Thrust into the spotlight as the unexpected first lady, Betty Ford found a new voice and conducted a very public battle with breast cancer.
Thrust into the spotlight as the unexpected first lady, Betty Ford found a new voice and conducted a very public battle with breast cancer.
ACT 4 BETTY BLOOMS
JANE ALEXANDER: It was birth by fire for the first lady. Just days after Ford became president the King and Queen of Jordan arrived for a long-planned state visit. Betty rose to the occasion. Her reluctance and fear of assuming her new role seemed to dissolve as she sacheted across the dance floor.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: I think she really did blossom in the White House. It was the belated you know kind of coming out that she had been denied all these years. The Martha Graham dancer got to showcase the arts in the White House. She was a marvelous hostess, who really threw herself into preparations.
JANE ALEXANDER: The White House parties reflected Betty Ford's personality they were relaxed and fun
It was an altogether hip new White House with a first lady who was talking about women's rights.
BETTY FORD: As my husband occasionally makes the remark when I discuss equal rights, equal opportunity. We kid about it and I often say I can remember well there was time when we couldn't even vote.
SUSAN HARTMANN: Betty Ford was the first first lady to really speak consistently publicly about women's rights and women's issues. She was the most visible Republican feminist.
BETTY FORD: Certainly equal rights and equal pay
JANE ALEXANDER: Both Betty and Jerry were right for their time.
STEVE FORD: They were the perfect couple to be in the White House after Watergate. Because Watergate, you know, was all about secrets. It was all about enemies lists and this and that. And again, it goes back to here was Betty and Jerry Ford from the Midwest. Willing to open up their lives and share who they truly were with-- with everybody.
SHEILA WEIDENFELD: They were very human people who from the time the first photos were taken of President Ford toasting toasting his English muffins/Americans loved this first family.
JANE ALEXANDER: Initially, they enjoyed a glorious political honeymoon. But that would soon end a month later.
PRESIDENT FORD: I Gerald R. Ford do grant a full, free and absolute pardon unto Richard Nixon.
JANE ALEXANDER: Ford claimed the pardon would allow the nation to move beyond the dark cloud of Watergate. But there were perceptions that Nixon and Ford had made a secret deal about the pardon that would dog his presidency.
But, two weeks after the pardon a more personal crisis erupted. Betty Ford was diagnosed with breast cancer. Rather than hide the fact, she went public.
BETTY FORD: It was unusual to be public about it. But because my husband when he was sworn in had made it very clear that there would be no cover up. Our family all agreed that he should tell them exactly what I was going for surgery and the outcome of it.
JANE ALEXANDER: The day of the first lady's surgery, the president addressed an economic conference.
PRESIDENT FORD: Just one personal note if I might. I just returned from the hospital where I saw Betty, as she came from the operating room. Dr. Lukash has assured me that she came through the operation all right.
JANE ALEXANDER: President Ford's open display of emotion and affection for his wife was something the American public had not witnessed in past presidents. The photos that emerged became a powerful story.
SUSAN HARTMANN: She was one of the first, most important women to come out publicly and talk about breast cancer. So she made just an enormous impact in terms of women paying attention to their bodies and paying attention to the possibility of breast cancer and catching it very early.
JANE ALEXANDER: Thousands of women rushed out to get mammograms after seeing the first lady's ordeal. At the time, breast cancer was the leading killer of women aged 40-45 in the U.S., but less than half of those women were receiving regular exams.
JOHN ROBERT GREENE: She realized as a result of the reaction to her candor that she could now say things and be paid attention to in a way that she hadn't been as second lady. And she becomes much more candid.
BETTY FORD: I do not believe that being first lady should prevent me from expressing my ideas.
SUSAN FORD: I think the biggest change I saw in mother, when she became first lady, was more of a fact of she had a podium to stand on.
BETTY FORD: Early detection is the secret.
SUSAN FORD: The voice was always there. The opinion was always there. But it's I guess she had more of an audience.
BETTY FORD: You know, it was great for my self esteem and I was kind of amazed that I was this important person.
