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Remembering Betty Ford, Who Broke the Mold for First Lady’s Role

July 12, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
One of the nation's most-admired first ladies, Betty Ford, died Friday at her home in Rancho Mirage, Calif., at the age of 93. Gwen Ifill introduces an excerpt of a documentary that examined the life, work, struggles and advocacy of President Gerald Ford's wife.

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, remembering former first lady Betty Ford.

Her funeral was held this afternoon in California. She died Friday at her home in Rancho Mirage, Calif., of natural causes at age 93. Betty Ford was one of the nation’s most admired first ladies, in part because she was frank, forthright and down-to-earth. Her husband, Gerald Ford, the nation’s 38th president, died in 2006.

Her life was chronicled in a one-hour documentary called “Betty Ford: The Real Deal” produced by MacNeil/Lehrer Productions. It aired on PBS in March 2009.

Here’s an excerpt.

The narrator is actress Jane Alexander.

JANE ALEXANDER, narrator: The 1970s, Watergate, women’s rights and Vietnam. Tumultuous times catapult Gerald R. Ford and his wife, Betty, into the White House. He was plainspoken. She was outspoken.

JOHN ROBERT GREENE, presidential historian: It is impossible to overestimate the impact that Betty Ford had on the office of first lady. She changes everything about the role of the first lady.

JANE ALEXANDER: In Betty Ford’s brief and unexpected reign as first lady, she broke the mold. She was a pro-choice Republican who became the first first lady to take on a feminist agenda and one of the few to differ publicly with her husband.

BETTY FORD, former first Llady: I really have always been probably what you might say as outspoken, sometimes to the detriment of my husband’s role as president.

JANE ALEXANDER: Her ability to be open and honest about her battles with breast cancer and drug and alcohol abuse saved millions. It was an incredible and sometimes painful journey.

On Aug. 8, 1974, a shocked nation watched President Nixon’s final broadcast.

FORMER PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow. Vice President Ford will be sworn in as president at that hour in this office.

BETTY FORD: It was in my mind the saddest day of my life. I can’t remember when I felt so totally unable to handle something.

JANE ALEXANDER: Minutes after the Nixons departed, Gerald R. Ford was sworn in as president of the United States.


MAN: Congratulations, Mr. President.


GERALD FORD: My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.

BETTY FORD: I felt that the burden and responsibilities of assuming the role of first lady would be very confining.

JANE ALEXANDER: Nixon’s resignation was so sudden, Ford had to commute to the White House for the first few weeks of his presidency while the Nixons’ belongings were being packed up.

STEVE FORD, son of Gerald and Betty Ford: I will just never forget my mom kind of standing over the stove that night and cooking and doing some stuff, and the thought of, you know, Jerry, something’s wrong here. You know, you just became president of the United States and I’m still cooking.

You know, I mean, that was our reality. And dad’s president, and we’re still in Alexandria, Va., living in suburbia.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH, presidential historian: I think it could be argued, that she had made more of a contribution to the way people live their lives, and literally extend their lives, than not only most first ladies, but probably most presidents.

BETTY FORD: I’m sure they will remember me in recovery and perhaps with the Equal Rights Amendment, and certainly the breast cancer. Those were all big things for me.

But if I hadn’t been married to my husband, I never would have had the voice that I did when those things arose. So, being married to him was probably the biggest decision I made and the best decision I made.

GWEN IFILL: Friends and family remembered the former first lady today at St. Margaret’s Church in Palm Desert, Calif.

Former President George W. Bush escorted former first lady Nancy Reagan, followed by first lady Michelle Obama, and former first ladies Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Rosalynn Carter.

Ford chose those who would eulogize her, even selecting the subjects for their talks.

Here’s part of what Rosalynn Carter and ABC correspondent Cokie Roberts had to say.

ROSALYNN CARTER, former first lady: Betty, you broke new ground in speaking out on women’s issue. Her public disclosure of her own battle with breast cancer lifted the veil of secrecy from this terrible disease.

She used the influence of the office of first lady to promote early detection. And millions of women are in her debt today. And she was never afraid to speak the truth, even about the most sensitive subjects, including her own struggles with alcohol and painkillers. She got some criticisms. I thought she was wonderful. And her honesty gave hope to others every single day.

COKIE ROBERTS, ABC News: 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.


COKIE ROBERTS: Mrs. Ford wanted me to remind everyone of the way things used to be in Washington. And I wouldn’t be at all surprised if she timed her death to make sure that she could convey the message of comity during this week, when it seems so badly needed.


COKIE ROBERTS: Mrs. Ford had something very important going for her. She knew who she was.

Before her sudden ascension to first lady, she said, “I will move to the White House, do the best I can, and if they don’t like it, they can kick me out, but they can’t make me be somebody I’m not.”

And she knew, like her friends, the other congressional women, she knew that her husband could not be who he was if she were not who she was.

Your works, all of them over many years, praise you, Betty Ford. And this congressional brat, along with the rest of the country, especially the women who have been keeping this republic, thank you.

GWEN IFILL: Mrs. Ford’s body will be flown to Grand Rapids, Mich., for a second memorial service on Thursday. She will be buried later that day alongside her husband at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum.