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The public outpouring of support helped her embrace the power of her position. “I was somebody, the first lady,” she wrote later. “When I spoke, people listened.”

She used her newfound influence to lobby aggressively for the Equal Rights Amendment, which failed nonetheless, and to speak against child abuse, raise money for handicapped children, and champion the performing arts.

It’s debatable whether Mrs. Ford’s frank nature helped or hurt her husband’s 1976 campaign to win a full term as president. Polls showed she was widely admired. By taking positions more liberal than the president’s, she helped broaden his appeal beyond traditional Republican voters. But she also outraged some conservatives, leaving the president more vulnerable to a strong GOP primary challenge by Ronald Reagan. That battle weakened Ford going into the general election against Democrat Jimmy Carter.

Carter won by a slim margin. The president had lost his voice in the campaign’s final days, and it was Mrs. Ford who read his concession speech to the nation.

The Fords retired to a Rancho Mirage golf community, but he spent much of his time away, giving speeches and playing in golf tournaments. Home alone, deprived of her exciting and purposeful life in the White House, Mrs. Ford drank.

By 1978 her secret was obvious to those closest to her.

“As I got sicker,” she recalled, “I gradually stopped going to lunch. I wouldn’t see friends. I was putting everyone out of my life.” Her children recalled her living in a stupor, shuffling around in her bathrobe, refusing meals in favor of a drink.

Her family finally confronted her and insisted she seek treatment.

“I was stunned at what they were trying to tell me about how I disappointed them and let them down,” she said in a 1994 Associated Press interview. “I was terribly hurt _ after I had spent all those years trying to be the best mother, wife I could be. … Luckily, I was able to hear them saying that I needed help and they cared too much about me to let it go on.”

She credited their “intervention” with saving her life.

Mrs. Ford entered Long Beach Naval Hospital and, alongside alcoholic young sailors and officers, underwent a grim detoxification that became the model for therapy at the Betty Ford Center. In her book “A Glad Awakening,” she described her recovery as a second chance at life.

And in that second chance, she found a new purpose.

“There is joy in recovery,” she wrote, “and in helping others discover that joy.”

Family spokeswoman Lewandrowski the family expects to organize a service in Palm Desert over the next couple days. Ford’s body will be sent to Michigan for burial alongside former President Gerald Ford, who is buried at his namesake museum in Grand Rapids.

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