Betty Ford

updated 12/24/1984 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/24/1984 01:00AM

They came forward this year, tentatively at first and then often proudly. By announcing their addictions—and later their cures—celebrities such as Liza Minnelli, Mary Tyler Moore, Peter Lawford, Johnny Cash and Eileen Brennan have encouraged ordinary folk to seek treatment for alcoholism and drug problems. But none of this might have happened were it not for the efforts of an outspoken former First Lady.

Presidents' wives are usually attractive appendages to their husbands; only a handful have managed to break out of that mold and gain a persona of their own. Their names: Martha, Dolley, Eleanor, Jacqueline and Betty. Of these, only Eleanor Roosevelt and Betty Ford have understood the power of the position and used it as a force for good and for national change.

Mrs. Ford, now 66, has been candid (in 1974 she publicly revealed her breast cancer, inspiring women across America to seek checkups; four years later she announced her alcoholism and addiction to painkillers). She has been pragmatic, spearheading a $5 million fund-raising campaign for a Rancho Mirage, Calif. treatment facility. The Betty Ford Center, which claims the above-mentioned celebrities among its 2,000 graduates, offers a program of "loving pressure" that is becoming the role model for other centers.

At the clinic Mrs. Ford is a visible and verbal presence at least once per 28-day cycle (the minimum stay for inpatients). Center officials have urged her to videotape her supportive message, but to no avail. Liza Minnelli, whose cure at the clinic is a fresh and glowing memory, says of the force behind it all: "Here's this woman who had a problem, dealt with it, and then not only told the world about it, she made it possible for others to get help too. How can you top that?"

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