of the reaction to her candor that she could
now say things and be paid attention to in a way that she hadn't been as second lady.
And she becomes much more candid. BETTY FORD: I do not believe that being first
lady should prevent me from expressing my ideas.
SUSAN FORD: I think the biggest change I saw in mother, when she became first lady, was
more of a fact of she had a podium to stand on.
BETTY FORD: Early detection is the secret. SUSAN FORD: The voice was always there. The
opinion was always there. But it's I guess she had more of an audience.
BETTY FORD: You know, it was great for my self esteem and I was kind of amazed that
I was this important person. JANE ALEXANDER: And with that new voice, the
first lady took the bold step of calling state legislators to lobby them for ratification
of the Equal Rights Amendment. While the president supported passage of the
ERA ,some felt Betty Ford was overstepping her role as first lady. Her actions kicked
up a storm of controversy. Picketers surrounded the White House and a deluge of angry letters
showered the mailroom. A memo from the West Wing insisted that they
be consulted before the first lady engaged in "activities intended to influence the public
on legislation." SHEILA WEIDENFELD: They regard the best first
lady as a first lady who is seen and not heard, who doesn't make waves, be a viewer and not
a doer. JANE ALEXANDER: But Betty Ford's outspokenness
was not something the West Wing could control. DAVID KENNERLY: Dick Cheney then chief of
staff and deputy went to the president and told the president that being outspoken Betty
was getting a little out of hand, and can you tell her to cool it? And President Ford
said look, if you want her to cool it, then you go tell her, and to my knowledge, they
never did. SHEILA WEIDENFELD: She didn't want to become
the podium princess. She wanted to be herself. She wanted to be able to say what was on her
mind. JANE ALEXANDER: Betty Ford's candor was something
Gerald Ford admired from the very first day they met and he wasn't about to silence his
wife now. One year into her new role as first lady, Betty Ford would tell 60 Minutes Correspondent
Morley Safer her views on pre-marital sex and abortion.
MORLEY SAFER: What if Susan Ford came to you and said, Mother I'm having an affair.
BETTY FORD: Well I wouldn't be surprised, I'd think she was a perfectly normal human
being like all young girls if she wanted to continue, I would certainly counsel and advise
her on the subject. MORLEY SAFER: Among things that you have spoken
about is abortion, which is kind of a taboo subject for the wife a president.
BETTY FORD: Well if you ask a question you have to be honest. I feel very strongly that
it was the best thing in the world when the Supreme Court voted to legalize abortion and
in my words, bring it out of the back woods and put it into the hospital where it belongs.
JANE ALEXANDER: Her remarks unleashed a firestorm. ROGER MUDD: Betty Ford's comments about premarital
sex have stirred up reaction from London to Manila.
HARRIET VAN HORNE: I don't think Mrs. Ford is encouraging immorality, but I certainly
think she struck a chord with poor taste. ROGER MUDD: Well down in Dallas the pastor
of the first Baptist church said he was aghast at such a gutter type of mentality.
JANE ALEXANDER: The White House was flooded with over 28,000 letters, most of them expressing
outrage. Shortly before the 60 Minutes interview, Ford
had announced he was going to run for president in 1976. The reaction to the first lady's
remarks worried Ford's advisors. MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: After the 60 Minutes interview,
Ford's handlers made a big effort to take her a little bit out of her high profile role
in public life. They were nervous that a lot of conservative republicans would be unnerved
by what they had heard and vote against Gerry Ford in the primaries as many of them did.
JANE ALEXANDER: The initial flood of negative letters was soon followed by a stream of letter's
voicing support for the First Ladies remarks. Betty's popularity soared.
FIRST WOMAN: I like her style. She's straight forward and she says exactly what she feels.
SECOND WOMAN: I admire her for being honest enough to say it.
THIRD WOMAN: I think she's trying to be honest with us and let us get to know her.
