For Betty Ford, 1975 has been a surprising, satisfying year. Given a clean bill of health after surgery for breast cancer, she has stood forth as her own person, uninhibitedly backing women’s rights and urging a woman for the Supreme Court, giving her support to the arts—particularly ballet—and presiding over a far-flung family. A Lou Harris poll last month showed her to be one of the most popular First Ladies in history (although ironically her husband’s popularity was slipping). Her most trying moments came when she candidly answered a television interviewer that she “wouldn’t be surprised” if her 18-year-old daughter, Susan, had an affair. Just back from her second trip to Peking, the First Lady sat down in the upstairs White House living room to review the year—and “the question”—with Clare Crawford of PEOPLE.
Do you regret making your remark about Susan’s theoretical affair?
No. I think I just did the honest thing. I said that I don’t expect it to happen, but if it were to happen, I would want Susan to come home to me and I would try to understand. Why, she was out late last night on a blind date, so I called her this morning to find out how it was. We’re very close.
What was the President’s first reaction when he heard your comment?
He tossed a pillow at me and then jesting he said, “Well, that’ll cost me about 100,000 votes.” And then I guess I said something else and he said, “200,000 votes!” But he wasn’t upset. He knows his daughter and he knows our relationship.
Do you think it was an unfair question?
No. If we are realistic we have to recognize these things.
How would you answer it if you had a second chance?
I would have said, “I certainly don’t expect this to happen in our family, but if it did, I would certainly treat Susan with compassion and do everything I could to help.”
How do you feel about your son Jack’s statement that he has smoked pot?
I thought he was being very honest, just like I was being very honest. Jack and I are alike. As my husband says, “two peas in a pod.” I knew it was something the children didn’t do around us, but I was surprised—probably as surprised as anyone.
How do you feel about Jack partying at New York discos with people like Bianca Jagger?
Well, I think that was created by Mick and Bianca Jagger. In fact I know it was. Jack was sitting perfectly alone and Bianca Jagger came over and joined him. So she was looking for publicity.
Does Jack feel he is being used?
Oh, he does. He definitely does. That’s why he sort of retired from the party scene. I went up last night and he was in bed asleep while Susan was still out. But then I had to say to myself, “Where were you when you were 18 years old?”
What are the children’s plans?
Mike, the oldest and married, is continuing graduate work in divinity school. I’m not sure he wants to be a minister per se. I think his interest is in counseling. I haven’t found out what Jack’s plans are and I don’t think he knows. He hopes to work with Outward Bound, which is a very interesting program.
What about Steve?
Well, if I could get Steve off a horse I’d be real happy. He wants to go back to the ranch. So he’s going there part-time and possibly to the University of Montana.
Is Susan giving up school to become a photographer?
Not if I can help it! I would like to see her have at least a year of college. I think she’ll probably spend some time in Vail and come back to start at Mount Vernon College again Feb. 23.
How was the President when he was a young father?
People don’t realize that we had our children late in life. I was 32 before Mike was born and 39 when I had Susan. Jerry had been a bachelor for 35 years. “Oh dear,” I thought, “how’s he going to adjust to a baby?” And he was just fantastic. He just loved it.
How has your husband changed since he’s been in the White House?
Well, he has developed a much broader scope as far as the problems he has to handle, but I don’t notice him changing personally. To me, he’s still the same man.
And he sees you in the same way?
I was quite frank from the beginning. I said, “It’s too late for me to change. If they don’t like the way I am, that’s too bad. They can send me home.”
What was your reaction to being named one of the most popular First Ladies?
That was one of the great shocks. Jack came down one morning and said, “Well, you must feel pretty happy,” and I said, “Yes, I feel happy—what about?” And he carefully, and I think proudly, showed me the poll in the paper.
How did you feel about being more popular than your husband?
Embarrassed. But he was pleased—and very supportive.
What about Ronald Reagan leading the President in the polls?
I think this is just a period. Reagan’s announcing his candidacy and his being on the cover of TIME and Newsweek all in one week—well, everybody went berserk.
Did you have reservations when your husband decided to seek reelection?
No, I was pleased. I really was. I didn’t want my health, or anything like that, to hold him back.
What reservations do the children have about their father running?
I think they would be happier if he didn’t, because it puts them in a position where they have to have constant Secret Service protection. It’s not very much fun for them to always have a couple of guys along when they go out. But I would feel very guilty if we let them go free and something happened.
What is the hardest thing about living in the White House?
There’s no question about that—the lack of privacy. You even have to call up the Secret Service and say, “Now I’m going over to the East Wing.”
Do you worry about assassination?
That doesn’t bother me at all. In fact, Jerry was traveling so much more when he was Minority Leader of the House that I used to worry about plane crashes more than anything else. I thought his time had run out.
What was your reaction to the two unsuccessful attempts on your husband’s life?
I was relieved. However, I’m sure there will be other attempts.
Because of your cancer operation, do you have a feeling of mortality that you didn’t have before?
I think so. I just feel if you went through life knowing that you’d saved just one person’s life you would feel your own life had been fulfilled. I think of all those women whose lives have been saved through examination because of my operation.
As a vocal feminist, were you disappointed that your husband appointed a man to the Supreme Court?
He knew I wanted a woman. I thought it was time. But he did all the reading of briefs and I had to accept his judgment. Still, I was disappointed.
How did you feel about the defeat of the state equal rights amendments in New York and New Jersey?
I was disappointed there, too, but I will work just as hard as ever for equal rights for women. I think men realize women are coming into their own.
Is there pillow talk in the White House?
Yes. It only makes sense, if you want to bring something up with your husband, you wait until he gets home from the office and has his dinner and you figure he’s in a good mood. Then you put your two cents in.
Do you always agree with him when it comes to the issues?
We disagree on some things. But he’s the President and I’m not.
Do the children disagree with him?
They have, yes. And he listens. He’s always willing to listen. We discuss a lot of things at the dinner table.
How important politically is a First Lady?
I think people always take a look at the wife. The articles say I’m an asset. It always surprises me, and naturally it always pleases me.
Would you be less outspoken if the President asked you to?
He never steps on my toes. But I’m sure his staff says, “Well, what are we going to do with her now?”
Is the President as accident-prone at home as he seems to be in public?
Yes. When he came to visit me on our first date, there was a lovely bouquet of flowers on the coffee table. He sat down and pushed the coffee table to move it out a little farther and tipped the whole thing over, flowers and all, and I thought, hmmm. He may be accident-prone, but he certainly isn’t clumsy. He’s a good dancer, and a natural athlete.
How does the President react under tension?
He becomes very serious. During the Cabinet changes in October, everything would have gone very smoothly if someone had not leaked the information. I can assure you if Jerry could ever find out where that leak was, that person wouldn’t be working for the White House or for him.
How do you rate 1975?
We don’t have any Americans fighting, which I think is marvelous for the Christmas season. I savor my own life more, because I felt when I went into the operating room that anything from here on is a plus in my life. I just feel as though I’m myself and I’m having a good time.
Do you really want to see your husband reelected?
If that’s what he wants, that’s what I want. But I’d be perfectly happy to go home to Alexandria, Va.