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Clinton, Ford and Johnson: First Families Honor Betty Ford, Share Advice for the Limelight

Clinton, Ford and Johnson: First Families Honor Betty Ford, Share Advice for the Limelight

(Crystal A. Proxmire, April 15, 2018)

Grand Rapids, MI- In honor of what have been former First Lady Betty Ford’s 100th birthday, members of three first families took part in a luncheon celebration with a panel discussion at the Frederick Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids.

Susan Bales Ford and Michael Ford, children of President Gerald Ford and his wife Betty, spoke to reporters before the event.  Lynda Bird Johnson Robb, daughter of Lyndon Johnson, took questions before the event and joined former First Lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for a panel discussion moderated by journalist Andrea Mitchell.

Each gave glimpses of what life in the public eye has been like for them and their families.


Lynda Bird Johnson Robb was 19 years old when her father was sworn in as the 36th President of the United States following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963.

Because of Kennedy’s death, security was heightened for all members of the Johnson family.  For Lynda this meant some awkward college years. She spoke of living in the women’s dorm where the curfew was 10pm and the doors were locked.  The three Secret Service Agents assigned to protect her would stay up all night on the ground floor while cameras monitored the third floor where she and her roommates slept.

“The gals didn’t like the intrusion of Secret Service,” Johnson said.  “They’d hang their unmentionables on the cameras to block the Secret Service from seeing them.”

It wasn’t all adversarial however.  “Secret Service got locked in, and other men got locked out,” Johnson said.  “Women would ask advice of the Secret Service men.  They’d have them meet their boyfriends and ask their opinions, what did you think of him, that sort of thing. …[And] they’d cook for the Secret Service guys.  All three of them gained weight because of all the women cooking for them.”

With armed protection at her side, Johnson made it through college and had two big romances. First with actor George Hamilton in 1966, and then with a Marine Captain named Charles S. Robb.

She and Robb married at the White House in 1967 and had three children.  Charles became Governor of Virginia and served two Senate terms. Lynda Bird Johnson Robb advocated literacy and universal healthcare, and she joined Betty Ford and others to support the Equal Rights Amendment.

She spoke of her excitement at meeting Betty Ford soon after Gerald Ford took office.  “Mrs. Ford let us go upstairs into the room we had.  I think those of us who lived there felt like it was there.  ‘What have they done to my room?’” she laughed. “I know what it’s like to open the upstairs windows to the outside world.  It’s the only sanctuary you have.  You know when you go outside and all the media will be asking you questions and making judgments.  And for Mrs. Ford to have us upstairs and let us see the old rooms was a real treat.  It was the best tour ever.”


Michael Ford was part of a family that rallied together.  His father, Gerald Ford, assumed the Presidency in 1974 after President Richard Nixon resigned.  Ford make the unpopular decision of pardoning Nixon in hopes that it would help the country to move forward from the Watergate Scandal which prompted Nixon’s resignation. The turbulent beginning of Ford’s term was paired with another challenge, Betty Ford’s health crisis. Michael Ford talked to reporters about how important family was in those hard times.

“We had our family Bible there and we kind of joined hands and had a prayer together before we went into the room for the swearing in.  So that started the journey for my dad and mom to hold onto each other and be sounding boards to each other, and also allow for fun and just relaxed moments together thought this very tense time in our nation’s history,” Ford said.  “Six or seven weeks into his Presidency, mom had breast cancer. And wow, that was scary…  We went through that as a family. We gave our encouragement to her, we prayed with her and she fortunately had great medical care and was able to recover from that… There’s many places along the way they were a team – team Ford.”

The Ford Family felt the heat of the spotlight, but aimed to handle it with grace.  “They loved the whole country, and they believed that with all the challenges and problems that society faces, that the only way through that is through very respectful and civil dialogue and working to find come common solutions… and avoid the whole spirit of acrimony and negativity that is so much in our public square right now,” Michael said.

“There is so much to be gained by collaboration and working with each other’s’ strengths and not trying to put people down or point out their weaknesses. That’s the approach they followed.  It worked very well in healing our nation and certainly we need more of that today.”

