(Photo: Reuters / Jae C. Hong)
Former First Lady Betty Ford was remembered for her strong advocacy in women’s rights and health-related issues during her private funeral held Tuesday afternoon at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Palm Desert.
Among the 1,000 guests in attendance, and sitting in the first pew together were Michelle Obama, George W. Bush, and former first ladies Hillary Clinton, Nancy Reagan and Rosalynn Carter.
Ford, the wife of Republican President Gerald R. Ford who served from 1974 to 1977, passed away Friday at the age of 93 in Rancho Mirage, Calif.
“Betty broke new ground on speaking out on women’s issues,” said Carter, who was one of the speakers during the eulogy. “Her public disclosure of her own battle with breast cancer lifted the veil of secrecy from this terrible disease. She used her influence as the First Lady to promote early detection, and millions of women are in her debt today.”
Carter also eluded to Ford’s other battles, including her substance abuse, which was well documented in a very public way for her era. "I liked alcohol," Ford wrote in her 1987 memoir. "It made me feel warm. And I loved pills. They took away my tension and my pain."
In 1982, after her recovery, she established the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirago, Calif., for the treatment of chemical dependency.
“She was never afraid to speak the truth, even about the most sensitive subjects, including her own struggles with alcohol and pain killers,” Carter added.
Geoffrey S. Mason, a former director of the Betty Ford Center, spoke after Carter and said those who entered the clinic and attended recovery meetings with Ford never thought of her as simply being the First Lady “connected to the leader of the free world.”
"I can speak for thousands of us who reclaimed our lives just a few short miles from here. We never knew you that way. We knew you as Mrs. Ford – founder, board chair, lecturer, our omnipresent face of recovery here in the desert, in Grand Rapids, in Vail, on Larry King, Good Morning America, so many other TV shows. And then on campus, we got to know you as Betty."
“We could relate to that Betty. We got close to you for that. All of a sudden it was OK for us to have those feelings,” Mason said.
Cokie Roberts, whose mother was friends with Ford for 60 years, spoke to the mourners about a by-gone era of White House bipartisanship, which was a subject that Ford had asked Roberts to speak on at her funeral.
"Mrs. Ford wanted me to remind everyone of the way things used to be in Washington," Roberts said. Roberts added that she wouldn't be surprised if Ford timed her death "during this week, when it's so badly needed."
She recalled the time she interviewed former President Gerald Ford just a couple of years before he died in 2006.
After the cameras were turned off, he told Roberts, “I just don’t understand what’s happened in Washington. When your father was Majority Leader and I was Minority Leader, we would get in a cab together on the Hill and we would go downtown to some place like the Press Club and we’d say ‘Ok, what are we going to argue about?’ Now, it was a real debate. We had different views about means to an end. We genuinely disagreed with each other, we were certainly partisans. But after we went at it, we’d get back in the cab together and be best friends.”
Roberts observed, “That friendship made governing possible – they weren’t questioning each other’s motives, much less their commitment to the country. Underlying many of those Congressional relationships across the aisle, and even more remarkable, across the dome, was the relationship among the wives.”
Roberts, who had been asked some five years ago to speak at Ford’s funeral, remembered the former first lady as a woman of courage and who “had something very important going for her: she knew who she was.”
An eight-member military honor guard carried Ford's casket into the church for the service that began shortly after 2 p.m. local time. The Ford’s three sons and daughter were at the ceremony, as were her daughters- and son-in-law, and grandchildren. Another public service is scheduled for Thursday in Grand Rapids, Mich., and will be followed by her burial beside her husband at his presidential library there.