JANE ALEXANDER: And with that new voice, the first lady took the bold step of calling state legislators to lobby them for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.
While the president supported passage of the ERA ,some felt Betty Ford was overstepping her role as first lady. Her actions kicked up a storm of controversy. Picketers surrounded the White House and a deluge of angry letters showered the mailroom.
A memo from the West Wing insisted that they be consulted before the first lady engaged in "activities intended to influence the public on legislation."
SHEILA WEIDENFELD: They regard the best first lady as a first lady who is seen and not heard, who doesn't make waves, be a viewer and not a doer.
JANE ALEXANDER: But Betty Ford's outspokenness was not something the West Wing could control.
DAVID KENNERLY: Dick Cheney then chief of staff and deputy went to the president and told the president that being outspoken Betty was getting a little out of hand, and can you tell her to cool it? And President Ford said look, if you want her to cool it, then you go tell her, and to my knowledge, they never did.
SHEILA WEIDENFELD: She didn't want to become the podium princess. She wanted to be herself. She wanted to be able to say what was on her mind.
JANE ALEXANDER: Betty Ford's candor was something Gerald Ford admired from the very first day they met and he wasn't about to silence his wife now. One year into her new role as first lady, Betty Ford would tell 60 Minutes Correspondent Morley Safer her views on pre-marital sex and abortion.
MORLEY SAFER: What if Susan Ford came to you and said, Mother I'm having an affair.
BETTY FORD: Well I wouldn't be surprised, I'd think she was a perfectly normal human being like all young girls if she wanted to continue, I would certainly counsel and advise her on the subject.
MORLEY SAFER: Among things that you have spoken about is abortion, which is kind of a taboo subject for the wife a president.
BETTY FORD: Well if you ask a question you have to be honest. I feel very strongly that it was the best thing in the world when the Supreme Court voted to legalize abortion and in my words, bring it out of the back woods and put it into the hospital where it belongs.
JANE ALEXANDER: Her remarks unleashed a firestorm.
ROGER MUDD: Betty Ford's comments about premarital sex have stirred up reaction from London to Manila.
HARRIET VAN HORNE: I don't think Mrs. Ford is encouraging immorality, but I certainly think she struck a chord with poor taste.
ROGER MUDD: Well down in Dallas the pastor of the first Baptist church said he was aghast at such a gutter type of mentality.
JANE ALEXANDER: The White House was flooded with over 28,000 letters, most of them expressing outrage.
Shortly before the 60 Minutes interview, Ford had announced he was going to run for president in 1976. The reaction to the first lady's remarks worried Ford's advisors.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: After the 60 Minutes interview, Ford's handlers made a big effort to take her a little bit out of her high profile role in public life. They were nervous that a lot of conservative republicans would be unnerved by what they had heard and vote against Gerry Ford in the primaries as many of them did.
JANE ALEXANDER: The initial flood of negative letters was soon followed by a stream of letter's voicing support for the First Ladies remarks. Betty's popularity soared.
FIRST WOMAN: I like her style. She's straight forward and she says exactly what she feels.
SECOND WOMAN: I admire her for being honest enough to say it.
THIRD WOMAN: I think she's trying to be honest with us and let us get to know her.
SUSAN HARTMANNN: She was a role model. A role model of how women could be married, could have children. And still believe in their own ideas and their own thoughts, and that they didn't have to agree with their husbands.
JANE ALEXANDER: One thing the president did not agree with the first lady on was her stance on abortion rights. But her support of abortion rights did not prevent Betty Ford from being named as a woman of the year and her poll ratings at one point topped the president's.
SHEILA WEIDENFELD: The situation was totally changed around. People loved her candor. People loved her openness.
JANE ALEXANDER: Even as her popularity skyrocketed, her health problems continued.
DAN RATHER: Betty Ford has been ill this weekend, reportedly an old case of osteoarthritis flared up.
JANE ALEXANDER: Her painful arthritic condition combined with the demands of being first lady, exacerbated her dependency on painkillers.
