Vaden Bales is the son-in-law of President and Mrs. Gerald R. Ford and the husband of Susan Ford Bales. Vaden is an attorney with the Riggs Abney firm in Tulsa, OK. He is a Trustee of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation.
Susan Ford Bales is the youngest child of President and Mrs. Gerald R. Ford. She is the Ship’s Sponsor of the U.S.S. Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78). Susan serves as a Trustee of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation, the President Gerald R. Ford Historical Legacy Trust, and the Elizabeth B. Ford Charitable Trust.
Vaden Bales and Susan Ford Bales were interviewed for the Gerald R. Ford Oral History Project on July 25, 2010 by Richard Norton Smith.
Smith: When did you come into this family, this picture?
Vaden Bales: 1989. Susan and I got reacquainted in March 1989 and had a whirlwind courtship and got married in July of 1989.
Smith: Was there anything intimidating?
Vaden Bales: No, I think it’s probably a little bit amazing that I wasn’t intimidated. I just had never been around that sort of thing, and she was just a cute and fun girl. I remember when I first met President Ford, I drove over to Beaver Creek from Aspen and everybody said, “Oh, aren’t you nervous?” And I said, “Oh, he’s just a person.” And I really wasn’t – I was that clueless. But then when I drove up to the house in Beaver Creek on the circle there and parked the car that I had rented, and got out and walked to the front door these guys met me with earpieces and said, “Are you Vaden Bales?” And I said, “Yes,” and they showed me in. All of a sudden I realized I was about to enter into a world that I hadn’t even thought of, and I had a bad case of what I think actors call flop sweat.
Smith: And I assume they put you at your ease?
Vaden Bales: Immediately. I had had one interesting conversation with him before that, that you may find interesting. After Susan and I had been dating below the radar, so to speak, I got a call from some friends of mine about whether I was up for a federal judgeship or something. And I said “No, I’m not. Why do you ask?” They said, “Well, Joe Williams called me.” And then I got three or four of those calls from friends of mine. Well, as it turned out, Joe Williams was the head of a big pipeline company in Tulsa who sat on the board of the American Express Company with President Ford. President Ford at some board meeting had turned to Joe Williams and said, “My daughter is very serious with this lawyer in Tulsa named Vaden Bales. Do you know anything about him? And he said, “Well, I know him a little bit. He’s with a good firm, has a good reputation,” and that was the extent of the discussion.
Well, evidently Joe took it on himself to do a little more investigating. Since he was also the head of the judicial nominating commission that vetted federal judge candidates in Oklahoma, that’s why all those people got concerned about the call from Joe. I mentioned this to Susan and she went ballistic. She said, “He shouldn’t be checking up on you,” and she evidently called out to California or Colorado, wherever her parents were, and read him the riot act. A day or so later, my assistant walked in and said, “I don’t know which one of your friends this is, but somebody named Penny Circle is on the phone claiming that former President Gerald Ford is on the line holding for you.” I said, “Put him through.” I had kept the fact that I was seeing Susan from her, from my assistant.
So I get on the phone and it’s President Ford. We said hello, and he said, “I owe you an apology.” I said, “You do?” and he said, “Oh, yes. I understand Joe Williams…” So he went through, and just basically said, “I just asked Joe if he knew you, and he took it on himself to go forward.” But he said, “Susan and her mother are just all over me.” And I said, “Well, you don’t owe me an apology because if I were you, I would do the same thing.” He said, “Well, will you please call Susan and tell her I apologized because if I don’t get that call and her mother doesn’t get that call – it’s just that I’m paying hell for it right now.” So that was my first encounter with him before I had actually met him.
Susan Bales: Let’s remember, I was thirty years old. We weren’t sixteen.
Smith: Parenthetically, that is nothing. Nelson Rockefeller went to J. Edgar Hoover and had the FBI investigate his prospective sons-in-law. You got off easy.
Susan Bales: I guess he really didn’t love you, honey.
