In life, Betty Ford was known for speaking her mind, even when the subjects -- substance abuse, cancer, equal rights for women -- made some people uncomfortable. So it continued in death, with a funeral scripted by the former first lady to make the most of her final bully pulpit.
Ford, who died Friday at the age of 93, had personally decided who would deliver eulogies at her funeral, held Tuesday in Palm Desert. Addressing an audience that included First Lady Michelle Obama and three of her predecessors, as well as former President George W. Bush, the speakers ranged over the themes of Ford’s life: the courage of recovery from addiction, the importance of bipartisan collegiality in politics, the love she shared with the man she called her “boyfriend,” the late President Gerald R. Ford.
“When Mrs. Ford assigned me the daunting honor of speaking at her funeral, it will come as a surprise to none of you that the assignment came with instructions,” said ABC News commentator Cokie Roberts, whose father was a Democratic congressman and friend of the Republican Fords.
“Mrs. Ford wanted me to remind everyone of the way things used to be in Washington,” she continued, “and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if she timed her death to make sure that she could convey the message of comity this week, when it seems so badly needed.”
Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, whose husband unseated Gerald Ford in 1976, similarly recalled how gracious Betty Ford had been in the White House transition, helping to cement a friendship that would last long after their husbands’ presidencies. Carter eulogized Ford as “someone who was willing to do things a bit differently than they’d been done before, someone who had the courage and grace to fight fear, stigma and prejudice wherever she encountered it.”
Besides Carter, two other former first ladies were in the audience at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, where Ford had long worshiped: Nancy Reagan and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. A flight delay in New York kept Clinton’s husband, former President Clinton, from joining her.
Also present were former California Gov. Pete Wilson and his wife, Gayle, and Maria Shriver, the estranged wife of former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
A large contingent of Ford children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren filled one section of the 800-seat church with a profusion of dark suits and blond hair. The eldest of Ford’s four children, son Michael, delivered the first eulogy, recalling her love of dance (she trained with Martha Graham) and of her husband, as well as “her desire to know a person’s heart, to know their brokenness, their struggles.”
He was followed by Carter, who paid tribute to Ford’s groundbreaking impact in publicly discussing her breast cancer in 1974 and, later, her alcoholism and addiction to prescription drugs -- both subjects that were considered taboo at the time, especially for someone in public life.
“Today,” Carter said, “it’s almost impossible to imagine a time when people were afraid to reveal they had cancer, or to speak publicly about personal struggles with alcohol or addiction.”
Those struggles with substance abuse led Ford to create what may be her most enduring legacy, the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, the nation’s most prominent center for the treatment of chemical dependencies.
The center was represented at the funeral by its former director, Geoffrey S. Mason, who stepped to the microphone and uttered words undoubtedly never before heard at the funeral of an American first lady: “Good afternoon. I’m Geoff. I’m an alcoholic.”
Mason spoke movingly on behalf of those who had sought treatment at the center and who knew its founder as Betty, a recovering alcoholic.
“We began to understand that ... if you could do it, with all the pressures on you every day, living in the White House, for goodness’ sake, living with the leader of the free world, maybe, just maybe ... we also could get some relief from the darkness that we had become almost comfortable with, from the abyss that we had fallen into,” he said.
Born in Chicago and raised in Grand Rapids, Mich., where she met Gerald Ford, Elizabeth Bloomer Ford had lived the latter part of her life in Rancho Mirage, about 10 miles southeast of Palm Springs.
Under a clear blue sky, with the rocky Santa Rosa Mountains serving as a dramatic backdrop, the hearse carrying her body pulled into the church parking lot about 11:20 a.m.
Led by California Highway Patrol officers, it was followed by a long procession of black sedans and sport utility vehicles carrying family and friends.
With temperatures hovering near 100 degrees, family members stood by as a military honor guard removed the casket and carried it through the church’s side door.
The sequence of memorials began with a private family service, followed by the televised service for dignitaries and other invited guests.
Mourners filled the A-frame-style sanctuary in pews that horseshoed around the raised altar, which had two floral wreaths on either side, highlighted by peach-colored roses, Ford’s favorite. A white cloth shrouded the coffin, with a piercing blue cross embroidered into the tapestry.
The organist played a heavy dirge while family, guests and dignitaries took their seats. The first row was reserved for Ford’s children, sons Jack, Michael and Steven, and daughter Susan Ford Bales.
Former President Bush escorted Nancy Reagan, aided by a cane and walking gingerly, to the second row, where they sat together. Hillary Clinton sat next to Bush, and the two could be seen chatting animatedly before the service. Michelle Obama sat on the other side of Clinton, with Rosalynn Carter next to her.
After the funeral, Ford’s casket remained in the church for public viewing until midnight.
Buses started to roll in around 6 p.m., offering admirers a chance to say farewell. The mourners were escorted inside the church and allowed to walk up toward the altar to view the casket, then quickly back to the waiting buses.
Florist Louis Frazao drove from Palmdale for the viewing. Frazao immigrated to the United States from Portugal when the Fords were in the White House, a coincidence of timing that endeared the first family to him.
“She brings back memories of my youth, of happy times,” said Frazao.
The 59-year-old said that as a young man he battled a drinking problem, and was inspired by the former first lady’s drive to seek help for her own addictions and help others at the Betty Ford Center.
A Ford Center worker, Gwendolyn Walton of Banning, was another of the evening visitors. Walton said she has been in recovery for five years and felt the pull to come because Ford had played a significant role in her life.
“I thank God for the services that she’s done, and I learned a lot about reaching back and helping someone else like she did,” said Walton, 48. “I probably wouldn’t be here today if she hadn’t done what she’s done, not just for women but for everyone in recovery.”
A second funeral will be held Thursday in Grand Rapids, where Gerald Ford is buried at his presidential museum. Former First Lady Barbara Bush, the wife of President George H. W. Bush, is expected to attend that event. Her daughter-in-law, former First Lady Laura Bush, was not planning to attend the services, citing a scheduling conflict.
Willon reported from Palm Desert and Landsberg from Los Angeles.
Times staff writer Kate Mather contributed to this report.