The White House is not a residence for the meek or the timid; the White House of Gerald and Betty Ford was no exception. President Ford was a star athlete turned politician, while Mrs. Ford was a gifted dancer turned political support team. The Fords stepped up the Washington political and social ladder more than two and a half decades, beginning with Gerald Ford’s election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1948.
During her husband’s twenty-four years in Congress, Betty Ford tended to family—the Fords had four children—and she also worked on a voluntary basis with many organizations, both in the community and in the capital. Two separate scandals in the Nixon administration were the impetus for Gerald Ford’s relocation from Congress to the White House.
Gerald Ford had served for nearly twenty-five years in the House of Representatives when President Richard M. Nixon asked him—by then Ford was the House minority leader—to serve as vice president upon the resignation of Spiro Agnew in the autumn of 1973. When Nixon resigned in August 1974, Ford became the first man to become president without having been elected either to the presidency or the vice presidency.
As first lady, Betty Ford never felt the constraints of politics when she decided to speak on an issue. Her voice was often antithetical to that of her husband, and she left no room to wonder what she meant.
In an age when a subject like breast cancer was a conversational taboo, Mrs. Ford was forthright in discussing her condition when it was diagnosed and, later, in talking about the need for support in such times of crisis. In November 1975, she spoke to the American Cancer Society in New York:
Cancer wherever it strikes the body, also strikes the spirit, and the best doctors in the world cannot cure the spirit. Only love and understanding can accomplish this important role. All of us can give love and support to our friends who have cancer. We can open our hearts and our minds to dealing with the fears that the victims have, and also the fears many of us have of the disease itself.
Betty Ford's gift was her honesty. When her family encouraged her to seek treatment for pharmaceutical and alcohol dependencies, she openly brought her struggles into a national conversation. Like her public discussion of breast cancer, her frankness in speaking of alcoholism and addiction saved innumerable lives.
With Ambassador Leonard Firestone, Mrs. Ford established the Betty Ford Center, an addiction treatment and recovery facility, in 1982. For her advocacy, Betty Ford received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1991.
—Warren Perry, National Portrait Gallery, Catalog of American Portraits
Elizabeth "Betty" Ford / Everett Raymond Kinstler / Oil on canvas, 1996 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Everett Raymond Kinstler