- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 12, 2011

PALM DESERT, CALIF. (AP) | First ladies, past and present, and others who called the White House home remembered Betty Ford at a funeral service Tuesday, not just for her decades-long work against substance abuse but for her contributions to a political era when friendship among lawmakers helped them govern.

Speakers, including former first lady Rosalynn Carter and journalist Cokie Roberts, also hailed her as a force of nature whose boundless energy and enthusiasm, coupled with a steadfast determination to do what was right, pushed the country toward a commitment to equal rights for women and other causes.

Mrs. Ford, who died at age 93 on Friday, reshaped the role of first lady with her plain-spoken candidness.

In doing so, she helped bring such previously taboo subjects as breast cancer into public awareness as she openly discussed her own battle with the disease. She was equally candid about her struggles with drug and alcohol abuse; her spearheading of the creation of the Betty Ford Center to treat those diseases has benefited thousands.

“Millions of women are in her debt today, and she was never afraid to speak the truth even about the most sensitive subjects, including her own struggle with alcohol and painkillers,” Mrs. Carter said. “She got some criticism, but I thought she was wonderful and her honesty gave to others every single day.”

Behind the scenes, she was also aggressive and effective, said Mrs. Roberts, who noted that Mrs. Ford’s husband, former President Gerald R. Ford, confided privately that his wife badgered him relentlessly into stronger public support of equal rights for women.

The former first lady mapped out plans for her funeral well in advance, including who would deliver her eulogies, and Mrs. Roberts said she was told to be sure to let people know that politics does not have to as acrimonious as it is today.

Mrs. Ford wanted me to remind everyone of the way things used to be in Washington, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if she timed her death to make sure that she could convey the message of comity during this week, when it seems so badly needed,” she said as former President George W. Bush, a Republican, sat in the audience next to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, a Democrat.

Sitting in the same pew with them in St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church were first lady Michelle Obama, former first lady Nancy Reagan and Mrs. Carter. Other mourners who filled the church included former California first lady Maria Shriver and Mrs. Ford’s four children.

Mr. Bush, accompanied by Mrs. Reagan, arrived just a few minutes ahead of Mrs. Obama and the others. The former president, wearing a dark suit, chatted quietly with Mrs. Reagan as they waited for the service to begin. He greeted Mrs. Clinton as she took a seat next to him.

After the funeral, members of the public were invited to file past the casket and sign a guest book until midnight.

A second service will be held Thursday in Grand Rapids, Mich., where Mrs. Ford’s husband is buried at his presidential museum.

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