Former first lady Betty Ford dies at 93

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Betty Ford, the former first lady whose triumph over drug and alcohol addiction became a beacon of hope for addicts and the inspiration for her Betty Ford Center in California, died at age 93, a family friend said last night.

Her death yesterday was confirmed by Marty Allen, chairman emeritus of the Ford Foundation. Family spokeswoman Barbara Lewandrowski said later that the former first lady died at the Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage. Other details of her death were not immediately available.



Ford's husband, Gerald, died in December 2006.



"She was a wonderful wife and mother; a great friend; and a courageous First Lady," former President George H.W. Bush said in a statement. "No one confronted life's struggles with more fortitude or honesty, and as a result, we all learned from the challenges she faced."



Betty Ford had undergone surgery for an undisclosed ailment in April 2007. During and after her years in the White House, 1974 to 1977, Mrs. Ford won acclaim for her candor, wit and courage as she fought breast cancer, severe arthritis and the twin addictions of drugs and alcohol. She also pressed for abortion rights and women's rights.



While her husband served as president, Ford's comments weren't the kind of genteel, innocuous talk expected from a first lady, and a Republican one no less. Her unscripted comments sparked tempests in the press and dismayed President Gerald Ford's advisers, who were trying to soothe the national psyche after Watergate. But to the scandal-scarred, Vietnam-wearied, hippie-rattled nation, Mrs. Ford's openness was refreshing.



And 1970s America loved her for it.



But it was her Betty Ford Center, which rescued celebrities and ordinary people from addiction, that made her famous in her own right.



"People who get well often say, 'You saved my life,' and 'You've turned my life around,"' she recalled. "They don't realize we merely provided the means for them to do it themselves and that's all."



The former president died December 26, 2006, at age 93. They had been married in 1948, the same year Gerald Ford was elected to Congress.



The Betty Ford Center — although most famous for celebrity patients like Elizabeth Taylor, Johnny Cash and Lindsay Lohan — keeps its rates relatively affordable and has served more than 90,000 people.



In a statement yesterday, President Barack Obama said the Betty Ford Center would honor Mrs. Ford's legacy "by giving countless Americans a new lease on life."



"As our nation's First Lady, she was a powerful advocate for women's health and women's rights," the president said. "After leaving the White House, Mrs. Ford helped reduce the social stigma surrounding addiction and inspired thousands to seek much-needed treatment."



Candor worked for Betty Ford, again and again. She would build an enduring legacy by opening up the toughest times of her life as public example.



In an era when cancer was discussed in hushed tones and mastectomy was still a taboo subject, the first lady shared the specifics of her breast cancer surgery. The publicity helped bring the disease into the open and inspired countless women to seek breast examinations.



Her most painful revelation came 15 months after leaving the White House, when Mrs. Ford announced that she was entering treatment for a longtime addiction to painkillers and alcohol. It turned out the famously forthcoming first lady had been keeping a secret, even from herself.



She and her husband had retired to Rancho Mirage, California, after he lost a bruising presidential race to Jimmy Carter in 1976. She went to work on her memoirs, "The Times of My Life," which came out in 1979. But the social whirlwind that engulfed them in Washington was over, and Betty Ford confessed that she missed it.



"We had gone into the campaign to win and it was a great disappointment losing, particularly by such a small margin," she said. "It meant changing my whole lifestyle after 30 years in Washington, and it was quite a traumatic experience."



By 1978, she was addicted to alcohol and prescription drugs. She would later describe herself during that period as "this nice, dopey pill-pusher sitting around and nodding."



"As I got sicker," she recalled, "I gradually stopped going to lunch. I wouldn't see friends. I was putting everyone out of my life." Her children recalled her living in a stupor, shuffling around in her bathrobe, refusing meals in favor of a drink.



Her family finally confronted her in April 1978 and insisted she seek treatment. She credited their "intervention" with saving her life.



