Betty Ford Remembered for Love, Social Activism

Betty Ford chose those who are to speak at her memorial service.

July 12, 2011, 1:29 PM

July 12, 2011— -- Mourners celebrated the life of Betty Ford today at St. Margaret's Church in Palm Desert, Calif., calling her a woman who loved her God, her family and those she inspired in her work on behalf of those struggling with cancer and addiction.

In a mood of bipartisanship, Rosalynn Carter, wife of former President Jimmy Carter, first lady Michelle Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- all Democrats -- stood beside former Republican President George W. Bush and former first lady Nancy Reagan.

Reading from Corinthians, her oldest son Michael Gerald said his mother loved dancing, her family and the patients she helped. She loved her husband, the man she called, "my boyfriend of 58 years."

Most of the speakers had been handpicked by Ford before her death last week at age 93.

Delivering the first eulogy, former first lady Rosalynn Carter said she had "an excellent role model and a hard act to follow."

"Millions are forever in her debt today because she was never afraid to tell the truth," Carter said. "Betty was my friend."

Others paid tribute to the woman who was embraced by a generation of women who were just coming into their own. A social pioneer, Ford spoke openly about sex, cancer and addiction.

Her final wishes were as strong as her opinions and her voice. Ford asked NPR news analyst and ABC News political commentator Cokie Roberts to eulogize her and even gave "instructions."

Click here to read the text of Cokie Roberts' eulogy for Betty Ford.

"Mrs. Ford wanted me to remind everyone of the way things used to be in Washington," said Roberts, who as a child was one of the era's "congressional brats."

"I wouldn't be at all surprised if she timed her death to make sure she could convey the message of comity during this week when it seems so badly needed," she writes in her eulogy, which she was polishing up a few hours before the funeral.

Ford was clear about what she wanted Roberts to talk about: the former first lady's life before she became the public face of breast cancer and addiction, when wives helped politicians work together to pass bipartisan legislation.

Gerald R. Ford, a Republican, was House minority leader when Roberts' father, Democratic Rep. Hale Boggs from Louisiana, was majority leader. They had known each other since Ford's election to Congress in 1948.

Boggs died in a plane crash in 1972 and Roberts' mother, Lindy Boggs, who is now 95, took his place in Congress after a special election.

Knowing in advance was "part of the protocol," according to Roberts, who was asked to speak by her longtime friend, Susan Ford Bales, one of Ford's four children.

"She wanted me to talk about being friends across the aisle, and how it made it easier to govern," Roberts said. "Political wives were absolutely essential to their relationship."

Unlike today, friendships crossed party lines and wives cemented those ties at parties. "They had the men over to sit down and have a drink and have dinner with each other and behave," Roberts said. "The women got them to be civil."

Roberts describes how her father and then congressman Ford would ride together to a place like the Press Club and ask, "What are we going to argue about?"

In an interview years later, Ford told Roberts, "We had different views about means to an end. We genuinely disagreed with each other -- we were certainly partisans. But after we went at it, we'd get back in the cab together and be best of friends."

"That friendship made governing possible," Roberts said.

Clinton and Bush displayed a bit of that bipartisan spirit, engaging in a long and spirited discussion as they waited for the services to begin.

Roberts agrees the timing of her eulogy -- as Republican House Speaker John Boehner and Democratic President Barack Obama have a showdown over raising the debt limit -- is perfect.

Roberts blames the media, among other things, for some of the ugliest partisanship these days.

"We give our microphones to the shrillest voices, and the most outlandish things to say are valued as opposed to people coming together and trying to get along," she said.

Roberts also makes the point that Ford was "very engaging and humorous and beautiful." Ford and Roberts' mother were always chosen to model in the congressional fashion shows where Roberts also appeared as a child.

But Ford's legacy went beyond fashion.

"Betty Ford saved hundreds and thousands of lives," said Roberts, who is also a breast cancer survivor. "Women now get mammograms and she has raised awareness through money and research. She has had an enormous impact.

"But what is so interesting is she wanted me to talk about her life before all that, because she understood that part of her life would be given the least attention."

Betty Ford, a former Martha Graham dancer who performed at Carnegie Hall, was a colorful and out-spoken character who redefined the role of first lady.

Her comments to media were scandalous at the time, speaking frankly about being diagnosed with breast cancer and admitting she had abused drugs and alcohol.

Betty Ford Spoke Out on Sex, Health

In 1975, Ford told television's "60 Minutes" that if her 18-year-old daughter, Susan, had an affair, she would not necessarily object. She also told the women's magazine McCall's that she had sex with her husband "as often as possible."

Some media observers say her legacy may have been greater than that of her husband, who served barely one term -- 1974 to 1977 -- and was the only president never to have been elected to office.

Speaker of the house, he rose to the vice presidency in 1974 under the terms of the 25th amendment after the resignation of Richard M. Nixon's vice president Spiro Agnew.

When Nixon resigned in disgrace later that year, Ford ascended to the presidency. His most controversial decision was granting a pardon to Nixon for his role in the Watergate scandal in an attempt to heal the country.

When he ran unsuccessfully against Georgia Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1976, women wore buttons and T-shirts that urged voters to, "Elect Betty's Husband."

Catherine Allgor, professor of history and presidential chair at University of California Riverside, said Ford was perhaps the first "post-modern" first lady.

"She was a dancer, she was educated, she had a career, she had two marriages," Allgor said of her divorce the year before she married Ford. "She began to speak out on sexuality and women's health, things we now talk about at the dinner table.

"She was part of a generation of women who were trailblazers. You could be yourself and speak your mind. And she had a mind to speak."

Ford also "got a lot of flak from people to dare to break respectable silences," she said. She was pro choice and pushed for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.

Although Ford lost to Carter, his wife showed the tremendous power of the first lady to "radiate the psychology and emotional message" about her husband's administration.

"She sent the message that the Fords were modern people, honest, forthright," Allgor said. "They were moral people who wrestled with dilemmas about our children and their health."

Other speakers included presidential historian Richard Norton Smith, Geoffrey Mason, a former director of the Betty Ford Clinic, and an alcoholic named "Jeff" who had been helped by her charitable work.

After the service, Ford's remains will be flown to Michigan for a public viewing and burial at the presidential museum alongside her husband, former President Gerald R. Ford, who died in 2006.

"I have been reading many obits this morning and over and over again, [Betty Ford] said, 'I was going to be myself,'" said Steven V. Roberts, a contributing editor to U.S. News and World Report and husband of Cokie Roberts.

"The core of what led to everything else is that she was thrust into a role that she never expected, and said, 'I am who I am.'''

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