JOHN ROBERT GREENE: She is in a world that places so many demands on her that it is actually inhibiting her ability to help her own health.
SHEILA WEIDENFELD: Because of the osteoarthritis, she was popping a lot of pills. And there seemed to be no stop, as far as I could see, to the dispensing of the pills and her taking these. She could be terrific one moment and not so the next. We could make a meeting and she canceled. It was quite unpredictable.
REPORTER: Well sometimes we notice Mrs. Ford that you speak very slowly, more slowly than usual. Is that a result of tranquilizers or muscle relaxants?
BETTY FORD: No, I just have never learned to be a rapid-fire speaker.
JANE ALEXANDER: President Ford, who was preoccupied with running a country, later admitted to being in a state of denial about his wife's condition. His decision to run for office was something Betty supported, despite her health and some argue Betty's popularity was an asset for Ford.
JOHN ROBERT GREENE: When you say that Betty Ford was popular you have to say popular with who? She is a lightning rod for the criticism of the far right wing of her own party that is becoming in it's own with the candidacy of Ronald Reagan.
What she does have is the middle. Betty Ford owned it, in a way that first ladies haven't owned a portion of the public before or ever since.
JANE ALEXANDER: This beloved first lady was delighting America with her endless antics. Betty Ford performed over and over again to an adoring public, displaying her keen sense of humor.
JANE ALEXANDER: White House photographer David Kennerly remembers the day Mrs. Ford flashed him a mischievous smile, hopped up on the Cabinet room table and struck a pose.
DAVID KENNERLY: The photograph is the epitome of who Betty Ford is. It represented a mischievous sense of humor, a fearlessness in the face of a male world. I think it definitely exuded her independence.
JANE ALEXANDER: And the West Wing also had plans for Betty.
SHEILA WEIDENFELD: It wasn't until she became very popular with the public that the West Wing said, "Oh my gosh, she's really popular. I think we can use her."
JANE ALEXANDER: So popular that Betty's supporters put Betty's name on their campaign buttons and signs.
SHEILA WEIDENFELD: And then they used her incorrectly, and they started to send her everywhere. And her condition became worse. The osteoarthritis acted up. They booked her far beyond anything she could do. And she was exhausted. She was tired.
She was incoherent in Oakland. She was slurring all of her words in Buffalo. And the thing I think that actually amazed me is that the press kept thinking it was her cancer. And her cancer had nothing to do with the way in which she was dealing with these different campaign trips.
JANE ALEXANDER: Despite her exhaustion and continued dependence on pain killers, Betty rallied for the Republican convention in the summer of 1976, where Ford acknowledged her campaign efforts.
PRESIDENT FORD: ...and especially my dear wife Betty.
JANE ALEXANDER: The Ford family had fanned out across the country to campaign for their father.
On election night, the Ford family and staff were cautiously optimistic as they gathered at the White house. That optimism withered as defeat set in. It was the first election that Gerald Ford had ever lost. Jimmy Carter beat Ford in one of the closest races in 60 years.
BETTY FORD: We were all just really destroyed by it. In talking to someone they said I voted against your husband but it wasn't against him, it was against the Republican Party. I felt they had to be punished.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: You look at the pictures and you see the kids, who are all down in the dumps. The president is silent, and suffering, and who is it that in effect kind of pulls the whole family together and brings that special strength into that situation? Betty Ford.
BETTY FORD: It's been the greatest honor of my husband's life to have served his country during the two most difficult years in our history.
JANE ALEXANDER: The woman who lost her voice regained it. Betty Ford gave the concession speech because Ford was hoarse from campaigning.
In January of 1977 the Fords said goodbye to the city that had been their home for nearly 30 years and headed out to finally retire in the California desert.
DAVID KENNERLY: Once inside the helicopter he wanted to circle around the Capitol and have a last look at the Capitol. And that really was his, his political emotional professional home.
BETTY FORD: Down underneath it all we had been in Washington for all those years and even though we knew we hadn't planned to stay there it was the fact that the office had been taken from my husband. And it was kind of like a blow against you or me.