SUSAN HARTMANNN: She was a role model. A role model of how women could be married, could
have children. And still believe in their own ideas and their own thoughts, and that
they didn't have to agree with their husbands. JANE ALEXANDER: One thing the president did
not agree with the first lady on was her stance on abortion rights. But her support of abortion
rights did not prevent Betty Ford from being named as a woman of the year and her poll
ratings at one point topped the president's. SHEILA WEIDENFELD: The situation was totally
changed around. People loved her candor. People loved her openness.
JANE ALEXANDER: Even as her popularity skyrocketed, her health problems continued.
DAN RATHER: Betty Ford has been ill this weekend, reportedly an old case of osteoarthritis flared
up. JANE ALEXANDER: Her painful arthritic condition
combined with the demands of being first lady, exacerbated her dependency on painkillers.
JOHN ROBERT GREENE: She is in a world that places so many demands on her that it is actually
inhibiting her ability to help her own health. SHEILA WEIDENFELD: Because of the osteoarthritis,
she was popping a lot of pills. And there seemed to be no stop, as far as I could see,
to the dispensing of the pills and her taking these. She could be terrific one moment and
not so the next. We could make a meeting and she canceled. It was quite unpredictable.
REPORTER: Well sometimes we notice Mrs. Ford that you speak very slowly, more slowly than
usual. Is that a result of tranquilizers or muscle relaxants?
BETTY FORD: No, I just have never learned to be a rapid-fire speaker.
JANE ALEXANDER: President Ford, who was preoccupied with running a country, later admitted to
being in a state of denial about his wife's condition. His decision to run for office
was something Betty supported, despite her health and some argue Betty's popularity was
an asset for Ford. JOHN ROBERT GREENE: When you say that Betty
Ford was popular you have to say popular with who? She is a lightning rod for the criticism
of the far right wing of her own party that is becoming in it's own with the candidacy
of Ronald Reagan. What she does have is the middle. Betty Ford
owned it, in a way that first ladies haven't owned a portion of the public before or ever
since. JANE ALEXANDER: This beloved first lady was
delighting America with her endless antics. Betty Ford performed over and over again to
an adoring public, displaying her keen sense of humor.
JANE ALEXANDER: White House photographer David Kennerly remembers the day Mrs. Ford flashed
him a mischievous smile, hopped up on the Cabinet room table and struck a pose.
DAVID KENNERLY: The photograph is the epitome of who Betty Ford is. It represented a mischievous
sense of humor, a fearlessness in the face of a male world. I think it definitely exuded
her independence. JANE ALEXANDER: And the West Wing also had
plans for Betty. SHEILA WEIDENFELD: It wasn't until she became
very popular with the public that the West Wing said, "Oh my gosh, she's really popular.
I think we can use her." JANE ALEXANDER: So popular that Betty's supporters
put Betty's name on their campaign buttons and signs.
SHEILA WEIDENFELD: And then they used her incorrectly, and they started to send her
everywhere. And her condition became worse. The osteoarthritis acted up. They booked her
far beyond anything she could do. And she was exhausted. She was tired.
She was incoherent in Oakland. She was slurring all of her words in Buffalo. And the thing
I think that actually amazed me is that the press kept thinking it was her cancer. And
her cancer had nothing to do with the way in which she was dealing with these different
campaign trips. JANE ALEXANDER: Despite her exhaustion and
continued dependence on pain killers, Betty rallied for the Republican convention in the
summer of 1976, where Ford acknowledged her campaign efforts.
PRESIDENT FORD: ...and especially my dear wife Betty.
JANE ALEXANDER: The Ford family had fanned out across the country to campaign for their
father. On election night, the Ford family and staff
were cautiously optimistic as they gathered at the White house. That optimism withered
as defeat set in. It was the first election that Gerald Ford had ever lost. Jimmy Carter
beat Ford in one of the closest races in 60 years.
BETTY FORD: We were all just really destroyed by it. In talking to someone they said I voted
against your husband but it wasn't against him, it was against the Republican Party.
I felt they had to be punished. RICHARD NORTON SMITH: You look at the pictures
and you see the kids, who are all down in the dumps. The president is silent, and suffering,
and who is it that in effect kind of pulls the whole family together and brings that
special strength into that situation? Betty Ford.