Vaden Bales: And back to the Fourth of July thing, when I went over there, even though I was nervous, within thirty minutes, you know how he was – I was relaxed. He actually, I think, made efforts to make me relaxed. He asked me about Page Belcher, who was a guy he had served with in Congress for years and was from Tulsa. Asked me about what he called the ditch, from Oklahoma and Arkansas down to the Gulf of Mexico, which is the Kerr McClellan Arkansas River Navigator Channel.
Susan Bales: Carl Albert.
Vaden Bales: Carl Albert. So I was very relaxed again, but I did have about a fifteen minute episode of terror.
Smith: Let’s back up. Tell us a little bit about your background, your life before you came to this juncture.
Vaden Bales: I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Went to college; went to law school; practiced law most of my life up until I met Susan – mostly corporate and some commercial real estate. My father came to Tulsa to go to law school. My dad was a lawyer; my mother was an advertising executive. I had been married before. When Susan and I got married I had three sons from my first marriage and she had two daughters from hers, and I was a busy, active, never going to get married again lawyer.
Smith: Political at all?
Vaden Bales: Well, yes, I was. But I was on the dark side. I was a Democrat.
Smith: Did that give rise to some conversations?
Vaden Bales: Yeah, it did. I was active in the sense that when I was younger I worked on Jim Jones’ campaign, who was a congressman from the Tulsa area.
Smith: I know Oklahoma Democrats are not exactly like Massachusetts Democrats.
Vaden Bales: Yes, he was a moderate. And then active in the sense that I supported people financially some. In fact, that was kind of a family joke. After three or four years – you know we had these huge Christmases at Beaver Creek, and politics inevitably came up. After everyone expressed their opinions, I was always the last, and President Ford would look at me and say, “Now, Vaden, what would Democrats think about that?” So, at some point I went down and changed my registration and when we went out there the next Christmas, I showed him that. He said something like, “I knew you’d see the light.”
Smith: I have to ask you before I forget, when you gave up smoking and he gave up smoking, what was the background to that?
Susan Bales: It was a bet. And Vaden gave up smoking, too. When we started dating, we both were smokers.
Vaden Bales: It was interesting, when we first got married, the whole family would be at the Beaver Creek house, and even though her mother didn’t smoke, she tolerated all of us, Susan, me, Jack at that time smoked, Steve smoked and the rest of them didn’t. President Ford smoked a pipe and I don’t even know how it came up, but we made a bet that the first one to smoke again owed the other $100 and that was the beginning of – you know, once he set his mind to something…he’s the most disciplined person I ever met. I thought about that when the bet came up, but it was also good accountability because I knew he wasn’t going to be the first to break down.
Smith: As I understood it, he gathered up all of his pipes and sent most of them out to the Library.
Susan Bales: He did. Now, you know it’s interesting, I actually have one of his pipes that he used and it sits in an ashtray on my coffee table in my living room. That is one of the ways that I remember him, because most of my life he did smoke a pipe. Tyne has a pipe and Heather has a pipe. My girls remember sitting in his lap as children and him reading bedtime stories while he had his pipe in one hand and them in the other. Mother was a smoker for years and years and years, too. I remember him with a pipe, and to this day, I will walk someplace and if I smell a pipe, my head will turn. It is strictly – that’s my dad.
Smith: Was there a particular brand of tobacco? Or was he a connoisseur?
Susan Bales: Field and Stream, which I don’t think – you smoked a pipe for a while, not when we were around, but I guess Field and Stream is not like real high quality.
Smith: I was going to say, I think that was a fiscal conservative’s tobacco.
Susan Bales: It was a baby blue can with a stream on it. It’s funny how you just never forget some of those things.
Smith: So you felt very much accepted in the whole family?
Vaden Bales: Yes, he was very welcoming, and I’m sure he was cautious at first, but he was very welcoming. I’m sure he had some reserve; but as long as his daughter was happy, I was okay.
Smith: Did anything about either one of them surprise you initially?
Vaden Bales: I really didn’t have any expectations, so looking back, I would say just what the proverbial normal they were, considering where they came from. That he was the leader of the free world and she was obviously a very public First Lady, but my first exposure to them was in the family setting in Beaver Creek. So it seemed like just a normal American setting, except that the surroundings were quite elegant.
