The Remarkable Mrs. Ford

60 Minutes revisits a very candid interview with the former first lady

There was a lot of talk this past week about how President Gerald Ford had "healed" the nation after the corruption of Watergate, and the forced resignation of Richard Nixon. But his wife, Betty Ford, had her own considerable impact on the country - as significant as any first lady's.

She was certainly the most candid in memory, which is what came through in correspondent Lesley Stahl's interview with her in 1997. How many former first ladies have you ever heard of greeting someone by saying, "Hello, I'm an alcoholic and an addict." Betty Ford did.

"Your quality, honesty, seems to be the quality that the public loves the most in a first lady, even if they're controversial," Stahl remarked.

"Probably that's true. I have an independent streak. You know, it's kind of hard to tell a independent woman what to do," the former first lady replied.

She even revealed that she had had a facelift.

"Have you ever said to your wife, 'Why do you have to be so revealing, so honest?'" Stahl asked former President Gerald Ford.

"I've told her a million times," he replied. "It has no impact."

Asked if it was frustrating, Mr. Ford told Stahl, "Well, to be serious, I've never, to my best recollection, told her to say things differently or to have a different point of view publicly. In the first place, I knew she wouldn't abide by my ... recommendations."

Betty Ford has strong feminist opinions. "I believe the equal rights amendment is a necessity of life for all citizens," she explains. "The cabinet sometimes felt that I shouldn't be so outspoken."

Mrs. Ford said cabinet members did speak to her and her husband. "And I think they talked to him more about having Betty, you know, step in the background."

But Betty wouldn't step back. In fact, her outspokenness was such a trademark that there are several exhibits about her candor at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Michigan.

For one, the Fords abandoned the notion of separate bedrooms. At the time, people were shocked by this.

"We had always shared a bedroom, and I thought there was no reason we had to change our lifestyle if I wasn't gonna give him up entirely," Mrs. Ford told Stahl.

But if that shocked the country, it was nothing compared to Betty's interview with Morley Safer in 1975. All hell broke loose. She said that if she were a teenager, she probably would try marijuana, that she'd seen a psychiatrist, and that she was pro-choice. And then there was the question about her 18-year-old daughter.

"Well, what if Susan Ford came to you and said, 'Mother... I'm having an affair'?" Safer asked.

"Well, I wouldn't be surprised. I would think she's a perfectly normal human being, like all young girls," the first lady replied.

Historians consider the interview so important, it runs perpetually at the Ford Museum. At first, two-thirds of the mail and phone calls were negative. Editorials criticized her for being too candid and too liberal, potentially an enormous problem for Jerry Ford.

Asked if her husband was upset with her, Ford told Stahl, "When he saw it, he said, 'Well, honey, there goes about 20 million votes, but we'll make it.'"

But other people were outraged. "There were people who actually demonstrated in front of the White House and said I was a embarrassment as a first lady," she remembered.