With the death of Betty Ford, our nation loses one of its great First Ladies, those committed to the battle against substance abuse and addiction lose one of our most courageous leaders, CASA Columbia loses one of its Founding Directors and I lose a dear friend and committed partner.
I first met Betty Ford at a White House dinner during the 1960s when I served as President Lyndon Johnson’s aide for domestic affairs. Those were the days when Democrats and Republicans, who fought like hell over public policies day after day during the week, sat down with each other at drinks, dinner and parties in the evenings and on the weekends. Even though LBJ could get mighty angry at Gerald Ford’s opposition to his Great Society programs, he would tell me, “You treat Ford [then Minority Leader of the House] with the same respect you give McCormack [then Democratic Speaker of the House]. If he needs help, try to give it to him. That’s how we get things done.”
Betty Ford will always be remembered for her courage in facing up to her addiction to alcohol and pills and her years of abusing those substances. In a day when even more shame attached to alcoholics and addicts, Betty Ford not only openly discussed her problems, but started the Betty Ford Center, now one of the world’s premier rehabilitation facilities. I always admired her for that. (She and her husband were a courageous couple. I respected the bravery of President Ford when he pardoned Richard Nixon in order to heal divisions that had wracked our nation—and would have continued to do so if criminal proceedings dragged on. I believe President Ford and Betty knew that action would likely cost him his election something he dearly desired, to be elected President on his own name).
I saw the Fords periodically thereafter when the President and I were on a corporate board together.
In 1992, when I announced that I was founding The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, Betty’s Ford’s eye caught the announcement in a trade journal. She wrote me offering her “support and assistance,” calling “substance abuse and addiction the most harmful component of today’s society,” and the establishment of CASA “an important step forward [that] can achieve great success.”
I called to thank her for her letter.
She said, “Joe, this is as important as anything you’ve ever done. Let me know if I can do anything to help you.”
“Come on our founding board.”
“Done, if we can work out the schedule.”
“We’ll do that.”
“Then it’s done.”
Betty Ford served on the CASA board for six years.
At the first meeting the board established CASA’s missions. I had proposed four, which the board adopted: to inform Americans of the costs of substance abuse and addiction, assess what works in prevention and treatment, encourage everyone to take responsibility, and provide those on the front lines with tools to succeed.
Betty Ford then said, “There’s something very important missing. We should commit to attack the stigma that attaches to the disease of substance abuse and addiction.”
After a brief discussion, she suggested, “Let’s add this mission: To remove the stigma of substance abuse and replace shame and despair with hope.” The board quickly agreed and Betty said, “If we can achieve that, we will be a great success!”
Betty Ford was a most active board member. She conducted press conferences with me and helped promote a series of reports—the nation’s first—on substance abuse and women. Those reports led to the first CASA book—and the first book ever written on this subject–Women under the Influence, published by the Johns Hopkins University Press in 2006.
We honored Betty Ford at a Concert of Hope in Los Angeles which was CBS-TV broadcast on November 29, 1995. It was a gala event with Tony Bennett, Liza Minnelli, Patti LaBelle and other great performers. But Betty was the star of the evening.
In 1998, Betty Ford called me. “The doctors don’t want me to fly anymore [she had a problem breathing] so I won’t be able to get to your board meetings in New York,” she said. “I’m only going to make one trip east each year, for Jerry’s annual reunion with his staff. I hope you understand.”
Though she continued to support our work, we lost a founding board member.
Now, the world has lost a great woman. But Betty Ford will always be an inspiration to all of us at CASA and to me. As part of our recognition of the former First Lady and founding board member, we are recommitting ourselves to strip the shame from this disease, replace despair with hope and convince our people and institutions to accord substance abuse and addiction the same respect they accord other diseases, and to prod our public health and medical professions to devote the same energy and attention to preventing substance abuse and addiction that they devote to other preventable and treatable chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension.
That will be our enduring response to the charge Betty Ford gave us at our first board meeting in 1992 and the inspiration the memory of her courage and commitment continues to give us.