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 Centre, has died, a family friend said yesterday. She was 93.
Mrs Ford’s death was confirmed by Marty Allen, chairman emeritus of the Ford Foundation. He did not comment further and said he expected the Gerald R Ford Presidential Library and Museum would release information later.
Betty Ford, whose husband, Gerald, died in December 2006, had undergone surgery for an undisclosed ailment in April 2007. During and after her years in the White House, from 1974 to 1977, Mrs Ford won acclaim for her candour, 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.
But it was her Betty Ford Centre, which rescued celebrities and ordinary people from addiction, that made her famous in her own right. She was modest about the accomplishment.
“People who get well often say, ‘You saved my life,’ and ‘You’ve turned my life around’,” she recalled. “They don’t realise we merely provided the means for them to do it themselves and that’s all.
“That’s a God-given gift as far as I’m concerned. I don’t take any credit for providing anything that wasn’t provided to me.”
After the former president died on December 26, 2006, at age 93, his widow said: “His life was filled with love of God, his family and his country.” They had been married in 1948, the same year Gerald Ford was elected to Congress.
As she and their children led the nation in mourning him, Americans were reminded anew of her own contributions, as well as his. It was calculated then that the Betty Ford Centre had treated 76,000 people.
“It’s hard to imagine a more important figure in the substance abuse field than Mrs Ford,” Rick Rawson, associate director of the integrated substance abuse program at the University of California at Los Angeles, said at the time.
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 favour of a drink.
Her family finally confronted her in April 1978 and insisted she seek treatment. She credited their “intervention” with saving her life.
She entered Long Beach Naval Hospital and underwent a grim detoxification, which became the model for therapy at the Betty Ford Centre. 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 centre, located on the grounds of the Eisenhower Medical Centre. She helped raise $US3 million, lobbied in the state capital for its approval, and reluctantly agreed to let it be named for her.
“The centre’s name has been burden, as well as honour,” 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 honour, from the first President Bush in 1991. In 1999 Gerald and Betty Ford both were awarded Congressional Gold Medals.
She raised the couple’s four children: Michael Gerald, born in 1950; John Gardner, born in 1952; Steven Meigs, born in 1956; and Susan Elizabeth, born in 1957.