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Betty Ford, again putting on a brave face

You would not want to go to the wall with Betty Ford on resilience. She didn't become the most admired woman in America during one of the most turbulent periods in national history because she made nice.
File photo of U.S. President Gerald Ford and first lady Betty Ford at RNC in Kansas City
Former President Gerald Ford and former first lady Betty Ford wave from the stage at the Republican National Convention in Kansas City, Mo., in August 1976.Gerald Ford Library via Reuters
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

There is an old saying that you don't know who you are in this life until you get knocked down.

Betty Ford has been getting knocked down for a long time, by things that ruin lives and flatten people. Divorce. Cancer. Alcohol. Addiction. And now, the death of her beloved spouse.

She has always taken the punch and done it one better. You would not want to go to the wall with Betty Ford on resilience. She didn't become the most admired woman in America during one of the most turbulent periods in national history because she made nice. She was so admired in the mid-1970s, and is beloved by a wide swath of the nation today, because she was bluntly honest and because, after everything life has thrown at her, she never quit.

"Betty Ford did things that public women hadn't done before, not just first ladies," says John Robert Greene, one of her biographers. "She had three debilitating diseases -- arthritis, alcoholism, cancer -- and she survived all of them."

Now 88, she will be in Washington once again this week for the processions and funeral for Gerald Ford, the football star she wowed back in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Hemingway, a man who wrote well but lived badly, famously described courage as "grace under pressure."

'Sense of humanity'
This has not been Elizabeth Ann Bloomer Ford's forte. Pressure ate her up.

She suffered from the solitude, while her husband traveled as congressman and vice president and president. With recurring pain from a pinched nerve in 1964, and the prescription pills she became addicted to. Raising four kids almost alone. Breast cancer. The Watergate-era laser light of media coverage. She drank. Popped Valium. She was late to everything.

Her great strength was to beat all of that. She was more like the rest of us than many public figures like to let on, human and flawed, not bulletproof and immune. And she was open about all of it, the depression and foibles and addictions and brandy, and it touched a country polarized by cynicism and the government mendacity of the Nixon years.

She had a breast removed, a devastating emotional and physical blow. Here was her response: She invited photographers into her hospital suite and let them photograph her in her housecoat. She then became a national spokeswoman for cancer awareness, for the importance of women doing self-examinations. When asked how she would handle her daughter having a premarital affair, or her kids smoking marijuana, she said she'd talk with them about it.

"They brought such a sense of humanity back to the White House," Sheila Rabb Weidenfeld, Betty Ford's press secretary during her years as first lady, said yesterday. "They were real people who lived there."

Betty Ford was born in Chicago and, although Episcopalian, was raised in the predominantly Dutch Calvinist town of Grand Rapids. Her dad, Bill Bloomer, was a traveling salesman for the Royal Rubber Co. He was successful and always gone, and he drank and drank and drank. He died when she was a teenager, either the result of an accident in the family garage or suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning.

She was headstrong, a tomboy. She smoked cigarettes at 14. She played hockey and football with the boys, until her brothers made her stop. She was beautiful and blew off the idea of college to move to New York to become a dancer for Martha Graham. She returned home, married and divorced before she was 30.

The first time she had a date with Jerry Ford, it was for a drink in a bar. (In a McCall's interview in 1975, she said reporters had asked her everything but how often she slept with her husband, "and if they'd asked me that I would have told them." And her answer? "As often as possible.")

'To my dying day, I'll be recovering'
Later, on the national stage, she spoke up for women's rights and for abortion rights: "It has to be understood that that there are extenuating circumstances where a woman must have the right to make decisions about her own body."

In 1975, she was one of 11 women Time magazine named "Man of the Year" that year. She topped Good Housekeeping's poll to determine the most admired woman in America. People named her one of the three most intriguing people in the nation.

But by 1978, a year out of the White House, the painkillers and the alcohol were eating her up. Her family called a meeting and presented her with the ugly truth. She was not pleased. When the doctor told her she was a "a drunk," the former president later recounted of his wife: "She was mad as hell."

She managed to detox at a naval center, then founded the Betty Ford Clinic, a rehabilitation center ($21,000 for 30 days) that is the premier such institution in the country. Her name became synonymous with recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. Took a punch, gave back one better.

She never made any bones about her struggle.

"I liked alcohol, it made me feel warm," she wrote in her autobiography, "Betty: A Glad Awakening." "And I loved pills, they took away my tension and my pain. So the thing I have to know is that I haven't got this problem licked; to my dying day, I'll be recovering."

In November 1987, when she was 69, she underwent quadruple-bypass heart surgery. It required pain medication, but she had to wean herself off it quickly, lest she become addicted again.

"There were a lot of sleepless nights where I just walked the floor."

And now, she'll lead the nation through the mourning of her husband, partner and friend.

You don't have to wonder how she'll handle it.

Resilience. You can't fake it. Not for a lifetime.