PALM DESERT, Calif. » First ladies, past and present, and others who called the White House home remembered Betty Ford on Tuesday, not just for her decades-long work against substance abuse but for her contributions to a political era when friendship among lawmakers helped them govern.
Speakers, including former first lady Rosalynn Carter and journalist Cokie Roberts, also hailed her as a force of nature whose boundless energy and enthusiasm, coupled with a steadfast determination to do what was right, pushed the country toward a commitment to equal rights for women and other causes.
Ford, who died at the age of 93 on Friday, reshaped the role of first lady with her plain-spoken candidness.
In doing so, she helped bring such previously taboo subjects as breast cancer into the public discussion as she openly discussed her own battle with the disease. She was equally candid about her struggles with drug and alcohol abuse, and her spearheading of the creation of the Betty Ford Center to treat those diseases has benefited thousands.
"Millions of women are in her debt today and she was never afraid to speak the truth even about the most sensitive subjects, including her own struggle with alcohol and pain killers," Carter said. "She got some criticism, but I thought she was wonderful and her honesty gave to others every single day."
Behind the scenes she was also aggressive and effective, said Roberts, who noted that Ford’s late husband, President Gerald R. Ford, confided to her privately that his wife badgered him relentlessly into stronger public support of equal rights for women.
The former first lady mapped out plans for her funeral well in advance, including who would deliver her eulogies, and Roberts said she told her to be sure to let people know that politics does not have to as acrimonious as it is today.
"Mrs. Ford wanted me to remind everyone of the way things used to be in Washington, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if she timed her death to make sure that she could convey the message of comity during this week, when it seems so badly needed," she said as former President George W. Bush, a Republican, sat in the audience next to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, a Democrat.
Sitting in the same pew at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in this desert resort town with them were first lady Michelle Obama, former first lady Nancy Reagan and Carter. Other mourners who packed the church included former California first lady Maria Shriver and Ford’s four children.
"It’s very nice to see you getting together after the fact, but we wish some of you would get together beforehand," Roberts said of those in the audience of approximately 800 people.
Other invited guests included President Richard Nixon’s daughters, Tricia Nixon-Cox and Julie Nixon Eisenhower; President Lyndon Johnson’s daughters, Lucie Baines Johnson and Lynda Bird Johnson Robb; Robb’s husband, former U.S. Sen. Charles Robb; and former California Gov. Pete Wilson.
Following the funeral, members of the public were invited to file past the casket and sign a guest book until midnight.
On Wednesday, Ford’s body will be flown to Grand Rapids, Mich., where another church service will feature remarks by Lynne Cheney, wife of former Vice President Dick Cheney, and historian Richard Norton Smith. Former first lady Barbara Bush was expected to attend that event.
Later Thursday, her body will be interred at the presidential museum along with her husband on what would have been Gerald Ford’s 98th birthday.
Ford, the accidental first lady, was thrust into the White House when Nixon resigned as president on Aug. 9, 1974, and her husband, then vice president, assumed the nation’s highest office. Although she always said she never expected nor wanted to be first lady, she quickly embraced the role.
When Roberts’ father, Democratic Congressman Hale Boggs, was the House majority leader and Ford’s husband was the House minority leader, Roberts recalled, they could argue about issues but get together as friends afterward. Their families became close, as did the Ford and Carter families, despite Jimmy Carter defeating Ford in the 1976 presidential election.
Rosalynn Carter recalled her husband was governor of Georgia when she met Ford during a visit the first lady paid to their state.
"We invited Betty to stay at the governor’s mansion. She was the most distinguished guest we had ever had but when she arrived she was so warm and friendly that she immediately put me at ease and we had a good time together.
"Of course I didn’t tell her then that my husband was thinking of running for president," Carter added, provoking laughter.
But even after Ford’s husband lost his re-election bid to Carter’s husband, a lifelong friendship remained intact.
The two-hour service began after California Highway Patrol motorcycles and squad cars escorted Ford’s hearse and her family members to the church in four black sedans and six SUVS. Attendees entered after the family was given private time inside the church.
Family spokeswoman Barbara Lewandrowski said family members had also gathered over the weekend to reflect on Ford’s life. "They are reading emails and telling stories, enjoying each other’s fellowship," she said.
A program prepared for the service featured a picture of Ford, the Emily Dickinson poem "If I Can Stop One Heart From Breaking," and the words, "The family thanks you for your support," followed by the signatures Mike, Jack, Steve and Susan, Ford’s four children.
"We know of Mom’s love, her love, her love of God and it’s personal touch on her life bringing good out of evil, healing out of brokenness, joy and dancing, yes dancing. She was quite a dancer … dancing out of sorrow," her son Michael Ford told mourners.
She was such a good dancer, Carter noted, that she was once a member of the celebrated Martha Graham dance troupe and performed at New York’s Carnegie Hall.
Earlier in the day, passers-by, some walking dogs or out for a jog, stopped to reflect on the former first lady’s life.
"I don’t know where a lot of people would be if it weren’t for her," said Randy Gaynor, 47, a recovering alcoholic who stopped to talk to reporters outside the church. "There’s been a lot of first ladies and they did a lot of things, but this will be long remembered after she’s gone."
Jeff Wilson reported from Palm Desert and John Rogers reported from Los Angeles.