THE SUNDAY PROFILE : Living Out Loud : Betty Ford has a few regrets. And since she’s a grandmother, she’s ‘not nearly so zany.’ But the woman who made honesty chic still has a few choice words about politics and addiction.
Very soon now, the President, as he still is known in this household, will be walking through the front door. He will call out, “Hi, honey. I’m home,” as husbands do, and she will drop what she’s doing and rush to greet him with a kiss.
He has been gone only a few days this time, and in 47 years, there have been many longer separations. But that does not diminish the joy of this particular homecoming.
For Betty Ford, 77, and Jerry, 82, every reunion, every sliver of togetherness is precious. “Because you never know what tomorrow is going to bring,” says Betty matter-of-factly. “Because you really have to take advantage of each day.”
On a shimmering blue morning in the desert, it is hard to imagine a more glorious spot for seizing the day. Lavender granite mountains loom like giant moon rocks beyond the manicured greens of a favorite Ford fairway. Hummingbirds zip between glossy lemon trees and Betty’s own garden of tangerine-colored roses.
Taking it all in from her green-and-white quilted chair, the former First Lady smiles and sighs. “Yes,” she says, “this must have been what the Garden of Eden looked like.”
At last, paradise found for Betty Ford.
And who, one might ask, deserves it more?
She has lost a breast to cancer, undergone heart bypass surgery, waged an excruciating battle against arthritis, and succumbed to and overcome addictions to painkillers, sleeping pills and alcohol.
And, in typical Betty Ford fashion, she has done it all in full public view. “Well, you know, that’s just the way I am,” she says. “In my usual vocal way, I’ve always told everybody what I was going to do.”
In politics, living out loud is not always prudent. Some Republicans still believe her outspokenness on such touchy topics as abortion, premarital sex, smoking pot and the Equal Rights Amendment hurt Jerry Ford’s 1976 campaign to stay in the White House.
And if she has any regrets, the possibility that she cost him the election would certainly top the list. But just as history has forgiven President Ford for forgiving Richard Nixon, so has Betty been pardoned for her all-too-candid performance as First Lady.
The woman who made honesty chic still speaks her mind (and still goes barefoot when nobody’s looking). But, as she often reminds visitors, she’s a grandmother now and “not nearly so zany.”
Although her fragile health has made it easier in recent years to stay close to home, she continues to travel on behalf of the Betty Ford Center and its work with alcoholics and addicts.
“Not long ago,” she says, “I was in an airport shop buying newspapers when a woman rushed up to me and took my hands in hers and said, ‘You have saved my life. I owe you my life .’
“Other people will say, ‘You know, we share the same disease’ and then thank me for what I’ve done. I’m grateful, of course, but I often wonder which disease it is they’re talking about--alcoholism or breast cancer or arthritis. . . .
“Whatever it is, I know I am not the one responsible. Each of us is responsible for ourselves. At most, [my experience] may have given them a little bit of a nudge.”
Her own nudge to give up drugs and alcohol was administered 17 years ago right here, smack in the middle of her beige-carpeted living room.
And it wasn’t so much a nudge as it was a shove.
Three months after the Fords left the White House, and two weeks after they moved into this modest desert home, daughter Susan gathered family members, doctors and therapists for what in the recovery business is known as an intervention.
By then, the woman who had casually mentioned to the entire national press corps that she was popping a Valium a day was now popping all sorts of “gourmet medications.”
“I had pills to go to sleep, pills to wake up, pills for pain, pills to counteract the reactions of all the other pills. And each of these, please note, was from a doctor’s prescription.”
Mix all that with a few martinis a day, which Betty often did, and you get, as Susan said, “an absent and unreliable mother and wife.”
Her speech was slurred, her gait was shuffling. She was lonely, she was miserable, she was hooked. “I was dying,” Betty recalls, “and everybody knew it but me.”
After a month of therapy and detox at the Long Beach Naval Hospital, she returned home to host a long-planned cocktail reception for about 100 curious Republicans.
