March 26, 1979 12:00 PM

From the lavish, pool-flanked retirement home of former President and Mrs. Ford in a millionaires’ enclave of Rancho Mirage, south of Palm Springs, the snowcapped San Jacinto Mountains can be seen across the desert—and the Secret Service men, in an adjoining house, can’t be seen at all. With a golf course, an electric gate and a government-paid staff of 12, the ranch-style home has all the benefits of the White House and none of its drawbacks—no Washington snow, no world crises, no obligatory schedules. Her alcohol and drug problems apparently behind her, her features surgically smoothed (“the only new face in the Republican party,” quips neighbor Bob Hope), her children on their own and her husband out of town, Betty Ford sat contentedly in the den adjoining their huge formal living room. For more than an hour the onetime Betty Bloomer, who gave up a dance career to have a family and be helpmeet to the poorest President since Truman, described to PEOPLE’s Clare Crawford how it feels to have retired with the stars.

It has been widely leaked that you are well and happy. What are you happiest about?

I’m lucky that I am probably having the best time of my life right now and that I am well enough to appreciate it. The secret of being happy is knowing that you are no longer dependent on all that medication, all those drugs. You don’t have to drink alcohol, you can drink tonic or Perrier and have just as much fun as anyone else at cocktail parties. More, I think—because I always know what is going on, and sometimes they don’t know the next day what happened. People are envious of me.

Are drugs too readily prescribed?

Doctors have had a strong tendency to overmedicate women. It is easy when a woman suffering from stress comes into their office to write a prescription for a tranquilizer. A woman’s anxieties often arise when her children grow up and leave home, especially at the time of menopause. They occur when she suddenly finds life may be passing her by—she hasn’t accomplished what she’d hoped to with her life. She is perhaps bored. Her husband is occupied with his business and she feels left out. She goes to the doctor and says, “Help me, I am depressed.” He’s running an hour and a half behind with his patients, and it’s a lot easier for him to say, “Take this prescription—it’ll make you feel better.”

What should stress victims do?

I think any women—or men—who are on prescription drugs should sit down with their doctor and discuss exactly what those drugs are for, what they’re doing to them and what the side effects are. I don’t think such life situations are best cured with a pill. For example, when a woman loses her husband—to death, I mean—a doctor usually will give her a sedative. I have been taught that to grieve is healthy, that it’s normal. When someone dies we are supposed to be sad; we are supposed to be depressed. That is part of living, and you shouldn’t use some sort of drug to take you out of it.

Your book and other activities have made you wealthy. How do you feel about having helped pay for this house?

It’s a marvelous feeling. I’m proud, delighted. I never dreamed I’d ever be independently wealthy. All the things I could do were not particularly well-paid—dancing, teaching dance, fashion—but I always felt that I could support myself. Not in the style I’ve enjoyed becoming accustomed to, though.

In your book you told matter-of-factly about giving birth to a baby while Jerry was at a baseball game with the older kids. Do you now think you should have demanded he stay home?

No, because I don’t believe that when you marry a person you should attempt to change his personality. If you are going to change a man after you marry him, you’d better not marry him. I think ours was the right way for us to raise four children. When you have a husband who is a politician, you should expect him to be tied up with work outside the home. I married Jerry because I loved him, and I was willing to put up with it. Most women are strong enough to cope with that. Basically, I think women are stronger than men—or they wouldn’t be here today.

How did you feel about Susan marrying a divorced man?

Well, although I’m very happy about it now, I was not happy then—and Susan and Chuck know that because we discussed it with them. Not because he was divorced, but because we thought Susan was too young. The age difference—17 years—bothered us. I have since run into a lot of very happy couples with that same age difference, and seeing Susan and Chuck together, I am convinced it is right and that they are going to be very happy.

How do you enjoy your leisure?

I am very busy. My schedule is heavier than I wish it was. I don’t have time to lie in the sun. I walk for exercise, and swim. If I get out on the golf course I walk probably a mile and a half, two miles. I walk fast, at almost a jog. I have a mile down to 14½ minutes. I wear comfortable shoes, but not jogging shoes. I can’t jog—the vibration on my neck is too much. And I usually walk with a jacket that has pockets in it so that my arms don’t swing too much—otherwise it affects my shoulder.

