Betty Ford remembered at bipartisan memorial

Updated: 2011-07-13 14:16


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PALM DESERT, California -- 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.

Betty Ford remembered at bipartisan memorial
(From L to R) Former first lady Rosalynn Carter, US first lady Michelle Obama, former first lady and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former US president George W. Bush and former first lady Nancy Reagan attend the funeral of former first lady Betty Ford at St. Margaret's Episcopal Church in Palm Desert, California July 12, 2011. [Photo/Agencies]

Speakers, including former first lady Rosalynn Carter and TV 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 with them at St. Margaret's Episcopal Church in this desert resort town 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.

Bush, accompanied by Nancy Reagan, arrived just a few minutes ahead of Michelle Obama and the others. The former president, wearing a dark suit, blue tie and white shirt, chatted quietly with Reagan as they waited for the services to begin. He greeted Clinton as she took a seat next to him.

"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.

Betty Ford remembered at bipartisan memorial
The casket of Betty Ford, the wife of the late president Gerald Ford, is carried by the Honor Guard as it arrives at St. Margarets Episcopal Church in Palm Desert, California July 12, 2011. [Photo/Agencies]

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 US Sen. Charles Robb; and former California Gov. Pete Wilson.

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