Smith: Let me ask, the question of his temper and the fact that – again, the discipline you referred to – he spent a lifetime controlling it. But there were times, and reputedly you were present to observe, if a football game didn’t go the way he wanted, that you knew it.
Vaden Bales: I saw the temper and it was – one of his aides described him best, which is that he was 98% kola bear and 2% wounded grizzly, and you never knew what was going to bring the wounded grizzly out, although Michigan losing a football game was a good one. The one I think that Susan must have mentioned was, we were up in Beaver Creek in the fall for one of the Gramshammer daughter’s weddings and Colorado and Michigan were playing. Kordell Stewart was the quarterback, Michael Westbrook the receiver. Anyway, it was a really good football game. We were down in the basement there where the big TV was and Lee Simmons had set up a big table. President Ford had been signing stuff during the whole game; footballs, pictures, and it was kind of a seesaw game, but then Michigan got the lead right at the end, and it looked like it was over and Michigan would prevail and then Kordell Stewart threw a Hail Mary to Michael Westbrook and it was a touchdown. It was the end of the game, it was over.
He stood up, took his glasses off that he’d been using to sign things, and bounced them off the table, he uttered a profanity, and I immediately decided that it would be a good time for me to go up and get on the Nordic Track. He occasionally would exhibit a temper, but mostly in that area. I would say, his ability 99% of the time to keep it in, where I would have lost mine, I think that’s what probably made him different – he was one of those people who could keep his head while those about him were losing theirs.
Smith: You mentioned the autographing. People have no idea, because there is no job description for former presidents; they have no idea how much time a former president could spend just signing his name for deserving types, let alone the collectors. And I remember there was a great big table in the conference room out in Rancho Mirage, and maybe once a week he’d sit down to his stack and he would sign them all, and he’d say, “Now, come on Mother.” One had a sense that she might not have done it if he hadn’t goaded her into it. But that was part of the job, wasn’t it, of being a former president?
Susan Bales: It is part of the job, and you’re right as far as Mother is concerned. She hated doing that stuff. Yeah, it’s not fun. I mean, I still get requests here and there, and it’s not fun and the problem is now, are you going to see it on EBay? There is so much of that stuff sold on EBay. Back then that wasn’t an issue.
Smith: It’s interesting – you saw in Grand Rapids, there were people who would be regulars and adults who would push their kid forward – that kind of thing; really cynical. And he’d know it.
Susan Bales: That’s true, but it is part of the job and that’s just the way it goes. On occasions I’ve said no to people in crowds because part of it is, if you do one, it starts this wave and there was one this last June. We walked out of the Press Club after the luncheon and Tyne was with me, and there was somebody standing outside and I said, “No, not at this time.” And Tyne looked at me like “Mom?” And I just went, “I don’t want to start the wave, I don’t have time to start the wave.” And I feel bad because I really am pretty good about it, but you can really start something that there’s no end to.
Smith: My sense is that people in Vail and out in the desert, too, were really pretty good about leaving them alone. Was that your sense – that they could walk through public areas and not be besieged?
Vaden Bales: Yes, but you had the occasional drunk, or something. But people were respectful of them. You talking about that reminded me: one time I was in New York with President Ford and we walked through the lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria and people stood up and clapped. And the next time I was in the Waldorf-Astoria, I was with some of my colleagues and we walked through the lobby and I said, “How strange.” And they said, “What?” And I said, “The last time I walked through here people stood up and clapped.” They looked at me like I was crazy, and I said, “Well, maybe it had something to do with the fact that I was with President Ford.”
It was always interesting, particularly when you were out at dinner; when we were the first there or if new people came, you could watch people. When you’re out and you see someone famous and you’re not expecting to, and you see someone and then the recognition gradually – and then they’d go, “That’s Gerald Ford!” But most of them would just acknowledge him. A few times there were some people, one of whom was a client of mine from Tulsa, who’d had too much to drink out in Palm Springs. They finally had to ask him just to not come over anymore. And that was where the Secret Service was helpful.
