April 04, 1977 12:00 PM

Inside and out, the leased three-bedroom home in Palm Springs bears scant resemblance to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue—and that’s the way the tenants like it. Two months after a Marine helicopter whisked them out of Washington, Betty and Gerald Ford are waiting patiently while their new $620,000 home is being built. In the meantime, they stay remarkably busy. This week they both begin work on their memoirs while mulling ideas for NBC television specials. (Her contract calls for one documentary, his for five specials and 10 commentaries over the next five years.)

With the help of an office staff of 22 (which will be reduced to seven when the official transition period ends June 30), the Fords have also been wading through 3,400 requests for appearances and 80,000 letters—all but a few complimentary. Ford is planning to lecture at universities, has traveled 30,000 miles since he left office and plans to log five times that many by the end of the year. Early in May he will give a major foreign policy speech at the University of Kentucky, dealing with the warmaking powers of the President. During a recent lull, Gerald and Betty Ford sat down to reminisce and talk about their new life with Clare Crawford, Washington correspondent of PEOPLE.

Now that you are no longer President, are you restless?

Ford: Not at all. I feel great. Don’t I look well? If I just sat here and played golf it would be difficult, but I have plenty of challenging things to do. I’m a very adjustable person. After all, I moved from lawyer to congressman to Minority Leader to Vice-President to President without any emotional problems. Mrs. Ford: He looks better and younger. That pleases me.

How did you feel when Jimmy Carter thanked you at the Inaugural for the job you did as President?

Ford: It was a very gracious thing to do and a very pleasant surprise. The warmth I felt from the audience and the walk through the Capitol building past all those people we had known for 28 years—it was all very touching. I got very emotional.

Did you have to hold back a tear?

Ford: Just a bit.

Mrs. Ford: I did. One young man videotaped that walk and put it to the words from the Chorus Line song, What I Did for Love. If you can sit through that and not be affected, you have to be pretty hard-nosed.

Looking back, what was the hardest part of being President?

Ford: I felt saddest about my inability to reduce the unemployment rate as quickly as I wanted to. Having lived through the Depression when the parents of my friends were standing in breadlines, I had a very strong feeling that unemployment was having a tremendous impact on families.

Personally, what was the toughest thing?

Ford: Betty’s cancer—the operation, the recovery. Any time cancer hits a family, it shakes you up. But everything turned out extremely well. We just don’t think about it anymore.

What about the two assassination attempts?

Ford: Well, they happened so quickly, and the Secret Service did such an excellent job that I barely had time to react.

Mrs. Ford: I’ll tell you how I felt about it. Every time he left, every time he got on that helicopter, I stood up on the Truman balcony to wave goodbye. I always said a little prayer: “Please, dear God, bring Jerry back alive.”

What are your happiest White House memories?

Ford: In a broad sense, working every day on some new challenge.

Mrs. Ford: Having my husband pick me up at the hospital and bring me home after my mastectomy. The family was all there.

What would you have done differently during the campaign?

Ford: There are a hundred things you could say that might have made a difference. But I think we ran a good campaign. If we had had one more week we probably would have won.

Were you depressed after the election?

Ford: My so-called depression was a figment of the Washington press corps’ imagination.

Why, unlike other ex-Presidents, do you have no real enemies?

Ford: We came into office at such a low point, and I think everybody realizes that we did our best. I’d say 15 to 20 percent of the letters we get are from people who voted for Mr. Carter and yet wanted to thank us for the transition effort we made.

Do you ever see President Nixon?

Ford: I talked to him once. He called me, and we chitchatted back and forth about his book and mine. He seemed in excellent spirits. He said Pat’s recovery from her stroke was coming along very well, and that his golf was getting better.

What is your schedule like?

Ford: I get up around 6:30 a.m., swim, then read for a couple of hours—the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Grand Rapids News and a lot of other things from Washington, including a weekly briefing from the White House. I play golf three or four times a week. But I’m very busy working on the lectures I’ll be giving, the first NBC documentary and the book.

Mrs. Ford: I keep saying, “When is this retirement going to start?”

Mrs. Ford, have you been shopping?

Mrs. Ford: Yes, and it’s been wonderful. At one store I was down on the floor with the rest of the ladies, trying to match up the bottoms and the tops of some lovely Bill Blass plaid sheets—they were 50 percent off.

Didn’t anyone recognize you?

Mrs. Ford: Yes, and when one woman did, she started to help me. At another store, where I wanted to buy placemats and a bath rug, they wouldn’t look at my driver’s license or any identification. They said, “Don’t be silly, Mrs. Ford, we’ll be glad to charge it.” The Secret Service agent who was with me just stood there laughing—me trying to be Mrs. John Q. Citizen.

How do you feel about everyone still calling you Mr. President?

Ford: I really don’t care. If somebody calls me Jerry, it sounds good too.

Why have you moved to Palm Springs?

Mrs. Ford: First, knowing my husband, we had to go someplace where there were about 50 golf courses. And I had been told years ago by my doctor that sometime my arthritis would probably force me to move to a hot, dry climate. I really expected to move back to Alexandria, but now it’s like we’re building our dream home. It’s fun, and we’re enjoying it.

Will you run for President in 1980?

Ford: Maybe, maybe. [Broad smile]

Mrs. Ford: I think I have to wait until the time comes to find out how I feel about it. It all depends on what shape the country is in.

Ford: She’s as cozy as I am. [Both laughing] You’re in on the first discussion on the subject. We’ve got lots of time, lots of possibilities.

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