"I was stunned at what they were trying to tell me about how I disappointed them and let them down," Ford told The Associated Press in 1994.



"I was terribly hurt — after I had spent all those years trying to be the best mother, wife I could be. ... Luckily, I was able to hear them saying that I needed help and they cared too much about me to let it go on," she said.



She entered Long Beach Naval Hospital and underwent a grim detoxification, which became the model for therapy at the Betty Ford Center. She saw her recovery as a second chance at life.



"When you come back from something that was as disagreeable and unsettling as my alcoholism, when you come back to health from that, everything is so much more valuable," she said in her book, "A Glad Awakening."



Her own experience, and that of a businessman friend whom she helped save from alcoholism, were the inspiration for the center, located on the grounds of the Eisenhower Medical Center. She helped raise $3 million, lobbied in the state capital for its approval, and reluctantly agreed to let it be named for her.



"The center's name has been burden, as well as honor," she wrote. "Because even if nobody else holds me responsible, I hold myself responsible."



She liked to tell patients, "I'm just one more woman who has had this problem."



Her efforts won her a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, from the first President Bush in 1991. In 1999 Gerald and Betty Ford both were awarded Congressional Gold Medals.



She continued to be outspoken on public issues, pressing for fellow Republicans to be moderate on social questions. She spoke out in favor of gays in the military in a 1993 Washington Post interview, saying they had been serving for many years.



During the Clinton presidency, Mrs. Ford praised first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, saying she had been with her at a meeting on health care and found her "courteous, charming, able, attractive. ... She asks good questions. She picked out one of the most demanding roles she possibly could."



In 2005, she was presented with the Gerald R. Ford Medal of Distinguished Public Service from her husband's foundation, telling the gathering that it was "very, very special." She added in her typical candor: "It's kind of all in the family, and I feel a little guilty about it."



Mrs. Ford's first public appearance after her husband's death was in August 2007, when she attended a ceremony near Rancho Mirage as a postage stamp honoring the late president was issued. She did not speak. She had not traveled to Texas for the funeral of Lady Bird Johnson, wife of President Lyndon B. Johnson, the previous month.



Mrs. Ford was a free spirit from the start. Elizabeth Bloomer, born April 8, 1918, fell in love with dance as a girl in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and decided it would be her life. At 20, despite her mother's misgivings, she moved to New York City to learn from her idol Martha Graham. She lived in bohemian Greenwich Village, worked as a model, and performed at Carnegie Hall in Graham's modern dance ensemble.



With her gray-green eyes, chestnut hair and stately bearing, she was often described as regal.



After returning to Michigan, where an early marriage to a furniture company representative ended in divorce, she met Gerald Ford, a lawyer just out of the Navy. When he proposed in 1948, she said later, she had no idea he planned a political career.



"I really thought I was marrying a lawyer, and we'd be living in Grand Rapids," she recalled. Then he announced his plan to run for Congress and even made a campaign appearance during their honeymoon.



At the White House, in contrast to the stilted Nixon years, the Fords were known for rollicking parties with popular performers and dancing late into the night. Betty Ford became the first first lady to appear on a TV sitcom, doing a cameo on the "Mary Tyler Moore Show." (Moore would later check into the Betty Ford Center for alcohol treatment.)



The Fords' children were in their late teens and early 20s by the time the Fords moved into the White House and only a daughter, Susan, lived there. But they were a close family, gathering at Vail, Colorado, for Christmas skiing vacations.



"When I came to Washington, I saw my job as a supporting wife and mother," Mrs. Ford said. "But I came to feel an emptiness in spite of the fact I was happy. The old term housewife just didn't seem right. That's when I looked for support in my thinking that there must be something more than that. And indeed there is."



Family spokeswoman Lewandrowski the family expects to organize a service in Palm Springs over the next couple days. Ford's body will be sent to Michigan for burial alongside former President Gerald Ford, who is buried at his namesake museum in Grand Rapids.

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