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July 21st, 2011 by Dr. Phil

A Tribute to Our Accidental First Lady

Former First Lady Betty Ford was recently laid to rest beside her husband — the man she always called her boyfriend — her amazing life of 93 years having come to a peaceful end. Because many of you under the age of 40 may know little about her, I want to share with you some insight into this remarkable woman and the path she blazed for all of us.AP781107025_sized

In 1974, due to the resignation of President Richard Nixon, and after serving as vice president for only one year, Gerald Ford took over our nation’s highest office. Suddenly, Betty Ford was unexpectedly thrust into the White House and the limelight, and became known as “the accidental first lady.” As accidental as it may have been, she embraced the role like Americans had never seen before; with a candor and humanity that was unheard of at the time.

Betty used her position to become an advocate for women’s rights. Remember, the early 70s was a far more chauvinistic era than today. She will be remembered for enforcing the notion that “being ladylike does not require silence.” She spoke of the contributions of women as wives and mothers. “We have to take the ‘just’ out of the phrase, ‘just a housewife,’” she insisted.

In arguably one of the programs most candid interviews of its time, she brazenly went on 60 Minutes in 1975 and discussed the topic of premarital sex and how she would counsel her own teenage daughter. And she famously told a magazine reporter that she had sex with her husband “as often as possible.”

Presidential advisers told Gerald that she was out of control and a political liability. But — and this is what I loved about Gerald Ford — he took a stance and held his ground to support his wife, come hell or high water. It was well chronicled how he loved the way she badgered him to pass the Equal Rights Act, and the need to appoint a woman to the Supreme Court.

But it was after her years in the White House that Betty Ford made her most lasting impact. She publicly discussed her battle with breast cancer and her struggles with drugs and alcohol, bringing much-needed awareness to the then-taboo subjects.

AP9408301209_sizedIn fact, much like the courageous people who come on the Dr. Phil show, she confronted her demons head on, including openly admitting to taking as many as 20-30 pills a day, most of them tranquilizers. She talked about missing meetings, shuffling groggily around the house in her bathrobe, forgetting conversations with her children, and even falling and cracking a rib. She spoke of the pains her addictions caused her family and of the intervention orchestrated to save her life. One week before her 60th birthday, family, friends and a team of medical professionals gathered in the Ford’s California home and one by one told Betty how her addictions were hurting them and destroying her. “I was dying,” she said, “and everybody knew it but me.”

And remember, Betty opened this dialogue at a time when millions of women were going through the same issues suffered in silence. It may be difficult for those of you born after 1980, or even 1970, to understand that these things were just not talked about. But Betty Ford gave other women the courage to speak the truth about what was going on in their lives. When she discussed her breast cancer diagnosis, the American Cancer Society reported a 400% increase in requests for breast cancer screenings, meaning tens of thousands of women sought mammograms.

Then, she raised money to build the non-profit Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, CA that provides treatment services to those who suffer from addictions. That might be her greatest legacy. In doing so, she reduced social stigmas surrounding addiction and inspired thousands to seek much-needed treatment. Her contributions were more than name only. Well into her 80s, Betty remained actively involved at her center, regularly welcoming new residents. Once a month, she began a meeting with patients by saying, “Hello, I’m Betty Ford, and I’m an alcoholic and addict.”

An accidental first lady? I don’t think so. Her legacy was that of someone born for the role, and her outspoken courage and candor made her more of a hero than anyone could have imagined. Thank you, Mrs. Ford, for being an inspiration to women, sharing with us your remarkable life and encouraging people to continuously better themselves.

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32 Responses to “A Tribute to Our Accidental First Lady”

  1. Jody Sherin says:

    A beautiful tribute. We’ve come a long way, no small thanks to Betty Ford.

  2. Josh Frost says:

    I wasn’t born until 1978, so I wasn’t as familar with the Ford era. However, after reading your article, it again, makes me proud to be an American where we have such heritage and role models, such as First Lady Ford. Thank you for writing this. It has opened my eyes, and made me aware of a great person, whom I knew very little about.

  3. Nickie Parkos says:

    RIP Betty Ford. Thank you for all you have left us…lasting conversations and information that goes on and on, because you “opened the door”. Womens rights and addiction (as well as many other topics) are now openly discussed because of your candidness. We will miss you, but remember all you have provided our society.

  4. Linda Teel says:

    I remember Mrs. Ford well. After the dishonesty that came before her husband’s presidency her honesty was especially healing. I was a young mother, who had grown up under the stigma of what we talk about in public and what we couldn’t. I was blessed with parents with whom I knew I could say anything to and ask about anything (even some of my friends came to ask my parents some intimate questions because they couldn’t talk to their parents and they knew they could talk to mine!). That being said, I believe Mrs. Ford opened the eyes, the mouths and the hearts of those suffering and the ones who loved them so that communications could begin, treatment could be started, and lives could be saved. Although I didn’t agree with every one of Mrs. Ford’s opinions, I do applaud her bravery and her great contribution to the treatment of alcoholism and addiction. Thank you, Mrs. Ford!! You are deserving of our gratitude and honor.

