Her husband served as president during a tumultuous time in American civic life, yet Betty Ford, who died July 8 at age 93, may have had more influence on the nation than he did.
Gerald Ford brought a reputation for honesty to the White House in the scandal-marred waning days of the Nixon administration. When Nixon resigned, Ford became the nation’s only unelected president; he was unable to change that footnote, losing to Jimmy Carter in 1976.
Though he may best be remembered today by Chevy Chase’s pratfalls while imitating him on Saturday Night Live, Ford courageously pardoned Nixon, a move that may have cost him the 1976 election but which saved the nation from years of political conflict.
Betty Ford, whose wholesome beauty could have landed her the June Cleaver part on “Leave it to Beaver,” seemed the perfect First Lady. But Americans learned after the Fords left the White House that Betty Ford had struggled with alcohol and painkiller addiction. Journalist Barbara Walters later revealed that during a televised White House tour, Ford was noticeably drunk.
To many younger people, she is best known as the namesake of the Betty Ford Center, an addiction-treatment facility that added a much-needed residential clinical component to the recovery process.
Ford’s response to her addictions changed our understanding of it. Rather than covering up her problems, she bared them to the world and in so doing blazed a path for others to follow. She also created another option in responding, beyond the Alcoholics Anonymous model of recovery.
Ford also suffered — and survived — breast cancer. Her candid discussion of her surgery, at a time when such things were not the subject of TV talk shows and magazine articles, spurred an unknown number of women toward better health awareness.
And even though she was a Republican, she disclosed some remarkably progressive views. She acknowledged that her young adult children had smoked marijuana, and that had she been their age, she would have tried it as well. She told an interviewer she wouldn’t be surprised to learn that her then-18-year-old daughter was sexually active, that living together before marriage was wise, that women should have access to abortion and that women should serve in the military.
Five years ago, Ford asked journalist Cokie Roberts to speak at her funeral. And she wanted Roberts to use the platform to argue for more bipartisan cooperation in Congress. Gerald Ford and Roberts’ father, Hale Boggs, who was Democratic Majority leader in the House, were close friends when they served together.
In her post-White House life, Betty Ford contributed tremendously to our national life. Her example should inspire anyone who struggles with substance abuse, with cancer, with career setbacks and even with age — she left political life in her late 50s — to persevere toward a better future.