Betty Ford, a self-proclaimed "ordinary" woman who never cared for political life but made a liberating adventure out of her 30 months as first lady, died Friday at age 93.
The Associated Press reported that Mrs. Ford died at the Eisenhower Medical Center in Palm Springs, Calif. Further details about her death were not immediately available.
Mrs. Ford, whose triumph over drug and alcohol addiction became a beacon of hope for addicts and the inspiration for her Betty Ford Center in California, was the widow of Gerald Ford, the nation's 38th president who succeeded Richard Nixon after his resignation in 1974. Ford died in 2006.
"I decided that if the White House was our fate," she once said of her husband's brief presidency, "I might as well have a good time doing it."
To the surprise of some and the consternation of others, Mrs. Ford evolved as an activist first lady whose non-threatening manner coupled with her newfound celebrity provided the women's movement an impressive ally. Undaunted by critics, she campaigned for ratification of the ill-starred Equal Rights Amendment, championed liberalized abortion laws and lobbied her husband to name more women to policymaking government jobs.
"Perhaps it was unusual for a first lady to be as outspoken about issues as I was, but that was my temperament, and I believed in it," she said in an interview for this story at her Rancho Mirage, Calif., home in 1994. "I don't like to be dishonest, so when people asked me, I said what I thought."
Her husband was a longtime Michigan congressman who became House minority leader. He served as Nixon's vice president before the Watergate scandal led him to succeed Nixon, who resigned Aug. 9, 1974. Mrs. Ford had not wanted her husband to be president, but once he took office, she was determined that Americans know him as one with integrity.
"I was against a pardon," she said of Ford's decision to release Nixon from his Watergate offenses, which critics viewed as a secret deal between the two men in exchange for the resignation.
In the end, she acquiesced to Ford's rationale that he needed to "get the country going." Impeachment proceedings "would have taken months in court, and he didn't think the country could stand that kind of thing," she said.
Within weeks after Watergate claimed Nixon's political life and the Fords were settled at the White House, Betty Ford soared from nonentity to national heroine because of her candid disclosure that she had a nodule in her right breast and was entering Bethesda Naval Medical Command. When a biopsy showed the lump to be malignant, she underwent a radical mastectomy.
Women across the country began seeking checkups for breast cancer.
The Betty Ford whom Americans eventually came to know was no shrinking violet.
When interviewers asked brash questions about the family's private lives, Mrs. Ford ingenuously responded in kind. She quipped that she slept with her husband "as often as I can," would try marijuana if she were young again and she "wouldn't be surprised" if her teenage daughter Susan were to have a premarital affair.
"I always had a more liberal view," she said. Just because she was first lady didn't mean she felt any different, Mrs. Ford said at one point.
Thus, for Betty Ford, a frank, plain-spoken Midwesterner, going public became a pattern of action that would also punctuate her post-White House years. In 1978, she disclosed that her use of alcohol and mood-altering prescription drugs had become a serious dependency.
In what she has described as a painful "intervention" when her family confronted her with her problem, she agreed to enter the drug and alcohol rehabilitation program at Long Beach (Calif.) Naval Hospital. Of that experience came the momentum to establish the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif., a live-in treatment program for alcoholics and drug abusers.
Alcoholism had been a ghostly companion throughout Mrs. Ford's life, starting with her father, a traveling salesman, and continuing with a brother after he returned from World War II. It also contributed to the dissolution of her first marriage when, as she later wrote, "I probably encouraged my husband to drink."
Born Elizabeth Ann Bloomer on April 9, 1918, in Chicago, she was the only daughter and youngest of three children of William Stephenson and Hortense Neahr Bloomer. When she was 2, they moved to Grand Rapids, Mich. When she was 12, she went to her first dance, with a boy she married 12 years later.
Her father's death by carbon monoxide poisoning in a garage accident when she was 16 came at the height of the Great Depression. By then she had an after-school job modeling in a local department store and on Saturdays gave dancing lessons in her aunt's basement.
"Dancing was my happiness," she wrote of her short-lived career, which included two summers at the Bennington School of Dance in Vermont, a winter in New York City under the tutelage of modern dance pioneer Martha Graham and, back in Grand Rapids, teaching dance for a bit before marrying insurance salesman William Warren in 1942.
"I could have as easily skipped it," she said later of the marriage, which ended in divorce in 1947 with her vow never to remarry, particularly someone who traveled for a living. Within months Gerald Rudolph Ford Jr., a Grand Rapids lawyer five years her senior, changed her mind.
Survivors include three sons, Mike, Steve and Jack Ford; a daughter, Susan Ford Bales; and her grandchildren.
First Published July 9, 2011 4:00 AM