  5. Alice says:

    My dad said that persons at Waco, Texas, Veterans Hospital said that he looked like Gerald Ford so always been especially fond of the former POTUS Gerald Ford and his wife, Betty. My mother’s name is Betty too, ironically… I agree the Betty Ford Center may be Betty Ford’s greatest legacy of her MANY life time achievements.

  6. Thank you so much for this tribute to a very fine woman and First Lady. She was a real hero to me and was a perfect example of the American women of her era. The fact that she became the First Lady of the USA was not an accident, but a God send.

  7. bonnie says:

    Thank you for not only recognizing true grit ,real strength when you see it,but for caring enough to pay tribute to this wonderful lady.that’s only one of of the things we love about you,Dr. Phil.thank you for just being you

  8. Sophie says:

    Hello from Sweden!!
    Following you on twitter.
    You´r hard man to keep up with.
    Lady Betty Ford was a inspiration for us in Sweden as well and a beautiful sofisticated lady. Today my heart bleed for Norway and I also think about 11th of sept.
    Take care and you doing so much for humanity.
    Love from Falun, Sweden.

  9. Taskia Walker says:

    It just goes to show you that to be a super heroe, you don’t need to wear tights and a cape. Anyone can be a heroe, you just have to have the strength and determination to stand up for what you believe in, no matter what anyone says. About your beliefs or about you. No, I don’t believe that she was an accidental first lady, accidental means mistake, and no she wasn’t a mistake. Thank you, for all you’ve done. God bless.

  10. Blgspc says:

    I genuinely loved Betty Ford. I worked in a drug and alcohol rehab center in the 1970’s,80’s etc… and after Betty Ford spoke publically of her struggle with substance abuse and dependency we had to double- and later triple- our beds space for women!
    Betty Ford made it possible for women to come out of hiding and seek help. I loved Betty Ford for ALL of her mix of attributes but as a woman I am particularly proud. She was vocal and caught heat for being so and really could have cared less! We’ll miss you Betty Ford!

  11. Maria says:

    A great tribute to woman who leaves quite the legacy. And I agree, it was by no accident that she became First Lady. What an inspiration for all women.

  12. Sherron Teal says:

    As a woman who speaks her mind and respects those that do like wise, I have to say Betty Ford has always been my hero. This is a woman who stepped out of the shadows of thousands of women in this country who were afraid to speak up, who suffered in silence. Betty Ford made it a normal happening to discuss sex, breast cancer, drug and alcohol addiction. Because she was a major player in bringing all of this to light, today we can all discuss these topics without shame or retribution.
    I also deeply respect and admire Gerald Ford, for standing by his wife and not backing down to his constituents because of how things might look or sound. As a woman who is now 63 and retired, I have seen my share of people who have backed down because of intimadation instead of doing the right thing.
    If only the vast majority would think like the Fords the United States would be a much better place in which to live.

  13. Mary Delaney says:

    The Fords didn’t get the respect they deserved when they were in the White House but I felt at the time they were just what the country needed. Betty’s openness, especially about her addictions, was a legacy that surely has saved many lives.

  14. Kris hager says:

    Born and raised in Michigan, I have had the privilege of recognizing both Betty and Jerry Ford as our treasures. My parents ( both of “that generation” ) taught me about the qualities of integrity and having the courage to stand for what you believe in. Both the Fords stood for these things in a time when, we as a country, needed that strength and integrity. Betty Ford was a true shining example of what our daughters should strive to become – women of honor and courage – facing her struggles with head held high. This woman was a teacher to all those fortunate enough to recognize her wisdom and follow. We can learn much from both these fine Americans – they lived a life worth emulating. I am winsome to say that I miss the “statesman” that was Jerry Ford – and long for that honesty and forthright determination to ” get the job done.” In a time of questionable transparency, I yearn to have a politician who would just “tell it like it is, and find a middle ground.” This is what I think the Fords brought to this country – a refreshing honesty and honor- about drug problems, about cancer, about politics, and about life. They were truly ” The Brave American(s) .”

  15. Ricia Sorum says:

    We forget it wasn’t that long ago when women were discouraged from speaking out about Anything. Everytime I open my mouth and make a statement that defines my personal stance, I do so only because very strong women went before me and paved that difficult road. It’s good to be reminded of these women. It’s also empowering to know they were humans with faults, problems and yes, even panties that rode up! <3

  16. MichaelS3352 says:

    I am a liberal (very) and a registered Democrat, but I have no trouble calling Betty Ford the greatest First Lady we have had since Eleanor Roosevelt. She remains a model for all subsequent First Ladies to emulate.

