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Former first lady Betty Ford dies at 93

The former First Lady, better known for setting up the world-famous rehab clinic, passes away in California.

The late Betty Ford, pictured in 2007 at the funeral of her husband, former US president Gerald Ford.
The late Betty Ford, pictured in 2007 at the funeral of her husband, former US president Gerald Ford.
Image: GERALD HERBERT/AP

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, has died at 93.

Family spokeswoman Barbara Lewandrowski said that the former first lady died at the Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage. Other details of her death were not immediately available.

“She was a wonderful wife and mother; a great friend; and a courageous First Lady,” former president George 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.”

While her husband served as president – the only one never to have been elected as either President or Vice-President – Mrs 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.

According to Mrs Ford, her young adult children probably had smoked marijuana — and if she were their age, she’d try it, too. She told “60 Minutes” she wouldn’t be surprised to learn that her youngest, 18-year-old Susan, was in a sexual relationship (an embarrassed Susan issued a denial).

She mused that living together before marriage might be wise, thought women should be drafted into the military if men were, and spoke up unapologetically for abortion rights, taking a position contrary to the president’s. “Having babies is a blessing, not a duty,” Mrs Ford said.

“Mother’s love, candour, devotion, and laughter enriched our lives and the lives of the millions she touched throughout this great nation,” her family said in a statement released late last night. “To be in her presence was to know the warmth of a truly great lady.”

Candour 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.

Cancer surgery

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 used the unvarnished story of her own descent and recovery to crusade for better addiction treatment, especially for women. She co-founded the nonprofit Betty Ford Center near the Fords’ home in California in 1982.

Mrs Ford raised millions of dollars for the center, kept close watch over its operations, and regularly welcomed groups of new patients with a speech that started, “Hello, my name’s Betty Ford, and I’m an alcoholic and drug addict.”

Although most famous for a string of celebrity patients over the years — from Elizabeth Taylor and Johnny Cash to Lindsay Lohan — the center keeps its rates relatively affordable and has served more than 90,000 people.

President Barack Obama said the Betty Ford Center would honour 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.”

AP

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