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Gerald R. Ford became President of the United States on August 9, 1974. Initially, this blog post – published exactly thirty-seven years later – was to be a retrospective on his presidency. Then, on July 8, 2011, former First Lady Betty Ford passed away. Suddenly, it seemed more appropriate to honor both Fords. This essay will thus reflect on one of Michigan’s most famous couples.
A Romance Begins
Sheryl James’ article “A Workhorse, Not a Showhorse: The Life and Times of Gerald R. Ford” appeared in Michigan History magazine’s March/April 2007 issue. In it, James explained how Gerald and Betty began dating:
After the war, [Gerald] Ford became a partner in a prestigious law firm and threw himself into community activities. He worked for cancer drives, the American Red Cross, veterans’ organizations and the Boy Scouts. He also joined the NAACP – remembering the plight of his African American friends at South High and at the University of Michigan.
His social life was less active. In 1947, he was thirty-four, single and living with his parents. Some friends suggested he call Betty Warren, a former model and Grand Rapids native. She recently had ended her first marriage and was close to Ford in age and experience. He called her, but Warren was reluctant because her divorce was not final. Ford persisted; she relented, and a “quick drink” turned into a full-fledged romance. He liked her candor; she liked his stability and sense of humor.
In 1948, Ford made two life-changing commitments: he proposed to Betty, and he decided to run for Congress, encouraged by his father and U.S. Senator Arthur Vandenberg. The Ford honeymoon coincided with the campaign and consisted of a University of Michigan football game and a rally in Owosso for Republican presidential candidate Thomas E. Dewey.
On the National Stage
Of Gerald Ford’s Presidency, James writes:
Despite an opposition Congress and some serious challenges, Ford’s 895 days in the White House were busy with some notable accomplishments. In July 1975, he signed the Helsinki Accords, which included the first tacit acknowledgement of human rights by the Soviet Union. He advanced the SALT II (Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty) negotiations and in 1976 signed the treaty to limit underground nuclear explosives.
Domestically, Ford struggled with an ailing economy. James notes that he “fought new and expensive government programs.” She credits Gerald Ford’s “resolve to rein in sloppy spending” as something that “helped the country climb out of the recession of the mid-1970s.”
Of Betty Ford, James writes:
During her husband’s presidency, Betty garnered her own attention. In 1974, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Bucking custom of the time, she went public with her diagnosis and treatment. This encouraged thousands of women to get mammograms.
James also describes Betty Ford as “an unwavering supporter” of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment and notes that “women’s rights advocates applauded Betty’s candor and courage.”
After the Ford presidency, Betty Ford became famous for something else, as well. James notes that she established the Betty Ford Clinic in 1982, as a means of helping substance abusers to end their addictions.
Gerald Ford died on December 26, 2006. As noted above, Betty followed him on July 8, 2011. Both were ninety-three years old at the time of their deaths.
The couple is now buried in Grand Rapids, on the grounds of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum. In a sense, then, they are together again – in the city where they met and fell in love.