GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Mary Jean Eisenhower, the granddaughter of former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, helped honor Betty Ford during a special luncheon Tuesday at Frederik Meijer Gardens commemorating what would've been the former first lady's 99th birthday.
Eisenhower gave the keynote address during the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation's annual luncheon.
"I think the world of Betty Ford and Gerald," Eisenhower told FOX 17. "It’s an honor to be here to pay tribute to her.”
Eisenhower called Ford an "inspiration for women," saying she should be remembered for her "activism and willingness to candidly discuss tough challenges in life," like her personal struggles with addiction and breast cancer.
Eisenhower said she's always admired the Ford family.
“Mrs. Ford and my grandmother, they were wonderful people in many ways, not just what you saw in the press," she said. "They were wonderful mothers and grandmothers.”
Ford's daughter, who was also on hand for Tuesday's event, said she continues to feel grateful for the support her family receives from the Grand Rapids community.
“I think she was a pioneer for breast cancer and addiction [awareness]," said Susan Ford Bales. "But every First Lady is a pioneer for their own issue and I think they’re all wonderful women and we need to honor them all."
A biography on Betty
New York Times bestselling author Lisa McCubbin, who moderated a discussion during the afternoon event, said she's working on a biography of Grand Rapids' own Mrs. Ford.
“What I’ve come to learn about her is that was just her, she was being herself," McCubbin said. "She didn’t see herself as a powerful woman; I think she saw herself as an ordinary woman but she was extraordinary."
McCubbin lauded the former first lady's courage to publicly share personal experiences at a time when it was uncommon to be so candid about such topics.
“The story of Betty Ford is one of an ordinary girl, grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan and somehow found herself in the White House—either by accident or destiny—and she then became one of the most outspoken, courageous first ladies we’ve ever had," she said.
The biography will be finished in time for Ford's commemorative 100th birthday, McCubbin said. Until then, she said she continues to search for stories, anecdotes or memorabilia about Mrs. Ford life, encouraging anyone with something to share to contact her.
“The Fords didn’t change when they got into the White House, they had these Midwestern family values, they were honest and lived lives with integrity," McCubbin said.
“Nobody can find one bad word to say about Betty Ford. Everybody just adored her."
Betty Ford died in 2011. She and her husband, who died in 2006, are buried on the grounds of his presidential museum in Grand Rapids.
Eisenhower on growing up in politics
Prior to the Tuesday luncheon, Eisenhower offered insight into what life was like growing up in and around the White House while her grandfather was president.
"I knew they had a fancy house, but I didn’t realize they didn’t own it," she joked to FOX 17.
Eisenhower recalled the innocent ignorance of her childhood when world leaders like former French President Charles DeGaulle or the former Soviet leader Nakita Kruschev would visit the White House.
"I just thought they were good friends because they were being diplomatic," Eisenhower said. "They were always so nice to each other and I remember telling my mother I couldn’t wait to grow up because everyone’s so nice to each other and she said ‘well, it doesn’t always work out that way.'"
Asked what she thought her grandfather would think about the state of politics today, Eisenhower said "he'd be shocked."
"It used to be—not all elections turn out the way you want them to and some do—you didn’t gloat and you didn’t scream. You went from being a Democrat or a Republican into being an American and you worked together," she said.
"Now were in a kind of catatonic divide. If you support one way or the other, the other side is rabid."
Eisenhower blamed social media, in part, for giving a platform to anybody to share anything, regardless of truth or accuracy.
"The forums that some people take on, they don’t check themselves, it’s all opinion and people take it as fact and that’s part of what’s made it a mess," she said.
"[My grandfather] didn’t like politics even then, but I think now it’s just such a battle field, and it doesn’t need to be."