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Betty Ford: Prominent first lady's greatest days came later in life

Mrs. Ford, with America's only unelected president, Gerald R. Ford
REUTERS/Ho New
Mrs. Ford, with America's only unelected president, Gerald R. Ford

When former first lady Betty Ford, 93, passed away on July 8, I recalled an opportunity I had over three decades ago to spend some one-on-one time with her in Minnesota.

Mrs. Ford, on the campaign trail in 1976 for America's only unelected president, Gerald R. Ford, came to our first "Independent-Republicans of Minnesota" state convention of over 2,000 delegates and alternates meeting in St. Paul. She needed a local host and I, as state chair of the party, was asked by the White House to do the job.

Betty Ford had not been a typical first lady, candidly going public about her breast cancer and mastectomy in an effort to build public awareness. She often charted a public course that spoke to some of America's most controversial issues, supporting ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, liberalized abortion laws, and more women in policymaking government jobs. Privately, she had advised her husband in 1974 not to grant an unconditional pardon for Watergate disgraced President Richard Nixon, an opinion on which she later changed her mind.

Raising another voice within the party
At the time, Ronald Reagan was making an increasingly strong push to win the Republican presidential nomination for himself. When Republican advisers warned that her outspoken views could damage President Ford's 1976 chances, Mrs. Ford calmly countered that she was "merely raising another voice within the party."

Within months of moving to the White House, Betty Ford had become the most popular woman in the country, registering a 75 percent approval rating with the public. We'd found that the "Elect Betty's Husband for President" campaign button was a more requested in Minnesota than any of the others.

As I met her at the airport and accompanied the first lady on her appointed rounds on that hot June day, she talked briefly about the stress of Washington, D.C., and national politics. She looked prim and very well groomed but was undeniably tired; I decided to allow her quiet time.

National news reporters and network television crews were in attendance as Mrs. Ford urged support for her husband and his slate of "at large" delegates to the Republican National Convention in Kansas City. Her Minnesota convention speech had been enthusiastic if not somewhat haltingly delivered; it was not nearly as powerful as the charismatic Reagan's had been an hour earlier.

Betty's husband, however, carried the day, winning 19 of 20 of the national delegate and alternate slots. To be sure, we had to count and recount the results so it took quite a bit of time. Eventually, I was one of those elected to attend the RNC and she sent me a hand written congratulatory note afterward.

Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale ("Grits and Fritz") defeated President Ford and his running mate, Bob Dole, later that year.

Greatest days yet to come
Despite her celebrity at the time, Betty Ford's greatest days were yet to come.

In 1978, we all learned that Betty Ford's use of alcohol and mood-altering prescription drugs for chronic pain had, over the years, become a serious dependency. Confronting her addictions, she agreed to seek help. Four years later, under her personal leadership, the Betty Ford Center opened on the grounds of the Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif. Mrs. Ford, as chair, led the board in expanding the center's services to include a family therapy program and a women's treatment center.

Over the decades, the former first lady joined in leading numerous nonpartisan efforts, especially on issues of health-care reform, children's well being, AID's awareness and treatment, and mental health.

For the Chicago-born, Grand Rapids, Mich.-raised, middle-class mother of four who initially wanted nothing to do with the limelight — of politics, certainly — Betty Ford's was a rich and meaningful life that made a difference for America.

Chuck Slocum is president of The Williston Group, a management consulting firm. He is a former chair of the state Republicans and once headed the Minnesota Business Partnership. His email address is chuck [at] willistongroup.com.

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