March 09, 1987 12:00 PM

“I didn’t do this intentionally. I didn’t set out in life to be an alcoholic and build the Betty Ford Center.”

—Betty Ford

In the desert oasis of Rancho Mirage, Calif., where the clink of glasses and the whack of golf balls serenade the retirement life, the wife of the 38th President of the United States isn’t terribly interested in fitting in with the locals. Naturally, being Betty Ford, she says so. “Sure, I could be sitting back by the pool,” she allows, “but how boring!” And, sure, at age 68, she wouldn’t mind joining the gang for a few nips and tucks to smooth out the face-lift she proudly announced in 1978. “But I don’t have the time,” complains Betty. “Besides, it’s not so important to me anymore.”

At a period in her life when she could be playing First Lady of leisure, Ford is a hard-working executive. Most weekdays she slides into the back of a Secret Service car for the five-minute drive to the Betty Ford Center, of which she is president. Delivering a formal lecture once a month and offering support and advice to the patients on almost every visit, she also oversees administrative details large and small. “It has my name on it,” says the former First Lady with the same feistiness she once used to champion the Equal Rights Amendment. “I feel responsible for how it works.”

This unassuming complex of motel like buildings is Ford’s treasured legacy to troubled souls. It is also the most poignant symbol of the famous Betty Ford candor: By putting her name on a center for alcohol and drug rehabilitation, she is telling her grandchildren, great-grandchildren—and the world—that she, too, was addicted.

Even this public acknowledgment isn’t enough for the woman who once shared the trauma of her mastectomy with the nation. Now she has authorized the release of both a TV movie and a book that give startlingly intimate details of her addiction. The Betty Ford Story, with Gena Row lands in the title role, airs on ABC this Monday. Ford says there are parts of the movie that are “painful for me and my family to watch, but I was convinced that it would help thousands of people.”

Ford felt the same way about her new book, Betty: A Glad Awakening (Doubleday, $16.95). Working with journalist Chris Chase, who also had collaborated with Ford on her 1978 autobiography, The Times of My Life, Betty relived the stages of her disease and recovery and recounted her efforts to found the Betty Ford Center. “It’s like taking another inventory,” says Ford. “The first book [which included only a chapter at the end about her drug and alcohol addiction] was on the outside—about people, places and things. This book came very much from the inside. I thought I had examined my feelings before, but I really hadn’t. I found I had carefully skipped over things. You know, honest self-deception.”

The three-bedroom house where Betty and Jerry Ford now reside 70 percent of their time (Christmases and summers are spent at the family home in Beaver Creek, Colo.) is elegant and decorator perfect. Were it not for the extensive collection of Republican glass elephants, the sculpture from Brezhnev on the coffee table and the signed portrait of the King and Queen of Jordan, this might be any wealthy industrialist’s desert hideaway. Outside a big picture window, golfers can be seen teeing off on the 13th hole of the Thunderbird Country Club. A rotating squad of 20 Secret Service agents keeps watch.

A few steps away, in a separate building, is Gerald Ford’s office and staff of seven. When he isn’t off at corporate, charitable or educational board meetings or lecturing on college campuses, the 73-year-old former President saunters over around noon to lunch with his wife. The bar just off the dining room is fully stocked, and cocktails are offered to visitors. The host and hostess, however, stick to soft drinks like soda and lime. “I stopped drinking in July 1979,” says Jerry, who felt it would be a show of support to his wife, “and boy, do I feel great.”

At the mention of alcohol, Betty turns pensive. “Once in a while, when I’m very tired, I think, ‘Oh, I’d love a martini.’ But I don’t have it,” she says after a long pause. “The fear is always that one drink will lead to more. I know that alcoholism is chronic and progressive and can be fatal if not treated.”

Her first real drink, recalls Ford, was a rum and Coke she had when she was a fashion coordinator in Grand Rapids, Mich. Later, as a congressman’s wife and a mother trying to raise four kids, she had the usual highballs and nightcaps and never thought twice about it. Now, with the hindsight that recovery brings, she admits, “Alcohol was very important to me.” When a pinched nerve in her neck acted up in 1964, and later when her back and arthritis troubled her, she took increasing amounts of various prescription drugs. She always felt they were what the doctor ordered.

Then came the summer of 1974, when the traveling salesman’s daughter suddenly found herself living in the White House. “It was such an extraordinary privilege,” says Ford. “And it was exciting to think that I was sleeping with the President of the United States. That’s a pretty powerful position.” Determined to make her husband—and America—proud, Ford became very cautious about pills and alcohol. “I kept things under control in the White House,” says Betty. “God or the country was looking after me.”

Still, nothing could protect her from the moment when her physician told her that during a routine physical a lump had been found in her breast. “I remember thinking, This means I’m going to die,’ ” says Ford. “My next thought was: ‘How do I cope with this and be First Lady?’ I didn’t have the time for this. It shouldn’t be a part of my life. I was angry. Then I saw how destroyed my daughter, Susan, was and how concerned my husband was. As a true mother and wife, I had to be brave so they would be strong.”

