Linda Van Kessler holds a cufflink with the presidential seal given to her by the former first lady. BILL WECHTER
When Betty Ford decided to publicly admit her addiction to pills and alcohol in 1978, Linda Van Kessler sat with the former first lady's husband, former President Gerald Ford, in the family's Palm Springs home and helped "craft the message," Van Kessler said. She then gathered reporters and made the announcement. "It was pretty intense," Van Kessler, 57, now an Encinitas resident, recalled this week. "There were just a few media there, just a few reporters that they were close to. And then we got lots and lots of phone calls.
Of course, people were shocked." Betty Ford died of natural causes at Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage on Friday at age 93. Van Kessler, once a member of the couple's personal staff, said she and other staffers noticed Ford's problem with addiction grow "prevalent" during the first year after her husband left the White House and moved to Palm Springs. "Her speech would be slurred and she would stumble and we would see it. I really noticed it one day when she was speaking to one of her own (longtime) Secret Service officers. She shook hands with him and said, 'It was nice to meet you.'" The former first lady eventually admitted she suffered from addiction to alcohol and pain pills. And thus came the press announcement, one made "without hesitation." "She was so outspoken on so many topics, she never wanted to hide anything," Van Kessler said. "And when she had this (addiction), the family knew she would want to help people. So there was no hesitation in announcing that she was going to rehab." Van Kessler said she was saddened when she learned Betty Ford had died. "It is the end of an era," she said. At a time when it was unorthodox to do so, especially for a presidential wife, Betty Ford spoke out about women's rights, abortion issues, premarital sex, and even breast cancer and her 1974 mastectomy, which she had done just a few months after she and her husband moved into the White House. "She will be remembered for her courage and bravery and honesty about issues that were not popular," Van Kessler said. "She was one to say that 'I think I can help other people by speaking out.'" Van Kessler, who in those days was unmarried and went by her maiden name of Beversluis, had worked for Ford as a secretary in the White House ---- a job she landed in 1975 just shy of 21 years old. She later followed the Fords to Palm Springs after his presidency ended in 1977. For the next year, Van Kessler said, she worked as their director of scheduling and press. She said she last saw Betty Ford in 2006, during Gerald Ford's funeral. He, too, was 93 when he died. "She was so frail then," said Van Kessler, who in recent years teamed with husband Charles Van Kessler to found Passion 4 Kids, an organization to assist children in need. Van Kessler said she thinks of Betty Ford as "a nice lady, very down to earth, very normal and not at all affected by their lifestyle," a woman who "treated the staff like family." "(The Fords) were not people that did things for political gain, and that is what cost them the election. That is how they lived their lives, by saying what was right and was the best thing for the country. They didn't think a lot about themselves and what made them look good. They had great ethics and integrity."