Patricia Sheridan's Breakfast With ... Steve Ford
Steve Ford listens to Lynda Johnson Robb, daughter of President Lyndon Johnson, during the Enduring Legacies of America's First Ladies conference in Austin, Texas, last month. Mr. Ford, son of President Gerald R. Ford, participated in a panel with Ms. Robb and the daughters of President George W. Bush in which they discussed life in the White House.
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His father, President Gerald R. Ford, came to the highest office in the country when President Richard M. Nixon was forced to resign on the heels of the Watergate scandal. Originally from Grand Rapids, Mich., the Fords made the unexpected transition to the White House with their four children. Their youngest son, Steve, was 18. He eventually chose acting over politics and has since become a motivational speaker. He talks about mother Betty's struggles with prescription drugs and alcohol, which eventually led to her creating the Betty Ford Center. The 56-year-old also discusses his own battles with alcohol and the changes he had to make in his life. He will be the guest speaker at Gateway Rehabilitation Center's Hope Has a Home Gala Wednesday at the Westin Convention Center. Information: 412-604-8900, ext. 1234.
How old were you when you first realized your mother might have a problem?
Growing up as a kid, we never really noticed anything. I think at that point there weren't any real signs. We probably noticed a little bit maybe at the White House and particularly afterward. As you know it's a long slow process. After Mom got out of the White House, you know, she just started to gradually lose her life. I say that in terms of canceling appointments, sleeping later, some melancholy that eventually probably got into depression. It's not something that pops up overnight.
True, and families tend not to discuss it.
When we went through it, it was back in the late '70s, and there was really no education about it. The stereotypical alcoholic was the skid row bum, which was so wrong. Here you had a former first lady who raised her hand and said, "My name is Betty and I'm an alcoholic." It took Dad finding the right doctor who really had the courage in the late '70s to be able to give that diagnosis because many doctors weren't trained in that way.
Who she was would have intimidated them.
Exactly. You know, in Mom's situation it started with a legitimate injury. She had a terrible back and neck problem, pinched nerves. So you had several different doctors prescribing pain medication that should have been prescribed but got misused with alcohol.
By the time your family held the intervention for your mother, were you already dealing with your own demons?
I wasn't there yet. I raised my hand and said, "My name is Steve Ford and I'm an alcoholic" about 10 years after Mom. I was probably laying the foundation, quietly, you know? Mine was different than hers. I would call myself a binge drinker. I would drink on the road when I was traveling. Basically, when I was home I did not really drink. So I kind of lived two lives. I had a secret life. Binge drinking in college was certainly laying the foundation for me later.
Do you think because of what your mother went through you were able to recognize your problem earlier?
Yeah, I think I caught it much quicker. My bottom came quicker. I understood it because of what I had seen with Mom.
Why do you think your siblings and you chose not to go into politics?
I think because we all saw the price you have to pay. Dad was gone 150 nights a year traveling, and I don't think any of us had as thick a skin as Dad did. He knew how to laugh it off, the criticism. The scrutiny today is even tougher than it was back then. I ended up working in the TV and film business as an actor for 25 years. I often say that was my therapy. When you are the son or daughter of a former president, you sort of live in a box, sort of a fishbowl-type thing. Being an actor, I could play all these different parts. They were paying me to go to therapy.
Not being yourself was an escape.
[Laughing] Exactly, exactly. It's funny people often think I went to the Betty Ford Center when I started my 19 years of sobriety. Mine was through outpatient, through AA. I went to meetings and did not go to the Betty Ford Center or in-patient. It's not like they have a special wing at the Betty Ford Center for family [laughing].
What was it like having the Secret Service follow you around?
It happened to us very quickly. There was no campaign, no build-up to it. It basically happened overnight. I had 10 guys following me, and here I was 18 years old. It's not really the group you hope to hang around with. The guys I had were all in their late 20s, so I think they remembered what it was like to be 18-19 and sort of knew how to be close when they needed to be and give you space when you needed some.
As far as your dad, do you think pardoning President Nixon tainted his legacy?
I think initially it really hurt his presidency. People were so mad at that point that Nixon lied, the cover-up. It probably cost Dad the election against Jimmy Carter. They have figured it cost anywhere from 5 to 10 percent of the vote, and he lost by 1 percent.
Dad was thinking long term. He really looked at it as being about grace and mercy. Not that Nixon didn't do anything wrong. He was guilty. At the same time he gave Nixon the pardon, he also gave amnesty to the young men who had avoided the draft and gone to Canada. He basically said, "It's time to heal this nation of all our wounds." The nation was divided. At the time, they were so mad they did not see the pardon was probably a good thing.
Your parents were unique in that they were so open, and your father had no problem with your mother's candidness.
I think that's what we all loved about her, particularly Dad. She spoke her mind whether it be the equal rights amendment for women or, listen, I remember the two of them 30 days into Dad's presidency she went through breast cancer. She had to have a mastectomy. That was in the '70s. Women did not talk about breast cancer. The two of them stood on the front lawn of the White House holding hands and saying we are going to take the shame off of this disease of breast cancer. They were very transparent.
Speaking of love, I imagine you get an inordinate amount of attention from mothers with single daughters and people offering to set you up. Do you use your acting skills to fend them off?
[Laughing] First of all I go back to when I went through my sobriety. I was 12 weeks from getting married. It was a really tough time in my life. I had to come back and be candid and transparent with my fiancee and family and tell them I had this secret life on the road -- binge drinking and doing things in places I shouldn't have been and cheating on my fiancee. I had to be very transparent, and that was part of my sobriety. I had to call the wedding off.
I'm in a different place today and have a wonderful girlfriend. She's got two kids, and I'm hoping someday and thinking someday we'll probably make a marriage out of it. So hopefully that's coming soon.
Yeah, you know it's funny, 'cause Dad never got married until he was 35. That always used to be my excuse. I was going to wait until I was 35, but I passed that number.
Well, both your parents lived long lives.
Yeah, Dad was 93. Mom was 93 [she died last year]. They had 57 wonderful years of marriage. They were a great role model for me and my two brothers and sister. I'd love to have a marriage like they had someday. That would be a wonderful thing.
Your dad's mother, your grandmother, was very courageous.
Yes, she left her husband, who was very physically abusive. She left him and she remarried. Dad's original name was not Ford or Gerald R. Ford. It was Lesley King. It was his stepfather, Gerald R. Ford Sr., who adopted him and raised him. Dad would tell you today if he were alive, that was his father. He's the one who invested in his life.
How old was he when his mother left his father?
He was just a young boy, a couple of years old. It is a fascinating story because the first time she got beat up by [her first husband] was on their wedding night. The beatings continued. She finally left one night, in the middle of the night, and took Dad. They were in Omaha, Neb., and fled to Council Bluffs, Iowa, across the river and hid out for two or three days until her father came down and picked her up from the train. This would have been like 1915. You think how strong a woman she had to be? Back then someone would have said, "Well what'd ya do to make him beat ya?" She never got a dime of alimony or child support.
That is quite a story.
I always told him, "Dad, the presidency never would have worked with you being President King" [laughing].
First Published December 3, 2012 12:00 am