BETTY FORD: It's been the greatest honor of my husband's life to have served his country
during the two most difficult years in our history.
JANE ALEXANDER: The woman who lost her voice regained it. Betty Ford gave the concession
speech because Ford was hoarse from campaigning. In January of 1977 the Fords said goodbye
to the city that had been their home for nearly 30 years and headed out to finally retire
in the California desert. DAVID KENNERLY: Once inside the helicopter
he wanted to circle around the Capitol and have a last look at the Capitol. And that
really was his, his political emotional professional home.
BETTY FORD: Down underneath it all we had been in Washington for all those years and
even though we knew we hadn't planned to stay there it was the fact that the office had
been taken from my husband. And it was kind of like a blow against you or me.
JANE ALEXANDER: The Fords retreated to the sunshine and palm trees of Rancho Mirage,
California. BETTY FORD: When we came to the desert we
had some very good friends out here that tried their best to make us feel very welcome and
very much at home but deep down inside there is being refused an office, there is a deep
hurt and it's there until you finally get rid of it.
JANE ALEXANDER: Within months president and Mrs. Ford were writing their White House memoirs
and it wasn't long before President Ford's schedule filled up with more than just golf.
Betty, who thought she'd see more of her husband, discovered that was not the case.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Simply because their geographical location had changed, didn't
mean his DNA changed, and he was going be as active and well traveled a former president
as he had been in Congress, or in the White House. Your children have basically grown
up and moved out. You're suddenly more alone than you've been in 20 years.
SUSAN FORD: They were having a good time. But it was also a very lonely time because
he was gone. And she didn't travel with him all the time.
JANE ALEXANDER: Alone and without the daily White House schedule, Betty Ford's dependence
on painkillers and alcohol grew worse. BETTY FORD: I tried to combine all that pain
medication with drinking at social events. But it was having a very strong impact on
me and my family could see that I wasn't handling it very well. Of course I thought everything
was fine. SUSAN FORD: I saw a very sluggish person.
It was like watching a robot in slow motion. STEVE FORD: There was some of that during
the White House years. But it wasn't often or prevalent, you'd see her seem to be drowsy
at dinner or slur her speech. And at first you're in denial about these things and even
within the family you don't want to talk about it. It evolved so slowly. It wasn't until
later that when they got out of the White House that there was an alarm that went off
in our family. That gosh something's wrong here
JANE ALEXANDER: Susan arranged an intervention in which all of the family would confront
Betty Ford about her addiction. On April 1, 1978, they all gathered in the Ford's living
room. BETTY FORD: April 1st I had always had the
children play kind of jokes on me, like all kids do. But this was no joke.
SUSAN FORD: We were honest. We told stories from our heart. We told the truth. But it
was also told with love. BETTY FORD: I was quite angry with them to
think that they could criticize anything that I had done as a mother or a wife or whatnot
because I had spent my life time trying to make it all well for them.
STEVE FORD: Dad's love for her that calmed her down. He kept cutting through that wall.
She'd want to bring the wall up and get mad. And he just coming in there with love and,
you know, that's what kept her going. JACK FORD: If we hadn't gone through the intervention
process, I'm sure that Mother would have died. BETTY FORD: I was totally destroyed to think
I would do something that would have a negative impact on my family. I had to eventually get
over that and realize that this was a disease I was suffering from. You know eventually
I realized my father had been an alcoholic and I had a brother who was an alcoholic.
JANE ALEXANDER: Two days after the intervention, on her 60th birthday, Betty Ford checked into
a treatment program at the Long Beach Naval Hospital. When she was admitted she courageously
allowed her doctor to tell the public about her drug dependency. But it wasn't until later
that she would admit to her alcoholism and discuss it with Barbara Walters.
BETTY FORD: This was a shock when it said Alcoholic Rehabilitation Service.
BARBARA WALTERS: The toughest part for you was to admit that you were alcoholic.
BETTY FORD: The alcohol was something I selected by choice. I thought how much more do they
expect of me. I've been public about everything and now they want me to suddenly be public
about this. BARBARA WALTERS: About being alcoholic.
