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Wife created new image for first lady

Wife created new image for first lady


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As Betty Ford mourns her husband of 58 years, Americans recall an outspoken and candid first lady never shy about discussing her problems or pet causes.

Entering a White House East Wing vacated by the reticent Pat Nixon, Ford in less than three years put a new face on the presidential wives sorority and created a model for her successors.

"Betty was so much more outgoing and gregarious and kind of in your face about certain issues," says Craig Schermer, historian at the National First Ladies' Library in Canton, Ohio. "She paved the way for Nancy Reagan and Rosalynn Carter and Barbara Bush."

Ford, 88, is best known for openness about her breast cancer while in the White House and, after President Ford had left office, about her substance abuse. But she was even more outspoken -- though it's less remembered today -- about her support for the doomed Equal Rights Amendment for women.

"She publicly made phone calls and even appeared on The Mary Tyler Moore Show to urge congressional support," Schermer says. "At one point, somebody on the president's staff asked him if there was a way to muzzle her." He refused.

Here was a first lady who, when asked by a TV interviewer what she'd do if she learned that her daughter was having premarital sex, said she hoped her daughter would be on the pill.

That seemed outrageous to many in the mid-1970s. Equally courageous was Ford's decision to publicly disclose her breast cancer in 1974 and her subsequent treatment -- a mastectomy. Women didn't talk openly about breast cancer in those days, much less examine their breasts for lumps. After she left Bethesda Naval Hospital, Ford appeared on the South Portico of the White House and waved.

"She was one of the first people of prominence to acknowledge it. It was not an easy thing to do," says Barbara Brenner of the advocacy group Breast Cancer Action. "She encouraged a lot of women to take better care of themselves."

Ford is also a living symbol that breast cancer need not be a death sentence, Brenner says.

The former first lady is even better known today for a painful chapter in her life, addiction to alcohol and painkillers stemming from attempts to relieve severe neck pain. Her daughter, Susan Ford Bales, then 19, arranged a medical intervention that got her mother into treatment in 1978.

In 1982, Ford co-founded, with her friend Leonard Firestone, the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif. The facility has become a world-famous destination; more than 70,000 people have sought treatment there for alcoholism and drug abuse, including such celebrities as Elizabeth Taylor.

Even though Ford's addiction treatment occurred after her husband left office, "what it did was make us realize that presidential families have their own crises," Schermer says. "We make jokes today about the Betty Ford Center, but it provided a real viable place for people to go."

The Fords, married in 1948 two weeks before Gerald was elected to his first term in Congress, were a devoted and intimate couple. "They were very, very close physically and emotionally, and they genuinely truly adored each other," Schermer says.

The Fords were also the first couple to elevate the presidential kiss from a traditional peck on the cheek. "They were very open about kissing one another," he says.

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© Copyright 2006 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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