Former First Lady Betty Ford Dies at the Age of 93

The wife of President Gerald R. Ford drew on her own experience with addiction in founding famed rehabilitation clinic.

President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush express their condolances to former First Lady Betty Ford at the Blair House in Washington, D.C. January 1, 2007. President Ford, died at his Rancho Mirage, California on December 26, 2006. Photo: David Hume Kenerly/Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum

Betty Ford,the widow of late President Gerald Ford and a co-founder of the world’s most famous substance abuse clinic after admitting her own addiction to alcohol and pills, has died aged 93, according to the director of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum. Ford died Friday evening with family at her bedside.

Betty Ford had played a key role in helping to re-establish American self-respect after her husband Gerald replaced the disgraced Richard Nixon as president in 1974 after the Watergate scandal. Two months after Gerald took office, Betty underwent a mastectomy for breast cancer, followed by two years of chemotherapy.

Many American women said that her openness about her condition and the removal of a breast encouraged them to go for examinations and undergo treatment. Betty said that women facing such an operation should “go as quickly as possible and get it done … Once it’s done, put it behind you and go on with your life”.

The former first lady was renowned for her candour about matters personal and political, speaking out in favour of abortion rights and gun control – positions that would be anathema to most in the current Republican party hierarchy. She battled with painkillers, alcohol and depression, which truly drew her to America’s heart.

But Betty only admitted she had a problem after her husband and family confronted her in an “intervention” in 1978. Establishment of the Betty Ford clinic was her greatest legacy. The clinic near Palm Springs has treated about 27,000 people, including famous names such as Elizabeth Taylor, Liza Minnelli, Mary Tyler Moore and Lindsay Lohan.

Condolences began pouring in soon after news broke about her death. The former first lady Nancy Reagan said: “She has been an inspiration to so many through her efforts to educate women about breast cancer and her wonderful work at the Betty Ford Center. She was Jerry Ford’s strength through some very difficult days in our country’s history, and I admired her courage in facing and sharing her personal struggles with all of us.”

President Barack Obama praised her courage and compassion in a stetement:  “As our nation’s first lady, she was a powerful advocate for women’s health and women’s rights.” He added: ”After leaving the White House, Mrs Ford helped reduce the social stigma surrounding addiction and inspired thousands to seek much-needed treatment.”

And Mrs Ford said of her herself: “I am an ordinary woman who was called onstage at an extraordinary time … Through an accident of history, I had become interesting to people.”

Born Elizabeth Anne Bloomer in Chicago, she grew up in Grand Rapids. At the age of 21, five after her father had passed away, she moved to New York City to work as a dancer and model before. She returned to the Midwest two years later.

One year after divorcing William Warren after five years of marriage, she wed Gerald Ford, a former star football player at the University of Michigan, in 1948. That year, the woman now known as Betty Ford campaigned with her new husband on his successful campaign to become a U.S. congressman from Michigan. She gave birth to three sons and a daughter over the course of their 58-year marriage.

The family moved to Washington, where Gerald Ford served in the Capitol for 25 years prior to his being tapped in 1973 as then-President Richard Nixon’s vice president in place of Spiro T. Agnew.

Over 10 months later, Betty Ford became first lady when her husband was sworn in as the 38th president of the United States. Gerald Ford took office after Nixon resigned in the wake of his impeachment following the crisis and cover-up of the break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington.

Soon Betty Ford made headlines, holding press conferences and publicly discussing her diagnosis with breast cancer. But in 1978, over one year after leaving the White House after her husband lost his campaign to remain president, Ford made headlines of a different kind. She entered the Long Beach Naval Hospital to be treated for alcohol and prescription painkiller abuse.

Ford told CNN’s Larry King in 2003: “My addiction was a combination of alcohol and the prescription drugs that … both were a part of my life, but they did not become a problem until they overrode my common sense.” She added: “I didn’t know what was happening, I just knew that I felt great and the pain was gone.”

Her husband Gerald Ford died on December 26, 2006, at the couple’s home in Rancho Mirage. He was 93. Betty Ford earned numerous honors over her life, including a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1991 and the Congressional Gold Medal eight years later.

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