When you were in the Middle East, you saw the Shah of Iran and the Empress. How was she and how did you feel?

At dinner at Aswan in Egypt there were six of us, President and Mrs. Sadat, the Shah and the Shahbanou, and my husband and myself. Everybody was quite apprehensive, because they had just come out of Tehran. It was my own personal appraisal that they were still in shock. They couldn’t believe what had happened. I tried hard to talk about subjects that wouldn’t be related to their tragedy. We talked about skiing, which I know she enjoys. We talked about a fast-growing ski area in Iran, and it struck me that I had never been to Iran to see its modernization. I felt I had some insight into the country’s problems since in my mind’s eye I could see the modern-day sort of sleek, suave skiers coming into a mountain resort there, and I could imagine religious factions resenting the type.

Is it true the Shah was depressed and his wife held him together?

Yes—I think that’s typical in most situations where a couple is under stress. I think they were equally hurt, but he showed it more than she. A woman always feels it’s her role to be the supporting factor in such a situation. If she is strong, the woman seems to rise to the occasion, the one who says, “Now come on, we’ll get through this okay.”

About another political wife: How do you regard the talk of Nelson Rockefeller’s death and its effect on Happy?

It was very unfortunate the way the news media handled it. The man died. He could not even defend himself against criticism. It helped no one to have the details brought out about the time or the way in which he died. Except maybe for enemies who wanted to make hay of it. Of course it is going to hurt his wife. But the children are the ones I feel sorry for. Here are two fine young boys—why put a black mark on their name? It is despicable. I have invited Happy and her boys to come here and spend a vacation whenever they want. We think the world of them. I hope the boys will come out and play some golf with Jerry. Happy and I can sit and visit by the pool.

Do you wish the President were here more of the time?

Our marriage is probably stronger today that it has ever been. And I think that is largely because we appreciate that each of us has our own individual niche in life, and we admire each other for what we are doing. We’re a mutual admiration society, with a lot of love and affection. If you can be romantic at 60 and 65, I’d say we’re about the most romantic couple in the world. When he is here, I drop things and cater to him. I enjoy that. But there are times, if he’s here, say, 14 days in a row, I begin to wonder whether maybe he ought to be on the road so I can get a little more done.

How would you feel if he decided to run again? Do you see any need for him to?

I love it here in Palm Springs, but I would go along if I felt very, very strongly that his running was important for the country. I do see a lot of strong reasons why we need a change, and I think that we Republicans definitely should have a strong candidate. I think President Carter is certainly trying very hard; I admire him for all he has tried to do, but I don’t think that he has been successful.

How goes the battle for the Equal Rights Amendment? And have you any other projects?

The thrust now is to try to interest more conservative women in ERA. Housewives and mothers are very important, as well as the conservative older woman who is into the arts and the theater and who has been looking down her nose at all these wild-eyed liberals. I am also still working on problems of the handicapped and retarded and arthritis sufferers.

Your former press secretary, Sheila Weidenfeld, in her book about working for you indicates she packaged you and that she could have saved the election for your husband.

(With a chuckle) I was not aware I was being packaged. In fact, I was active for ERA when my husband was Vice-President, before Sheila Weidenfeld was ever in my life. I had already spoken out on abortion on TV. Sheila is mistaken. She sent me the book with a nice little message in the front saying she knew I’d understand and enjoy it. Well, I didn’t get through it. Jerry didn’t read it either. A lot of the things she said about other people—not just our children, but some of the people on the staff—made me angry. I don’t think she said anything nice about anyone, really.

Is it true that you decided on the facelift after you saw a new and flattering portrait of yourself?

That is as good an explanation as any. I was so exposed to cosmetic surgery in California that it was no novelty. I began thinking about it and heard about a new doctor who was very good. When I went to Washington for the presentation of portraits to the White House, I was terribly pleased with what the artist, Felix de Cossio, had done with me. I thought “Well, maybe I really can look that good.”

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