Back in 1999, Melania Trump told The New York Times that if her then-boyfriend, Donald Trump, was ever elected president, she’d like to be a “very traditional” first lady, “like Betty Ford or Jackie Kennedy. I would support him.”
“I don’t think of my mother as a traditional first lady to begin with,” says Betty Ford’s daughter, Susan Ford, 61. “Yes, she did do teas and things of that nature but I just don’t think of her as a traditional first lady because she was so outspoken about the issues that were important to her.”
Betty Ford, who became first lady overnight after her husband, Vice President Gerald “Jerry” Ford, became president upon Richard Nixon’s resignation on Aug. 9, 1974, regularly spoke out about hot-button issues, from abortion to pre-marital sex to her own addiction to pain medication. “She was a trailblazer,” says her daughter Susan, who’s the mom of two daughters.
When Betty was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a mastectomy, she went public with her story. The effect was immediate, resulting in a huge uptick of calls to doctor’s offices for breast exams. “Literally overnight, Betty Ford removed the stigma from cancer,” McCubbin writes. “No longer was it a source of shame, but a disease like any other that needed to be addressed and treated.”
In 1978, when Betty entered rehab and publicly shared her alcoholism and addiction to pain medications, the revelation sparked a national conversation and served as yet another reminder that addiction touched all families.
Betty was direct and forthright no matter what the issue. When asked about the likelihood of her kids trying marijuana, she admitted, “I’m sure they’ve all probably tried it.” Once asked why she appeared drowsy at a event, she replied that she was taking Valium, prescribed by her doctors for a pinched nerve. She also supported legalized abortion, and once said, “Bring it out of the back woods and into the hospitals where it belongs.”
Her candor became her signature but sometimes, in the opinion of her four children, she was a little too candid. “The running joke is that there were lines of boys standing outside the gates of the White House waiting to date me since my mother said I could have sex,” recalls Susan with a laugh.
And that wasn’t all. As Susan recalls, “She put a phone line in, so she could call congressmen and senators on the Hill to talk about the Equal Rights Amendment. Donald Rumsfield, who was then chief of staff, said to my father, ‘Mrs. Ford is making calls up on Capitol Hill about the Equal Rights Amendment and she really shouldn’t be using the White House line.’ So he said to my dad, ‘Would you speak to her?’ And my dad said, ‘No, but you can.’ “
Rumsfield spoke to Betty, and Susan says, “She just paid to have her own phone line put in.”
Seven years after her mom’s death in 2011 at age 93, Susan is proud that her mother’s strength has been passed down to her grandchildren, including her five granddaughters.
“You’ve got a group of granddaughters who feel very empowered by their grandmother,” says Susan, noting that one of her daughters walked in the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. in January 2017. “They feel that their grandmother gave them great strength and a voice to use.”
She hopes the book will now teach a new generation about her mom: “People forget what a contemporary woman she really was,” says Susan. “She was truly the one who began to change the role of the first lady.”