Brave is exactly what she was. Ford quickly resumed her schedule and urged women to go out and seek breast examinations, thus saving countless lives. Brave Betty was not invincible, however, and once her husband had lost the 1976 election, she fell apart. “I was crushed by the defeat,” she explains. “I had to uproot myself from the East for a new life in California. Our children were gone, and my husband was busy trying to make a life after politics. It was a tremendous letdown. I felt very much alone, unwanted by my family, and unnecessary. The truth is that I was at the end of my rope.”

By Christmas 1977, Ford was shuffling around the house in her bathrobe in a haze. “I must have swallowed as many as 25 pills a day,” she says. Though she rarely touched alcohol before the evening, and even then had only two vodka and tonics before dinner and one more after, the combination put her in a stupor. “In my own way, I was pulling down the shades and shutting everyone out of my life,” she reflects. “I suppose I was suicidal, but I didn’t know it.”

Ford’s family was distraught and secretly tried to water down her drinks. “I found myself almost in a position of baby-sitting for her,” says Betty’s youngest child and only daughter, Susan Ford Vance. “She had no friends. You couldn’t trust her. She wouldn’t show up for appointments. I feared she’d fall and crack her head open. She was walking into a dead-end street.”

Gerald Ford says his wife’s condition made him feel “hopeless and helpless.” The most painful thing, he remembers, “was seeing her take a handful of pills, all prescribed by the doctors. I knew something was wrong, but any comment brought this response from Betty: ‘Well, the doctors prescribed these.’ I felt I was losing my wife, not from a point of view of love, but as a person.”

The former President was on the road a great deal, though he bristles at the suggestion that he traveled to get away from a bad situation at home. “I was traveling because I like to be busy, and I’ve done it all my life,” he says, then adds, “I suppose some would say my workaholic attitude wasn’t helpful.”

When Susan summoned her father one day in March 1978, Ford got Henry Kissinger to pinch-hit for two speeches and flew all night to get home. A few weeks earlier, Susan had sought the advice of her mother’s physician, who suggested that the entire family confront Betty with her addictions. Jerry, Susan, Mike and his wife, Gayle, and Steve and Jack Ford, bolstered by the presence of two doctors and a nurse, gathered in the Ford living room on the morning of April 1. “It was a crucial moment in our family history,” says Jerry. “It was a challenge for all of us to see if we could say the right things in order to convince Betty that she respond and take treatment. It wasn’t easy, but we were desperate.”

Huddled in a corner of the couch in her robe, Betty sobbed and listened as her family told her they loved her but that she had let them down. Susan explained how she had talked to her mother about things that were important to her, and how Betty hadn’t remembered them. Jack said he hadn’t liked to bring friends home, and Gayle confessed she hoped for children but feared Betty wouldn’t be a fit grandmother. “What I heard,” says Betty with a glimpse of pain still apparent in her face, “was not that they loved me, but that I had failed.”

Had Betty refused to go into treatment, Susan says the family had a backup plan. “We would have told her, ‘Mother, you won’t see us again.’ ” But at the end of the confrontation, Betty agreed to seek help. She checked into the rehabilitation facility at Long Beach Naval Hospital a week later. When she left after four weeks, she warned her physician that he shouldn’t expect her to get involved in promoting recovery. “But it seemed to come naturally,” says Ford. “I realized how many people were hurting and needing help.” Soon she found herself spearheading a fund-raising campaign for the $7.6 million chemical dependency recovery hospital attached to the Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage. The Betty Ford Center opened in 1982, and before long, it seemed to become an extension of the Polo Lounge in catering to Hollywood celebrities. Ford herself is constantly on the phone with the famous and nonfamous who seek entry to the inner sanctum. “She really puts herself through a hard schedule,” says Ford’s TV movie alter ego, Gena Rowlands. “I think she’s absolutely devoted to getting the message across that chemical dependency can be licked.”

Someday Ford hopes to see what she calls “an extended retreat center” for patients who need further care. For now she is concentrating on a two-month book tour. (All proceeds from Glad Awakening will go to the Betty Ford Center and other treatment facilities.) On weekends she intends to return to Rancho Mirage. Jerry always makes a point of being home on weekends, and Betty wants to continue the tradition. A doting wife, she says of their marriage, “It’s almost like a whole new love affair. We can do what we want to now with our time, and the time together is precious.” A doting mother as well, she wishes her son Steve, who is a regular on The Young and the Restless, would marry, and that also goes for Jack, a public relations man in San Diego. Susan and her husband, Chuck Vance, who runs a security business in Virginia, have given the Fords two granddaughters. Mike, who is the associate dean of students at Wake Forest University, and Gayle have produced three more little girls, but Betty and Jerry are ever hopeful for a grandson.

It is this firm family foundation that in the end pulled Ford through the hard times. They somehow sensed she had the strength to fight her addictions, even when Betty herself wasn’t so sure. She, in turn, provides the same kind of support for those who come to the center. “I felt that way too,” she assures patients. Indeed she knows she faces a continuing challenge. “I don’t expect to have a drink again, but I can’t say never. I don’t know when I would be pushed to the wall,” says Ford, “but I hope I’d call someone for help.”

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