2007-02-10 / Columnists

Michigan Politics

After Mourning, a Focus on Betty Ford
By George Weeks

The staff at Little Bob's Restaurant (now the site of the Yankee Rebel) pose with secret service agents on Mackinac Island when President Gerald and Betty Ford visited in 1975. Croswell teacher Debby Ornalik Kress, then 20 years old and standing at right, recalls the excitement of shaking hands with the President and First Lady. The waitresses also greeted the couple with a welcome banner when they landed behind Fort Mackinac in a helicopter. The staff at Little Bob's Restaurant (now the site of the Yankee Rebel) pose with secret service agents on Mackinac Island when President Gerald and Betty Ford visited in 1975. Croswell teacher Debby Ornalik Kress, then 20 years old and standing at right, recalls the excitement of shaking hands with the President and First Lady. The waitresses also greeted the couple with a welcome banner when they landed behind Fort Mackinac in a helicopter. "Struggle is educational," Betty Ford, the most candid and consequential of the nine presidential first ladies I observed while covering politics, wrote in her 1978 book, "The Times of My Life."

Nearly three decades later, the nation watched the frail 88- year-old former first lady gallantly struggle through six days of national mourning for Michigan's Gerald R. Ford.

During the media coverage, Americans were educated about her own marvelous legacy of openness in dealing with battles with breast cancer and drug and alcohol dependency. She was a strong advocate for improved awareness, education, and treatment. The Betty Ford Center in California is regarded as the nation's top facility for treatment of chemical dependency.

George Weeks retired last year after 22 years as political columnist for The Detroit News. His weekly Michigan Politics column is syndicated by Superior Features. George Weeks retired last year after 22 years as political columnist for The Detroit News. His weekly Michigan Politics column is syndicated by Superior Features. She wrote: "I am an ordinary woman who was called onstage at an extraordinary time."

Tom Brokaw, who covered the Ford presidency for NBC, said she "spoke her own mind" but was "no loose canon by any means." Donald Rumsfeld, former Ford chief of staff and twice defense secretary, drew a smile from Betty Ford when he referred in a funeral eulogy to her sometimes "unvarnished" remarks.

Dick Ryan, retired Washington senior correspondent for The Detroit News, wrote "she brought a vibrancy and brashness to the role of first lady that had been missing since the days of Eleanor Roosevelt."

Governor Jennifer Granholm called her "a leader in her own right" for speaking out on women's issues, and said: "She has fought for the Equal Rights Amendment and has demonstrated to women and the country that it is OK to fight for what you believe in, even if your husband is the president of the United States."

The Betty Ford Fan Club includes former Michigan First Lady Helen Milliken, who was in the ERA, abortion rights, health, and other trenches where Betty Ford fought.

"She was a leader in her own right," she said of Betty Ford.

Now It Can Be Told

After Ford's death, some important comments were revealed, including criticism he once expressed, to be revealed only after his death, to the Washington Post's Bob Woodward about President Bush on Iraq.

At a less profound but nonetheless interesting level that can be understood by any housewife, now comes Helen Milliken, willing to discuss the Kitchen Clash that happened during the Fords' overnight visit in 1975 to the Governor's Summer Residence on Mackinac Island after Jerry and Betty Ford attended the National Cherry Festival in Traverse City.

In canvas bags, the Millikens and their Lansing resident cook, Helen Marin, had brought to the Island provisions for the four meals that they would serve the Fords and assorted other guests in the 24-room, three-story Victorian house on a bluff overlooking the Straits of Mackinac that the state purchased in 1945.

The steward who traveled with Ford had his own idea about what should be served when, and there were inevitable conflicts on this and such matters as flower arrangements. But nothing approached the level of the Rumble at the Refrigerator, won by Marin.

About 10 days before the presidential visit, the Ford advance team deemed the mattress in the master bedroom too soft. It was replaced. Strips of tape were put on the bathtub off the master bedroom to guard against a presidential slip. Loose bricks were firmed up along steps leading to the second story.

Another now-to-be-told story:

When Ford visited Northern Michigan University in the winter of 1978 for a lecture, he had these ringing words: "There is a certain determination and tenacity in the people of the Upper Peninsula. … John Adams would have felt right at home in Marquette, Houghton, Sault Ste. Marie, Crystal Falls, or just about any community the length and breadth of the Upper Peninsula."

Turns out these were not words his staff had prepared. He was unhappy with their draft. So, at the suggestion of Matt Surrell, then secretary of the NMU board and former press secretary of U.S. Senator Bob Griffin, then-NMU News Director Jim Carter, rewrote the speech.

Carter, feeling free now to 'fess up to his role as presidential ghost-writer, told the Marquette Mining Journal: "It will always remain a high point in my experience as a writer."

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