PALM DESERT, Calif (Reuters) – Former first lady Betty Ford was remembered on Tuesday for her activism and pioneering work for addicts at a memorial service in California that drew leading political lights of the past four decades.
First lady Michelle Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former President George W. Bush and former first lady Nancy Reagan sat shoulder to shoulder in the second row of mourners at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Palm Desert.
Ford, wife of late President Gerald Ford who helped found a world-renowned rehabilitation clinic that bears her name in nearby Rancho Mirage, died on Friday at the age of 93.
“Betty Ford was my friend and I’m honored to be here today (to) help celebrate her life, which was truly remarkable,” former first lady Rosalynn Carter said in eulogizing her White House predecessor.
“She was never afraid to speak the truth, even about the most sensitive subjects, including her own struggles with alcohol and painkillers,” Carter told the 800 mourners, including former California first lady Maria Shriver, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and presidential daughters Lucy Baines Johnson and Tricia Nixon-Cox.
Carter, the wife of former President Jimmy Carter, praised Ford’s early work publicizing the fight against breast cancer and willingness to “do things a bit differently” than they had been done in the past.
“She was a tireless advocate for those struggling,” Carter said.
National Public Radio journalist Cokie Roberts said she had been personally chosen by Ford to deliver a eulogy, and that the former first lady had “wanted me to remind everyone of the way things used to be in Washington.”
A MESSAGE FOR WASHINGTON?
In fact, Roberts said, “I wouldn’t be at all surprised if she timed her death to make sure that she could convey the message of comity during this week when it seems so badly needed” — an apparent reference to the stalemate between Republicans and Democrats over raising the debt limit.
Geoffrey Mason, a former board member of the Betty Ford Clinic in Rancho Mirage, took the podium with the words “My name is Geoff, and I’m an alcoholic” — echoing the introduction given by participants in 12-step substance abuse programs.
Mason said he had no recollection of Ford as first lady but knew her instead as the face of the Betty Ford Center, a woman whose courage in facing her own addictions to alcohol and prescription drugs helped thousands of others to do the same.
“Thank you God for bringing this extraordinary woman, this brave and inspirational pioneer, into our lives,” Mason said.
The service began as an eight-member uniformed military honor guard carried Ford’s dark wood casket into the sand-colored church, tucked into desert foothills not far from her Rancho Mirage home and surrounded by palm trees.
The public was offered an opportunity to view the casket from 5 p.m. local time until midnight at the church.
After a brief ceremony at the Palm Springs airport on Wednesday, Ford’s remains will depart for Grand Rapids, Michigan, where they will again lie in repose.
A final private ceremony will occur at the Grace Episcopal Church in Grand Rapids on Thursday.
Ford’s body will be interred next to her husband’s at the Gerald R. Ford Museum.
Ford, once dubbed the “fighting first lady” by Time magazine for her outspoken political views, was a vocal supporter of women’s rights while her husband was president from 1974 to 1977.
She also led early efforts to raise awareness of the battle against breast cancer after undergoing a mastectomy in 1974, less than two months after her husband succeeded the disgraced Richard Nixon as president.
(Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Jerry Norton and Cynthia Johnston)
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