Column: Betty Ford, A Powerful, Uplifting Story First Lady

… Women’s Advocate, Survivor, Trailblazer.

By Patricia Chadwick

Sometimes a book resonates with its reader in a special way. That can happen for an array of reasons – perhaps it stirs something deep inside, or it informs in a new way, or maybe it brings back memories, or it could be something else entirely. I had that sense of something special when I recently read Lisa McCubbin’s:  Betty Ford: First Lady, Women’s Advocate, Survivor, Trailblazer.

The Prologue was jarring, in fact searing, and almost uncomfortable to read. But it was clear that it was meant to shock because it followed a Foreword by Susan Ford Bales, (Betty Ford’s own daughter) who wrote, “…this is the story of Betty Ford, told with honesty, compassion, and candor.”

The resignation of President Richard Nixon in the summer of 1974 remains indelibly seared in my mind. Perhaps it would have been a less powerful memory had I not spent two weeks (in the spring of 1973) recuperating from a “tonsillectomy gone wrong”. Day after day, I sat propped up in bed, glued to the television, as the Watergate hearings revealed an appalling tale of abuse of power and obstruction of justice.

When 15 months later, Vice President Gerald Ford took the oath of office as President of the United States, it seemed there was a palpable sense of a fresh start in the country. Both the President and Mrs. Ford exuded a feeling of normalcy; they were more energetic and more friendly (at least it seemed to me) than the Nixons – almost like next door neighbors.

Lisa McCubbin recounts in a straightforward and readable way the long road from Betty Ford’s unpretentious early life, to her ascent as First Lady, and then how in that role, she evolved from consort to bold social and moral leader. Over the course of the less than 1000 days that the Fords occupied the White House, Mrs. Ford, in a seemingly uncalculated manner, but fully aware of the power of her words, became a radical in her own way.

The book chronicles in lively prose the First Lady’s fearlessness and her leadership. It was during her White House years that Mrs. Ford became my hero – unafraid to utter the word “breast” as she shared the details of her cancer and mastectomy only months into her new role. Over the next two years, she became a powerful voice for women, standing up for the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, as well as supporting abortion and birth control rights for women. She shocked many with her ease in talking about her four children and broaching subjects considered taboo – pre-marital sex and marijuana. America never looked back.

But what came as a surprise to me was to learn the degree of incessant pain that Mrs. Ford endured for years, long before the presidency was in sight – pain from a chronic pinched nerve and subsequently from spinal arthritis – as she was raising, almost single-handedly, four children from infancy into their teenage and college years, all the while fulfilling the challenging roles of spouse of the Minority Leader of the House of Representatives and ultimately of First Lady. Medicine prescribed to mitigate her physical pain instead ultimately caused intense emotional suffering.

The story intensifies as one accompanies Betty Ford through her treatment and recovery – it is hard to hold back tears as one watches her deny, then accept and finally conquer her addiction.  Even then her work was not done – not until she had seen to it that, with the help of others, an array of “alumni chapters” was established around the world to ensure that, in her words, “an alumni project could be the legacy of our work here.”

That legacy will live on, thanks to Betty Ford’s vision.

The title of the book is perfect:  Betty Ford was indeed a First Lady, a strong advocate for women, a survivor for 33 years, and a trailblazer who has left a legacy that will be felt far into the future.

I encourage you to make this book a summer read.

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