Betty Ford's Problem Child

By Dirk Hanson 04/11/11

 Following in the footsteps of his famous mother, Betty Ford's youngest son spent years hiding a few sad secrets of his own.

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Betty Ford's baby shared her penchant for partying.
Photo via nwitimesl

Whenever we think of the Fords—which we don't, usually—we tend to remember former President Gerald Ford for clumsily falling down multiple flights of stairs, Betty Ford for her pioneering work on addiction, and their son Jack for helping to found Outside magazine. But the presidential clan also included a much younger son, Steve Meigs Ford, who the public never heard much about. As it turns out, there was a reason for that. For more than 20 years, as Betty Ford was fighting her own addictions, her youngest son was doing battle with demons of his own. After the Fords left the White House, Steve says, “everything looked great on the outside,” but a few years after the family escaped the national spotlight, Betty Ford’s alcohol and drug abuse had become increasingly obvious and intolerable, and life inside the Ford household began falling apart. To this day, he starkly remembers the afternoon when “my dad stepped forward,” got the family together and told Betty she needed to pull herself together—which may have been one of America's original interventions. “That was a brand new word back in the 70s,” says Steve. “And now we’ve got a huge TV show named after it.”

In 1982, while his recovering mother was busily co-founding the non-profit Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, California, Steve Ford found himself struggling with his own alcoholism, drinking his way around the country while trying to eke out a living as a part-time actor, and assiduously avoiding the press. “I had been living a secret life on the road,” he told the Drug Education Council in a recent interview. But then "one day my life just came crashing down." His struggle with binge drinking led to his decision to break off his long-planned marriage. He recalled standing in a hotel room shower “trying to wash the shame off of me.” It was very painful, he says. "A lot of people got hurt." Now sober for several years, he makes a living raising money for charity, and gives speeches on the subject of alcoholism. He also remains close to his mother, who, while rarely spottted on the Betty Ford campus these days, is reportedly still spry at the age of 90. Still single, the fifty-something Ford was the keynote speaker at the Drug Education Council’s annual luncheon in Mobile, Alabama, where he was constantly trailed by a conga-line of blond, beaming Bettys. Despite his newfound popularity, however, he takes nothing for granted. “My addiction is sneaky,” he said. "It's always outside the door, doing pushups, waiting for me to fail.”

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]