“Can you imagine coming back to that? It was almost too much for me. I was sober but was I ever scared.”
Several months later, on her first trip back to New York sans chemicals, her sobriety almost ended.
“I began to think, ‘How am I going to face all these people?’ Just then, they wheeled into the suite a tray of preparations for a reception we were hosting. “My anxiety level,” she says, thumping her chest, “was just rising. I had no Valium. I had nothing to calm me down.
“Nobody would know if I took a glass from the bathroom and poured a little drink from that nice pitcher of martinis. Then I remembered what I’d learned: If this program was worth anything, it was an honest program.
“No, nobody’d know. But I would know. And right then and there, I put the glass down.”
She has not been seriously tempted since.
On the mirrored alcove bar between the dining room and living room stand three bottles: two sparkling ciders, one vintage claret.
“My drink is tonic with lime. But, yes, I still serve liquor to guests who drink. It doesn’t make me feel jealous. It doesn’t make me feel anything.” She shrugs.
And when guests drink too much? “Well, if someone comes here and truly drinks to excess, that’s their problem. I might just say, ‘Wow!’ ”
Betty Ford’s mother used to say her last child “popped out of a bottle of champagne.” Betty says she always liked that idea.
Hers was a bright childhood with few shadows until her 16th year, when her beloved but mostly absent father died suddenly.
“Knowing what I know now, I believe my dad was probably an alcoholic. His business required a lot of travel and, occasionally, Mother would say to me, ‘Your dad’s not feeling well. I’m going to go out there and see him because I’m lonely.’
“I think she had to go rescue him.”
As a young girl, Betty once visited a fortuneteller who told her she would one day meet kings and queens. A gifted ballerina with hopes for a stage career, she interpreted that to mean she would be a famous dancer.
She did train with Martha Graham, but Betty would not meet kings and queens until she married Gerald Rudolph Ford, an aspiring politician in her hometown of Grand Rapids, Mich. Although she describes him as the great love of her life, Ford wasn’t her first love--or even her first husband. From 1942 to 1947, she was married to a Michigan salesman named Bill Warren--a fact that surprised the White House press corps.
“Why didn’t you tell us?” scolded a reporter at the First Lady’s first news conference.
“You never asked,” replied Mrs. Ford.
Long before family values became a political rallying cry, the Fords were credited not only for reflecting such values but with helping redefine them for modern families.
With four children born in seven years, Betty appeared for a time to be the very model of a happy housewife and mother. Yet, she became a vigorous defender of women in the workplace.
Arm in arm with Betty Friedan and other strident feminists, she canvassed the country to drum up support for the Equal Rights Amendment.
The campaign failed but should it be resurrected, this feminist is ready. “If they want to start the fight again,” says Betty, fist in the air, “I’m with ‘em!”
Betty’s brand of candor was a refreshing, if sometimes distressing, departure for First Ladies. Not since Eleanor Roosevelt, say some historians, had a White House wife’s headlines so frequently eclipsed her husband’s.
Her Midwestern manners dictated that when one is asked a question, one must answer. “It really never occurred to me to simply ignore questions I didn’t like. No one ever trained me to do that. I wish sometimes someone had,” muses Betty now.
In her first interview after Ford became vice president, she told Barbara Walters she was thrilled by the Supreme Court’s ruling on abortion. She told “60 Minutes” she wouldn’t be surprised if unmarried Susan had “an affair,” and she told plenty of people that she figured some of her children had tried marijuana.
When she later complained to a Washington columnist that about the only question she had not been asked was how often she slept with her husband, the columnist replied, “Well, how often do you?”
“As often as possible!” she enthusiastically volunteered.
“I was trying to be as frank as possible,” Betty recalls. “I certainly wasn’t going to sit there and say my children hadn’t tried drugs when I know. . . .” She catches herself. “Well, you know what the times were like then.”
Betty Ford was 60 when she got sober. About a year after she quit drinking, Jerry quit too. “Turns out he’d never really enjoyed it that much anyway,” says Betty. “Besides, he wanted to take off a few pounds and that helped. Of course, you’d never get him to give up his ice cream.”
