I once had dinner with former President Gerald Ford.
OK, it was a table for eight and I was opposite him, but I still count it as a brush with fame. Years had passed since he was President of the United States, and I honestly don’t remember much about the experience except that he was very quiet — almost shy. But since then, I’ve always paid attention to news about him and his family.
Otherwise, I probably wouldn’t know too much about Betty Ford, who died Friday at age 93.
Sure, everyone knows that she was one of the first people to talk openly about having breast cancer and a mastectomy. And we all heard about her addictions, recovery, and subsequent work to help other people get clean and sober at the Betty Ford Center.
But many women are unaware of what a pioneer Mrs. Ford was for women’s rights. Her difference from previous First Ladies was evident on the President’s first day in office, when Betty said that she and her husband would not be sleeping in separate bedrooms as was White House tradition.
Betty Ford actively supported the Equal Rights Amendment. She was pro-choice. She talked openly about sex and drugs, conceding that her daughter probably would be sexually active before marriage. She even famously said, while her husband was still in office, that she probably would’ve smoked marijuana if it had been around when she was younger.
These things may not seem like hot buttons now, but this was the early 1970s. And her husband’s administration was Republican. Conservative Republicans were not happy with the feisty First Lady. She didn’t care; she knew that she was in a unique position to make a difference. And progressive minds on both sides of the aisle adored her — she was much more popular than her husband. Her activism continued long after the Fords left the White House.
Mrs. Ford also had a wicked sense of humor. When her husband complained that she was getting too thin, she borrowed a skeleton from a medical school, dressed it in her clothes, and put it in a chair in their bedroom to greet the President. She refused to take herself too seriously, doing away with the formality between First Lady and White House staff that Pat Nixon had enforced. She threw parties with famous performers and danced late into the night. And while she was still First Lady, she appeared as herself on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Note the picture on Mrs. Ford’s bedside table.
A few years later, Moore herself checked into the Betty Ford Center for alcohol treatment. The facility probably is Mrs. Ford’s most lasting legacy. While famous for the celebrities who went there, the Center’s real importance is that it helped open minds to the idea that alcoholism and drug addiction can be successfully treated. If you were on Twitter this weekend when Mrs. Ford’s death was announced, you probably were as amazed as I was at the parade of people who thanked Betty Ford for saving their lives.
In life, when someone thanked Mrs. Ford, she responded with her usual self-deprecation. “People who get well often say, ‘You saved my life,’ and `You’ve turned my life around,”’ she recalled. “They don’t realize we merely provided the means for them to do it themselves and that’s all.”
But the 90,000-plus people who have been treated at the Betty Ford Center know that without Betty Ford, such a means would not exist.
Rest in peace, Mrs. Ford. The world is better because you were here.