PALM DESERT, Calif. — First ladies, past and present, and others who called the White House home remembered Betty Ford on Tuesday, not just for her decades-long work against substance abuse but for contributing to a political era when friendship among lawmakers helped them govern.
First lady Michelle Obama, accompanied by former first ladies Rosalynn Carter and Hillary Rodham Clinton, strode quietly into St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in this desert resort town and took their seats next to former President George W. Bush in one of the first-row pews as services began.
Ford, who died at the age of 93 on Friday, had mapped out plans for the ceremony well in advance, including who would deliver her eulogies.
She chose Carter and journalist Cokie Roberts, as well as Geoffrey Mason, a former director of the Betty Ford Center for substance abuse and alcohol treatment. The center, whose creation was inspired by Ford’s own battles with drugs and alcohol, has helped thousands and will live on as her legacy.
Other mourners who packed the large church included former California first lady Maria Shriver and Ford’s four children.
Bush, accompanied by former first lady Nancy Reagan, arrived just a few minutes ahead of Mrs. Obama and the others. The former president, wearing a dark suit, blue tie and white shirt, chatted quietly with Reagan as they waited for the services to begin. He greeted Clinton as the secretary of state and former first lady took a seat next to him.
Others expected to attend included President Richard Nixon’s daughters, Tricia Nixon-Cox and Julie Nixon Eisenhower; President Lyndon Johnson’s daughters, Lucie Baines Johnson and Lynda Bird Johnson Robb; and Robb’s husband, former U.S. Sen. Charles Robb.
Following the funeral, members of the public were invited to file past the casket and sign a guest book until midnight.
A second funeral will be held Thursday in Grand Rapids, Mich., where Gerald Ford was buried at his presidential museum. Former first lady Barbara Bush was expected to attend that event.
California Highway Patrol motorcycles and squad cars escorted Ford’s hearse and her family members to Tuesday’s service in four black sedans and six SUVS. The hearse pulled up to the church’s side entrance, and the casket was carried inside, followed by about two dozen mourners, including family members.
Other mourners arrived later by the busload, after the family was given private time inside the church. Family spokeswoman Barbara Lewandrowski said family members had also gathered over the weekend to reflect on Ford’s life.
“They are reading emails and telling stories, enjoying each other’s fellowship,” she said.
A program prepared for the service featured a picture of Ford, the Emily Dickinson poem “If I Can Stop One Heart From Breaking,” and the words, “The family thanks you for your support,” followed by the signatures Mike, Jack, Steve and Susan, Ford’s four children.
Jack and Michael Ford were to read passages from the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.
Outside the church, news media trucks were lined up on a nearby street. TV cameras were crowded onto big-rig flatbed trucks.
Earlier in the day, passers-by, some walking dogs or out for a jog, stopped to reflect on the former first lady’s life.
“I don’t know where a lot of people would be if it weren’t for her,” said Randy Gaynor, 47, a recovering alcoholic. “There’s been a lot of first ladies and they did a lot of things, but this will be long remembered after she’s gone.”
Ford, the accidental first lady, was thrust into the White House when Nixon resigned as president on Aug. 9, 1974, and her husband, then vice president, assumed the nation’s highest office. Although she never expected nor wanted to be first lady, she quickly embraced the role, reshaping it with her plain-talking candor and outgoing personality.
Roberts, a commentator on National Public Radio, said Ford asked her to give a eulogy five years ago and specified it should be about the power of friendship to mend political differences even in these hyper-partisan times.
“Mrs. Ford was very clear about what she wanted me to say,” Roberts said. “She wanted me to talk about Washington the way it used to be. She knew there were people back then who were wildly partisan, but not as many as today.”
When Roberts’ father, Democratic Congressman Hale Boggs, was the House majority leader and Ford’s husband was the House minority leader, Roberts recalled, they could argue about issues but get together as friends afterward. Their families became close, as did the Ford and Carter families, despite Jimmy Carter defeating Ford in the 1976 presidential election.
Carter spoke at Gerald Ford’s funeral in 2007. The two families were so close that before his death, Ford asked the Carters to join his wife aboard Air Force One, which flew his body to its final resting place in Grand Rapids.
“They were friends and that was what made government possible,” said Roberts, adding that the topic seems particularly appropriate this week when the two parties are divided over dealing with the national debt ceiling.
On Wednesday, Ford’s body will be flown to Grand Rapids where another church service will feature remarks by Lynne Cheney, wife of former Vice President Dick Cheney, and historian Richard Norton Smith.
Later Thursday, her body will be interred at the presidential museum along with her husband on what would have been Gerald Ford’s 98th birthday.
Jeff Wilson reported from Palm Desert and John Rogers reported from Los Angeles.