Friday, July 08, 2011

The Betty Ford I Knew

She came to the White House unexpectedly and never stopped being herself, unlike those before her who could have passed for inflatable life-sized dolls permanently positioned to stare adoringly at their husbands.

Betty Ford spoke openly about everything, from equal rights for women to abortion to what she would do if her 18-year-old daughter were sexually active. Even more, by example, she went beyond politics and set new standards for openness about her own life.

After a mastectomy for breast cancer, she spoke about it in public and wrote an article for me in McCalls to encourage women to go for early screening.

Then, in July 1978, I published a piece, “Betty Ford: Her Long Struggle with a Lonely Marriage.” Mrs. Ford had just been hospitalized for addiction to alcohol and tranquilizers after years of suffering with a pinched nerve in her neck.

Knowing that pinched nerves often result from emotional stress, I asked Myra MacPherson, who knew Mrs. Ford well, to interview her friends, family and physicians about that possible explanation.

They told of her distress that, after looking forward to retirement togetherness after his Presidency, her husband was still away from home politicking 200 nights a year.

Our conclusion: “Like other wives of ambitious men, she had to raise her children with little emotional support from her husband. After 30 years, the price she has paid for a life of loneliness and stress is painfully clear to everyone—with the possible exception of the one person she needs most.”

The aftermath has stayed in my mind ever since.

Several years later, although anxious that Mrs. Ford might have been upset by our piece, I asked Myra MacPherson to interview her again.

“The reason I’m seeing you,” Mrs. Ford told her, “is that 1978 article. I sent copies of it to every politician’s wife I know.”

Betty Ford, who died today at 93, was one of the most honest and caring people ever to live in the White House

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