BETTY FORD: And they said until you admit it publicly you will never start to get well.
I would've gone home and said I can't take pills you know I have a chemical dependency
for pills. But I would have substituted. I would have gone back and used alcohol instead.
JOHN SCHWARZLOSE: When Mrs. Ford came forward in 1978 and announced her alcoholism/drug
addiction, it was like a shockwave. All of a sudden this hidden disease, this disease
that people worked very hard to keep secret came out of the closet and her announcement
truly made it okay for men and women to ask for help. And still today it has that effect.
JANE ALEXANDER: Betty Ford's disease would once again give new meaning to her life. Three
years after recovery, along with the help of friends and others, she raised millions
of dollars to open a pioneering treatment center.
BETTY FORD: I wasn't very comfortable with the fact they wanted to put my name on it.
I felt that it gave me a great deal of responsibility as for how it turned out and how I turned
out. JOHN SCHWARZLOSE: As a woman still early in
her recovery she felt like that was a little grandiose, a little too personal. She was
very aware that people relapse from this disease and so she would, you know, my name's out
there as big as life and I take a drink and what happens then?
JANE ALEXANDER: But President Ford convinced her to put her name on it telling her it would
be a beacon of light. JACK FORD: It's not the buildings, it's not
the facilities. All of those things are exciting and fun and promising. But I think it was
about helping other people. She would go over there daily and sit with patients and talk
to them. Share experiences and provide hope. GERALD FORD: From the bottom of the collective
hearts of the Ford family, we're very proud of you mom.
MICHAEL FORD: She was taking the brokenness in her life and facing that head on.
JANE ALEXANDER: During her own therapy, Betty Ford saw that many of the treatment facilities
catered predominantly to men and she set out to build a center that was welcoming for both
women and men. The Betty Ford Center would go on to pioneer
gender specific treatment, separating the therapies and living quarters of the men and
women. SUSAN FORD: What we also discovered in studying
these patients, is that the women who were in women-only halls and the men that were
in men-only halls were doing better. Women wouldn't discuss certain issues with men in
the room and men kind of felt like they had to be the pumped up macho.
JANE ALEXANDER: Betty Ford was a career woman and pioneer once again and in their last years
together she got more attention than her husband. She lobbied Congress for health care coverage.
She also received many accolades over the years, one of which was the Presidential Medal
of Freedom. ANNOUNCER: The United States honors a generous
citizen, a creative spirit, a valiant woman, who has struggled for the dignity essential
for true freedom. JANE ALEXANDER: Although she wasn't responsible
for the passage of any bills Betty Ford was still having an impact even after the White
House. RICHARD NORTON SMITH: How many first ladies
have their name added to the language? To go to "Betty Ford" means something everyone
understands. I mean that's a unique legacy. ANN CULLEN: President Ford used to kid a little
bit about the fact that she was the chairman of the board and he had only ever been president.
And I think the bottom line was he was so incredibly proud of what she had done at the
center, that he didn't have any ego about the fact that she was getting the press and
the publicity. JANE ALEXANDER: On December 26, 2006 Gerald
Ford died. He was 93. SUSAN FORD: I miss him. We all miss him desperately
and I know she does too. They were true soul mates. And I think that's very hard, to find in any relationship.
BETTY FORD: I'm sure they will remember me in recovery and perhaps with the Equal Rights
Amendment and certainly the breast cancer. Those were all big things for me but if I
hadn't been married to my husband, I never would have had the voice that I did when those
things arose. So being married to him was probably the biggest decision I made and the
best decision I made. JANE ALEXANDER: Betty Ford remained Chairman
at the Betty Ford Center until she was 88. RICHARD NORTON SMITH: I think it could be
argued, that she had made more of a contribution to the way people lived their lives, and literally
extend their lives, than not only most first ladies, but probably most presidents.
STEVE FORD: She took two of the biggest stigmatized diseases or whatever you want to call it and
lifted the shame off of them. JANE ALEXANDER: More than she could ever have
imagined, the dancer from Grand Rapids has left her mark. Betty Ford's honesty and courage
has saved the lives of millions and earned her a special place in history.