    I also (in restrospect) think that Pres. Gerald Ford, her husband, did the right thing by pardoning Nixon. As he said–we had to put Watergate behind us.

  17. Cynthia Nikoletatos says:

    What a fantastic tribute to this woman. Although I was born in 1968 and in Australia. I had always heard of the Betty Ford Clinic but knew nothing of this woman’s struggles and have candid admissions about her addictions. She deserves everyone’s respect, especially for the fact that she was a first lady and married to a President. She put everything aside to help other. God bless her. RIP Betty x

  18. Roberta Rogalski says:

    A truly beautiful tribute. What an incredible legacy she has left behind. Born and raised in Colorado..when I was growing up Colorado was further to “right” than most, including my parents. (I still am) but I remember the Fords always had a love for Vail.. Betty opened up the doors for all types of discussions that would lead to the saving of lives (literally). The incredible show “Intervention” still offers use of the Betty Ford Clinic in it’s shows for the family of those struggling with addiction. How blessed we were to have her as our First Lady….I only wish we still had that type of leadership instead of now our leaders are starring on reality shows… Thank you again Dr. Phil….

  19. Kimi says:


  20. Jay S. says:

    Betty Ford was inspirational. I watched her many at a time giving her opinions that I never saw before from a First Lady. Her actions opened doors for women (including my mom) to speak up and inquire what was best for them. I was sadden when Mrs. Ford pasted away. But the doors she open was not accidental but courageous. She lead the way for other First Ladies to be a partner with their husband’s in leading the nation. Instead of morning her pasting. We should celebrate Mrs. Ford presents that influenced our lives.

  21. Mil S says:

    Mrs. Betty Ford saved countless lives through the Betty Ford Centre. She was a hero, and a woman to look up to.

  22. Betty Ford taught the world that anyone can start all over irregardless of who they are, where they are or how old they are. Addiction is the demon & not the addict.

  23. vince says:

    i think the election that happened in 2008 was a accident, i was told “HIS HEART IS GOOD” i did not even get to vote in 2008,thank you God, if this world don’t blow up b4 2012 ill vote, but it wont be for no one i saw slinging trash at there opponents in any debate. i got no faith in trash slingers, when a person results in to trash slinging there trying to throw you away from there flaws. by the way, every man and woman and child on planet earth has flaws!!!!!,

  24. Cherie Schroeder says:

    This is the first time I have read the comments on Betty Ford, she was a wonderful person and leaving a legacy of the Betty Ford Clinic has helped many. She was truly a wonderful person.
    Thank you for presenting this Dr. Phil.
    As an Registered Nurse it had always been my pleasure to assist addicts or alcoholics to a better place in life.
    Again Thanks to the well loved Dr. Phil to take this opportunity for letting some more living individuals read about a wonderful lady. Betty Ford.

  25. This harks back to a simpler time, but one where it seems presidents had integrity. They seem like an ideal loving couple who happen to run the country. The betty ford centre is famous world wide, but i did not know about her hands on approach to topics and the media. Thank you for this insightful piece that highlights that nice ladies can be shown in a positive light in the media.

  26. faye ellis says:

    Betty Ford was a great lady who paved the way for so many of us. She not only helped women to speak out but anyone who has a problem and asks for help to not be shamed even when you are in the public eye. I wish all our politiicians could be so straight foreward and honest. Here”s to not voting for “mud slingers”!

  27. Cheryl Schaefer says:

    So glad I came across this! As I sat at home and watched her funeral service on TV I reflected on the fact that most of today’s population does not realize that this ordinary woman did some extraordinary things and changed the course of lives of thousands of people… The mix of people at the service was also extremely interesting … people who were opponents politically were there as old friends. This lady was absolutely amazing in a way not matched before or since!

  28. Sue McDonald says:


    Yes what a remarkable First Lady and she really did advocate to change the attitude to women. It was a role she was willing to take on when some people did not want to listen.

    Yes she taught us not to be ashamed and to seek help when we needed it.

    Thank you for writing this great blog post.

  29. Janet says:

    Definitely no accident! God put her in the right place at the right time. Just like he did with you Dr Phil! : ) What a lovely, courageous, kind woman. Thanks for enlightening us!

  30. Mona haney says:

    What has happened to the Dr Phil’s 1st family?

  31. Ruth miller says:

    Mrs. Ford is amazing. She took a plate form as First Lady and did amazing things for America. Here we had a 1st lady and addiction. She openly told the world when the powers that b could have buried that. God bless her! I hope that by talking about this fine lady will save my sons life and it’s not working. By that I mean taking away the shame, self hate. Ty Ty btw I follow both Dr. Phil and Robin on twitter

  32. cindi albrecht says:

    my favorite first lady ever!!!!!!! this is a wonderfully written tribute to her. thank you for putting into words what I never would be able to. 3>

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