Too Short for a Blog Post, Too Long for a Tweet 107

https://images-na.ssl-images-amazon.com/images/I/51fAW6YkErL.jpgHere's four excerpts from a book I recently read, "First Women: The Grace and Power of America's Modern First Ladies," by Kate Andersen Brower:

Jackie heard that the wives of Cabinet officials were preparing to leave Washington, knowing that it would be a target in the event of war. She would have none of it. “Please don’t send me anywhere. If anything happens, we’re all going to stay right here with you,” she told her husband. “Even if there’s no room in the bomb shelter in the White House . . . Please, then I just want to be on the lawn when it happens—you know—but I just want to be with you, and I want to die with you, and the children do too—than live without you.” The President promised her that he would not send her anywhere. Their relationship had grown closer in the White House than it had ever been before. The President’s personal doctor, Janet Travell, remembered seeing Kennedy walk from the West Wing to Marine One on the South Lawn shortly before the crisis began, trailed by his loyal aides. Then something strange happened. “The President reappeared in the doorway and descended the steps alone. How unusual, I thought. Then I saw why. Jackie, her hair wild in the gale of the rotors, was running from the South Portico across the grass. She almost met him at the helicopter steps and she reached up with her arms. They stood motionless in an embrace for many seconds.” 

During a private meeting with her Secret Service agent, Clint Hill, Hill reached out to Jackie and gently touched her elbow. “You know about the bomb shelter here, under the White House. I know that [Chief Usher] J. B. West gave you a brief tour of the facility a few months ago. . . . In the event . . . a situation develops . . . where we don’t have time to leave the area, we would take you and the children into the shelter for protection.” But Jackie had already made up her mind and she would not be told what to do. She abruptly pulled her arm away. “Mr. Hill, if the situation develops that requires the children and me to go to the shelter, let me tell you what you can expect.” She lowered her already soft, sweet voice into an even deeper whisper and said, “If the situation develops, I will take Caroline and John, and we will walk hand in hand out onto the south grounds. We will stand there like brave soldiers, and face the fate of every other American.” 

Hill was stunned. “Well, Mrs. Kennedy, let’s just pray to God that we will never be in that situation.”

Betty hit the campaign trail as her husband sought the presidency in 1976. His advisers considered her a potent weapon and were astounded to find that her candor led to approval ratings as high as 75 percent, even while her husband’s presidential approval rating dipped below 50 percent. At almost every campaign event there were women wearing buttons saying “Keep Betty in the White House” and “Betty’s Husband for President.” Still, Ford lost to Jimmy Carter. When Ford could not read his concession speech because his voice was weak, it was Betty Ford who read it. “She supported him wholeheartedly from beginning to end,” says Susan. “And he supported her from beginning to end, through her breast cancer and her drug and alcohol issues. They were true soul mates.” Betty Ford’s bravery earned her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1991, an astounding eight years before her husband was awarded his own medal. On the tenth anniversary of her founding of the Betty Ford Center, President Ford said, “When the final tally is taken, her contributions to our country will be bigger than mine.” And that was just fine with him.

It took Betty several days in treatment to acknowledge that she was not only dependent on pills, but also an alcoholic. “You’re trying to hide behind your husband,” Pursch said. “Why don’t you ask him if it would embarrass him if you say you’re an alcoholic?” She began to cry and her husband took her hand in his and said, “There will be no embarrassment to me. You go ahead and say what should be said.” She sobbed uncontrollably and that night, lying in bed, she wrote a statement revealing the whole truth for the first time. “I have found that I am not only addicted to the medications I have been taking for my arthritis, but also to alcohol.” Every evening the Fords would have a drink before dinner, but when Betty left treatment President Ford gave up his Jack Daniel’s Silver and replaced it with club soda with lime. Betty had supported him through all those years; now it was his turn to support her. 