When asked about advice for public figures today, Ford said “Our public media has changed dramatically since the early 70s.  I know when we came as a family into the White House we didn’t have any real coaching about how to interact with the media.  For myself and my brothers and sisters we made our share of mistakes, spoke too freely or too indiscriminately, and I think in today’s world of social media we would have been crucified by some of the things we shared.  I can’t imagine public figures today, first family members, just how careful they need to be in being able to share their stories or their lives or their viewpoints because it can just go viral so quickly, and be misinterpreted very easily too, or taken out of context.  So I sympathize very much with all of the public figures.  We just have to be judicious and wise.”

During the time of Ford’s Presidency there was criticism.  “Our first reaction is ‘it’s not fair,’ or ‘that’s something that’s mean-spirited,” Michael Ford said. “So we wanted to respond, or [say] what can we do about this. But my dad and mom were more experienced and they were able to tell us that this is, unfortunately, part of the political world, and the public world.  You’re going to have these kinds of untoward comments made, so we learned to kind of roll with it.”


Susan Ford Bales is the youngest of President and First Lady Ford’s children, and was a teenager during her father’s administration.  She even famously held her senior prom at the White House.

Instead of politics, Ford Bales chose a life of advocacy and photojournalism, with much of her efforts geared towards the Betty Ford Clinic which had been started by her mother.

When asked what advice she might have for women seeking to go into politics, she laughed and said “My first advice would be don’t get into it.”

“I have lived politics plenty, the entire life of my dad was in politics from day I was born ‘til I was close to my 20s so I’m not a politician.  I would never run for office.  It’s an ugly thing and you need to have a really strong backbone.  If you have any skeletons in your closet, they’re going to come out. And I think the 24/7 media is just so different in today’s society.  Thank goodness they didn’t have it when we were there,” Ford Bales said.  “Probably I’m a very private person because of all those years of having been in the public life.  Politics, I’ve just never been interested in it.”



Hillary Clinton was First Lady 1993-2001 and served as Senator from New York from 2001-2009 and Secretary of State from 2009-2013.  She also ran unsuccessfully for President in 2016.

“It’s always been a pressure cooker in the White House,” Clinton said.  “From the beginning when Abigail Adams was hanging up wash in the East Room, and Dolly Madison was rescuing the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington from the advance of the British soldiers in the War of 1812, and so many other stories.”

Clinton revealed that her first job in politics was working for Gerald Ford in the summer of 1968 as an intern in the House Republican Conference Committee where Ford was the Minority Leader.

“It is such a great personal pleasure for me to be here with all of you in honor of Betty who was someone I looked up to, who I followed, and who in my opinion was one of the most transformational Americans in the last half of the 20th century…because of what she did and how she did it,” Clinton said.  “Betty Ford as the First Lady speaking out in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment was astonishing. The work that she did was just like a thunderclap. People felt it, believed it, were in awe of it, and I just thought that took so much grit.”

Clinton talked about experiences as Secretary of State, and about interactions with CIA Director Mike Pompeo who may become the next person to fill that position.  “The new nominee, Mike Pompeo, who’s been serving I guess the last 18 months, you know, at the CIA, called me. Now for any of you that followed the Benghazi hearings -all nine of them – that might surprise you because he certainly went after me. To no avail I might add, but nevertheless, he did. So, he called me and wanted to talk about the State Department. And I was happy to talk to him because I think we have to get back to talking to each other and more importantly listening to each other, and we can’t allow the partisanship and the politicization of everything.”

She also said that “It is in our national security interest to advocate for women worldwide.”

“If you traveled over the last 30-40 years and you could see the denial of opportunity to women around the world you would know how important this is,” Clinton said.

Six hundred people attended the luncheon, and the community also celebrated what would have been Betty Ford’s 100th birthday with an exhibit at the Gerald Ford Museum titled “In Step with Betty Ford: In Celebration of Her Centennial.”


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