This long-married couple has been married so long that their anniversary cake last month had just three candles. “That’s three to go until 50,” says Betty.
“This is the best time of our lives. At last, we have time for ourselves and we are savoring it.”
They wake up early. He’s out of bed by 6:30. She lingers as late as 8. “Before I get out of bed, I take a moment to appreciate the day I have. At my age, I am glad to get up in the morning without too many aches or pains,” she says.
They take breakfast together and share the newspapers. He reads sports first “because there’s a 50-50 chance of finding good news there.” She reads the news.
The President assembles his own cereal and fruit--"just like he did when we were raising our children.” The former First Lady, still 110 pounds at 5-foot-5, eats grapefruit, yogurt, toast and coffee.
She would like it known that they do not have a cappuccino maker. “The President said to me, at one point, we really must get one of those machines. But I never did get it and he seems to have forgotten about it now. I’m so glad because life is complicated enough as it is.”
Each exercises in their small pool overlooking red-white-and-blue petunia beds. And the President, of course, golfs. They spend several hours a day working in their private offices next door and lunch together in their fern-stenciled dining room.
Since reluctantly lending her name 13 years ago to the Betty Ford Center in nearby Eisenhower Medical Center, the former First Lady of the land has become the current First Lady of recovery.
“Of course, I didn’t want my name on it. Why would I? What if I couldn’t stay sober? I could be a big embarrassment.”
But, the other founders of the modestly priced, 80-bed treatment center prevailed. And Betty, who still serves as its hands-on chairwoman of the board, is getting used to its name being her name.
Not that she’s completely over it.
In her book about recovery, she recalls a support group meeting where she heard a woman say, “My husband and I are both alcoholics and we went through Betty Ford.”
She cringed. “I wonder why people can’t say, ‘We went through treatment.’ ”
In fact, the center is as much hers as it can be anyone’s. She visits often, occasionally offering personal counseling and encouragement to patients--a tiny fraction of whom are celebrities.
She meditates in the center’s rose-carpeted “serenity room” and speaks to each class of “graduates,” wishing them well as they re-enter the world.
Rancho Mirage is a community of unsubtle extravagance and phenomenal wealth. The Fords’ neighbors include the Walter Annenbergs, the Frank Sinatras, the Bob Hopes and, interestingly, the Spiro Agnews.
But the most ostentatious symbol of the Fords’ desert lifestyle is the nicely lit and well-maintained street at the edge of town known officially as Gerald Ford Drive.
The Fords socialize, but in small sit-down groups or at political or Betty Ford Center functions. Occasionally, they entertain and when they do, their chef--"our only real indulgence,” says Betty--does the work.
Dinner is a casual affair for two, often taken in the TV room, where faded towels cover two of three chairs frequented by their cocker spaniel, Happy Lady Shenanigans.
They watch “Jeopardy” and the evening news. Betty, still remembering her experience with “60 Minutes,” says she can live without the news magazines, but gets a “big kick” out of “Cybill.”
Sometimes, they go out dancing, preferring Big Band sounds. Betty says she never tires of dancing with the President.
“Some years ago, he said he always wanted to learn the tango. I said, ‘Well, I could teach you to tango.’ But I still haven’t. So, you see, we have some unfinished business.
“Oh! That just reminded me, somebody had his hip surgery today. That’s it at this age down here . . . new hips, new knees.”
She has not had any parts replaced but suffers mightily, she says, from arthritis in her neck and shoulder.
“Yes, there is still pain. Stress causes a lot of discomfort. I use over-the-counter medicines, Tylenol, Anacin and such. Of course, I would never take anything mood-altering again, so I’m limited somewhat.”
At times the pain is so severe that it wakes her at 2, 3, 4 in the morning, leaving her alone with her crackers and milk and paperback novel in her favorite living room chair, waiting for the dawn.
“I like that time of morning, it’s so quiet, so still. It’s not a terrible time at all to be awake. And not such a bad place to find oneself, after all.”