Former First Lady and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited Grand Rapids Wednesday in celebration of First Lady
Betty Ford’s centennial birthday celebration at the 6th annual First Ladies: An Enduring Legacy luncheon at Frederik Meijer Gardens.
Joining Clinton on the panel was Susan Ford Bales, daughter of President Gerald Ford and Betty Ford, and Lynda Johnson Robb, daughter of President Lyndon B. Johnson while NBC journalist Andrea Mitchell moderated the discussion.
The conversation surrounded Betty Ford’s life while living at the White House and after.
Gerald R. Ford and his wife were suddenly sworn into office in 1974 after former President Richard Nixon and his vice president, Spiro Agnew, resigned from their positions in office following Watergate.
Following the Watergate Scandal, Betty Ford worked just as hard as her husband to re-establish respect for the American government.
She stated during an International Women’s meeting that, “being a lady does not require silence.”
Betty Ford was an avid supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and her work with ERA is one of her more recognized contributions while she was the first lady.
After doctors diagnosed Betty Ford with breast cancer, she decided not to hide the issue and after a full recovery from a mastectomy, she became the nation’s number one advocate for breast cancer awareness.
She also embraced the causes for handicapped children and the performing arts as she was a dancer herself.
On a darker side, Betty Ford had experienced problems with the use of alcohol and prescription drugs and as her husband delved deeper into his role as president, he wasn’t with the family as much. This further increased her substance abuse.
Along with her struggle with breast cancer, Betty Ford was outspoken about her abuse and the challenges of addiction. Soon she decided to raise funds for a clinic that would aid victims of addiction as well as the families of the victims.
Named The Betty Ford Center, the clinic has gained an international reputation as a leader in the field of addiction help.
Betty Ford died on July 8, 2011, almost five years after her husband. However, her legacy and impact on the nation can still be seen today and continues to carry on.
Before the event began, Ford Bales and Johnson Robb held separate interviews with the media.
Bales said that her favorite memories with her mother were private moments.
“Of course my fondest memories go back to private times as a family and being together at Beaver Creek and skiing and walking through the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens with her and things like that,” Bales said. “They’re very private personal moments, not necessarily public ones. But I’m very proud of her as a mother for what she did for women’s rights and all she did for women’s health.”
Bales honors her mother’s legacy by supporting her mother’s causes.
“I continue to do speaking on breast cancer and drug and alcohol abuse because her health obviously affected me since I share her genes, and those are two very important health issues,” Bales said. “I have continued to speak about them, and I will always be out there supporting equal rights.”
Robb also commented on Betty Ford’s contributions to America and the impact that Ford had on her life.
“She was not a pity person. She faced life with a great adventure and went forth and taught us a lot about cancer, with a big “C,” which no one ever mentions,” Robb said. “(She) then later taught us how to handle other health problems, so I just greatly admire her.”
During the panel discussion with Mitchell, Clinton and Johnson Robb discussed their interactions with Betty Ford.
“Her quote, ‘being a lady does not require silence’ is such an amazing saying because the term “first lady” is archaic in some fashion and it has been both empowering to women as they go their own way, but also constricting to some who struggle against the norms,” Mitchell said. “But Betty Ford certainly broke out of those norms and took a chance and she was such a role model for me long before I knew her personally.”
Clinton happily echoed Mitchell’s comments as she recalled her relationship with Betty Ford.
“It’s such a great personal pleasure for me to be here with all of you in honor of Betty who, as Andrea rightly said, was someone who I looked up to, who I followed and who, in my opinion, was the most transformational American in the last half of the 20th century.”
Clinton had met the Ford’s in 1968 when Clinton was an intern for the House Republican Conference Committee. Gerald Ford was, then, the minority leader of the Committee.
“Aside from being beautiful, and graceful, and gracious, and humble and welcoming, she was fierce,” Clinton said. “Standing up for the ERA, which at that time was not quite as off-limits as it later became… was astonishing… the work that she did was just like a thunderclap… people were in awe of it.”
Johnson Robb also reminisced about her time with Betty Ford.
“When I was younger, it always amazed me how many times I interacted with Betty,. Me! Just poor little me,” she said. “And I got to go and see her and do all of these things and she came to my house after she had been the first lady and that was exciting. And we campaigned for ERA together… it was so exciting and I knew we were doing something great.”
The celebration and discussion were well received by those in attendance. Kathy Crosby of Grand Rapids attends the annual luncheon every year.
“This is one of my favorite events of the year,” Crosby said. “It’s very inspiring. This is something that our community is proud of and its history, and it’s good for us to be mindful of that.”
Another passionate attendee, Mary Kate VanDriel of Grand Rapids said she felt inspired by the event.
“I come every year to an event that honors Betty Ford and it’s really inspirational to learn a little bit more every year about her life, and the legacy that she created and the way forward that she made for women.”
Though the event was a success, it didn’t go unnoticed by opponents. Protesters stood on the sidewalk outside Frederik Meijer Gardens with signs that read, “Thank God for President Trump.” One protester dressed in an orange jumpsuit with a sign that expressed a desire for the incarceration of Clinton. The protest was peaceful, and there was no police involvement.