The Gerald R Ford Foundation was honored to host former First Ladies Barbara Bush and Laura Bush during the traveling “The Legacies of America’s First Ladies Conferences”. The event coincided with the commemoration of Betty Ford’s 95th Birthday and continued Gerald R. Ford’s centennial birthday celebrations. Sponsored by American University, the National Archives and the Presidential Libraries, the conferences highlight the impact of our First Ladies on politics, policy and American culture.
Anita McBride, Co-Chair of the First Ladies Conference and Executive-in Residence at the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University, spoke at the onset of the event regarding the conferences beginnings and success. The conference series began in November 2011 with events in Texas as part of the Presidential Library system that includes those for Lyndon B. Johnson, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. Focusing on “the leaders behind the leaders”, the conferences have highlighted the tremendous impact that First Ladies have left on our American way of life.
Susan Ford Bales, daughter of Gerald and Betty Ford, introduced the former First Ladies. Ford spoke on the special, decades long relationship between the Ford and Bush families and three enduring moments that connected their families. The first moment was during President Ford’s historic trip to China in 1975. There on the airport tarmac as they walked down the stairs in Beijing, The President, the First Lady and Susan smiled when they saw their friends Special Representative to China George H.W. Bush and his wife Barbara. The Bushes stayed with the Fords the entire trip, and the Fords never forgot the personal care and kindness they received. The second event was in 2003 when Laura Bush hosted the Fords at The White House to celebrate Gerald R. Ford’s 90th birthday, an enjoyable evening with friends and smiles. The third event was in 2007, just after the passing of Gerald R. Ford. While the Ford Family was in Washington, D.C. staying at the Blair House near The White House, the Bush family came to visit with the Fords without an entourage. It was just friends sitting together, and Susan recalls it was the first time in days that her mother had smiled.
David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States moderated the conversation which mixed personal reflections of former First Lady Betty Ford and the Bushes time as First Ladies. His first question provided the former First Ladies to touch on their own view of what made Betty Ford great. Laura Bush said that Betty Ford’s courage to publicly discuss her breast courage, allowed women to understand that preventative measures and treatments were not a negative, secret but something that was important to their health. At that time, women did not opening discuss breast cancer and Betty Ford was able to turn her own personal struggles into a greater good for our country. Barbara Bush mentioned that together she and Betty Ford were in the same International Club as their husbands were both in Washington, D.C. Also, Barbara mentioned how she knew Betty before, during and after Betty’s addiction problems and that she hoped Betty knew that she had changed the world with her Betty Ford Clinic.
The former First Ladies spoke about the personal reflections on numerous topics including Margaret Thatcher, the “place” of First Ladies with her position near The President, the campaigns of First Ladies such as education or healthcare, and their post office initiatives including national literacy programs and preparing to be First Lady of the United States. They also touched on how their families spent time together including their family properties in Kennebunkport, ME and Crawford, TX along with Camp David which the Bushes spent every Christmas together from 2001-2008.
A favorite memory for both former First Ladies was the relationships built during their times at The White House with the staff who support the First Family. Both also are looking forward to the opening of the George W. Bush Presidential Library on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas which was Laura Bush’s alma mater. The former First Ladies believed in the importance of Presidential Libraries, much as Gerald & Betty Ford did, as preserving history for generations to come and promote an understanding of our American government.