After President Ford’s death in 2006, Betty was depressed and was having trouble coping with life alone. Ford was the first president to reference his wife in his inaugural address when he said, “I am indebted to no man, and only to one woman.” When Betty stayed at Blair House during her husband’s state funeral she cried herself to sleep each night. (President George W. Bush was in office, and he told a staffer who was planning the funeral, “Whatever they need, we’ll do.”) “Do you think this is going okay?” Betty asked her assistant Ann Cullen. “I’ve got to tell you,” Cullen replied, “I think you are doing absolutely a magnificent job.” Betty started to cry and said, “Well, I have to because I’m doing it for him.” President Bush, who was to escort Betty down the long aisle to her seat at Washington’s National Cathedral at the state funeral, asked her if she wanted to use her wheelchair. She was eighty-eight years old and frail, and would have to endure days of national mourning and ceremonies, but she refused. She told friends, “I just did what my husband would have wanted me to.” 

When she was at President Ford’s burial site at his museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan (Ford’s presidential library is in Ann Arbor), her family kept asking her if she wanted to use her wheelchair, but again, she refused. She had walked along the river with President Ford near the exact spot where he was to be buried, and she wanted to make the walk with him one last time. With everyone worried about her health, all she could think about was her husband and the deep love they shared for more than fifty-eight years of marriage. She insisted on making the long walk from the car to the burial site, and told anyone who objected, “This is the last time I’ll make this walk.” After the funeral, she kept white Christmas lights plugged in year-round on an olive tree in front of their house. She did it, she told friends and family, so that her husband could see her from heaven and know that she was all right. When the Fords’ personal chef, Lorraine Ornelas, saw Betty after her husband’s death, they sat on the edge of the Fords’ bed and Betty pushed a photo of her late husband closer to the edge of the nightstand toward them. “There he is,” she said wistfully. “I just want to go be with my boyfriend,” she told her children. “I don’t know why I’m still here, I don’t want to be here. I’m ready to go.”

Lorraine Ornelas was in her twenties when she met the Fords in the late 1980s. Ornelas was a chef at the Marriott Desert Springs when her employer staged an intervention and she went to the Betty Ford Center. Ornelas remembers sitting in a circle with a group of patients at the center when Betty Ford walked in. Everyone stood up, except Lorraine. She said she did not recognize the former first lady and at that low point in her life, she did not care. “I was pretty much lost and broken, I had a broken spirit.” Betty immediately noticed Lorraine, walked right up to her, stuck out her hand, and said, “Hi, I’m Betty Ford.” 

Betty had a broken spirit once, too. In 1977 Barbara Walters interviewed the Fords when they were in the White House. Betty’s speech was slow and slurred at times, and Walters decided to edit most of it out. Betty’s personal assistant, Nancy Chirdon Forster, said the First Lady’s staff had asked Walters to postpone the interview, but their pleas “did not seem to matter.” A decade later, Betty told Walters how hard it was to come to grips with her addiction. “The word ‘alcoholic’ to me had a meaning of being disheveled, drunk, all of those things. So how could I be an alcoholic?” The former first lady visited the clinic named in her honor nearly every day. 

Shortly after they first met, Betty told Lorraine that she was looking for a personal chef and that Lorraine should drop by the Fords’ house for an interview. When Lorraine met with the Fords she felt that, for the first time in years, she had hope for a brighter future. When Lorraine got the job, Betty told her that she would be more than an employee: she would be part of the Fords’ large family. Lorraine thought, Well, that’s a nice gesture, but I will be your employee. But she soon learned that Betty was not exaggerating. Lorraine, who was dyslexic and who had never finished high school, spent every holiday with the Fords for almost seven years and could tell Betty anything. Lorraine says that while Betty had an air of sophistication about her, there was a brokenness there, too. “When it was just her and I in this big house—I was lonely at the time, and I always have that in me. I felt the same from her, that deep down inside she was lonely too,” Ornelas recalled. In the beginning, Lorraine was still struggling with her addiction, and after two weeks on the job she took Betty aside and said, “I don’t think this is the job for me.” But Betty would not give up on her. “Let’s just wait two more weeks and see,” she said. The weeks turned into years. Lorraine relapsed once while she was with the Fords, and when she told Betty, the former first lady sat her down on the living room couch. “You can fire me if you want,” Lorraine said. “Absolutely not,” Betty told her, and put her hand on Lorraine’s knee. “You never have to be alone.”

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