First ladies, past and present, and others who called the White House home remembered Betty Ford on Tuesday, not just for her decades-long work against substance abuse but for contributing to a political era when friendship among lawmakers helped them go
PALM DESERT, Calif. (AP) — First ladies, past and present, and others who called the White House home remembered Betty Ford on Tuesday, not just for her decades-long work against substance abuse but for contributing to a political era when friendship among lawmakers helped them govern.
The casket containing the former first lady’s body arrived in the late morning at the Southern California desert church where she and the nation’s 38th president, her late husband, President Gerald R. Ford, worshipped.
It was followed into the church a short time later by mourners who arrived by the busload at this desert resort town where the temperature was expected to reach 102 degrees.
Reporters and other onlookers were kept across a large roadway from the church and were unable to make out those arriving. But first Lady Michelle Obama and former first ladies Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton were expected.
Ford, who died at the age of 93 on Friday, had mapped out plans for the ceremony at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, including who would deliver her eulogies.
She chose Carter and journalist Cokie Roberts, as well as Geoffrey Mason, a former director of the Betty Ford Center for substance abuse and alcohol treatment. The center, whose creation was inspired by Ford’s own battles with drugs and alcohol, has helped thousands and will live on as her legacy.
A spokesman for former President George W. Bush said the president would also attend Tuesday’s service and convey condolences on behalf of his wife, Laura, who couldn’t be there. Former President Bill Clinton had to cancel plans to attend when the plane he was to arrive on developed mechanical problems.
Others who planned to attend included President Richard Nixon’s daughters, Tricia Nixon-Cox and Julie Nixon Eisenhower; President Lyndon Johnson’s daughters, Lucie Baines Johnson and Lynda Bird Johnson Robb; and Robb’s husband, former U.S. Sen. Charles Robb.
Following the funeral, members of the public were invited to file past the casket and sign a guest book until midnight.
A second funeral will be held Thursday in Grand Rapids, Mich., where Gerald Ford is buried at his presidential museum. Former first lady Barbara Bush is expected to attend that event.
California Highway Patrol motorcycles and squad cars escorted Ford’s hearse and her family members to Tuesday’s service in four black sedans and six SUVS.
The hearse pulled up to the church’s side entrance at 11:20 a.m. and the casket was carried inside, followed by about two dozen mourners, including family members.
Other mourners began arriving by the busload about an hour later, after the family was given private time inside the church. Ford family spokeswoman Barbara Lewandrowski said family members had also gathered over the weekend to reflect on Ford’s life.
"They are reading emails and telling stories, enjoying each other’s fellowship," she said.
A program prepared for the service featured a picture of Ford, the Emily Dickinson poem "If I Can Stop One Heart From Breaking," and the words, "The family thanks you for your support," followed by the signatures Mike, Jack, Steve and Susan, Ford’s four children.
Jack and Michael Ford were to read passages from the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.
Outside the church, news media trucks were lined up on a nearby street. TV cameras were crowded onto big-rig flatbed trucks.
Earlier in the day, passers-by, some walking dogs or out for a jog, stopped to reflect on the former first lady’s life.
"I don’t know where a lot of people would be if it weren’t for her," said Randy Gaynor, 47, a recovering alcoholic. "There’s been a lot of first ladies and they did a lot of things, but this will be long remembered after she’s gone."
Ford, the accidental first lady, was thrust into the White House when Nixon resigned as president on Aug. 9, 1974, and her husband, then vice president, assumed the nation’s highest office. Although she never expected nor wanted to be first lady, she quickly embraced the role, reshaping it with her plain-talking candor and outgoing personality.
Roberts, a commentator on National Public Radio, said Ford asked her to give a eulogy five years ago and specified it should be about the power of friendship to mend political differences even in these hyper-partisan times.
"Mrs. Ford was very clear about what she wanted me to say," Roberts said. "She wanted me to talk about Washington the way it used to be. She knew there were people back then who were wildly partisan, but not as many as today."
When Roberts’ father, Democratic Congressman Hale Boggs, was House majority leader and Ford’s husband was House minority leader, Roberts recalled, they could argue about issues but get together as friends afterward. Their families became close, as did the Ford and Carter families, despite Jimmy Carter defeating Ford in the 1976 presidential election.
Carter spoke at Gerald Ford’s funeral in 2007. The two families were so close that before his death, Ford asked the Carters to join his wife aboard Air Force One, which flew his body to its final resting place in Grand Rapids.
"They were friends and that was what made government possible," said Roberts, adding that the topic seems particularly appropriate this week when the two parties are divided over dealing with the national debt ceiling.
On Wednesday, Ford’s body will be flown to Grand Rapids where another church service Thursday will feature remarks by Lynne Cheney, wife of former Vice President Dick Cheney, and historian Richard Norton Smith.
Later Thursday, her body will be interred at the presidential museum along with her husband on the day that would have been Gerald Ford’s 98th birthday.
Jeff Wilson reported from Palm Desert and John Rogers reported from Los Angeles.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.