I know President Ford told me that when he flew commercially, he always put an agent on the aisle. He said, “I don’t know what it is, everybody wants to talk to me. And sometimes I’m just all talked out.” And I said, “Well, I have a belief that maybe the reason they want to talk to you is because you are a former president.” And he laughed. In Vail especially, but even in Palm Springs, they clearly, in both places, there was this sense of ownership of them, but in a beloved sort of way, because when we went out to restaurants that were well known in both places and people were just very respectful 99.9% of the time.
Smith: I’m jumping around, but that’s the nature of the beast here. It’s improbable, and yet when you start to think about it, unavoidable – the stories that we’ve been told after 9/11, especially when the anthrax scare occurred. Of course his work ethic was such that he would have had people in there working on Sundays if they would have shown up. And they did, I guess, work on Saturdays.
Susan Bales: Well, they had to get the mail.
Smith: And he didn’t/couldn’t/wouldn’t understand why he wasn’t getting Saturday mail. Attempts to explain it were unavailing, and it got to the point where, literally, there were members of the staff who would put on these crazy anti-anthrax suits and go through the mail so he could have his Saturday mail.
Susan Bales: It’s kind of like the newspaper. He loved his newspapers, and if his newspapers were not there when he got up in the morning, it really could start a very bad day.
Smith: We talked to Mary Fisher, who among others things, was the first female advanceman in the White House.
Susan Bales: Right.
Smith: And she said the only time he ever was short with her was on a trip where he didn’t get his newspapers. That was the drug of choice – newspapers.
Susan Bales: His newspapers were very important to him. And like I said to you, it was a quick explosion, once it was resolved, it was over with.
Smith: Was he a television viewer of news?
Susan Bales: He and Mom watched a couple of shows, I remember growing up and watching the World of Disney on Sunday and Wild Kingdom was on Sunday, I think. Of course, I watched football. Back then there was one TV in the house. Ours was in the den. Now, Mother and Dad had a black and white TV upstairs, so there was a black and white upstairs and a color downstairs. But other than that, yes, we watched the news. Maybe, probably in the White House days they got more into some of the serial type shows. They watched Dallas and Dynasty.
Smith: They appeared on Dynasty once, they made a cameo appearance. Wasn’t Marvin Davis a friend of theirs? Somehow he was involved.
Susan Bales: And then who was the female actress that Dad thought – she was in some cop show.
Smith: Angie Dickinson?
Susan Bales: Thank you. Now, she caught his eye.
Smith: Well, she caught Jack Kenney’s eye before she caught his eye.
Susan Bales: I can’t remember what the show was that she was on.
Susan Bales: He liked that show. But they watched a couple of them together. For news though, no, he read the newspaper because “TV news does not tell the whole story.”
Smith: Really? That’s interesting. So he thought it was biased?
Susan Bales: Yes. It wasn’t biased; they didn’t have enough time to do the whole story. In a print newspaper, you read the whole article.
Smith: Walter Cronkite said the same thing. He said, “Twenty-two minutes every night – that’s the equivalent of the front page of the New York Times.” So he said, “Read the paper, in addition to watching.”
Susan Bales: That was Dad’s theory, too.
Smith: He liked reporters, didn’t he?
Susan Bales: He did like reporters. They were his friends. They had been his friends, and I’m sure you’ve talked to most of them. Some of the stuff that went on during the vice presidential days was just over the top – the crazy stuff that went on. But he liked the press because I think he used them as much as they used him. He told the story and that’s the only way the story was going to get told was talking to the press.
Smith: Plus, in a larger sense, from a very early age, he made a conscious decision, and I don’t know whether it was influenced by his mother, or whether it was something he came to on his own, but a conscious decision to see the good in everyone. And he concluded that most people were mostly good, most of the time. People sometimes talk of Good Ol’ Jerry – Jerry’s an Eagle Scout. And one of the things we’ve been grappling with in this whole thing is: Bob Hartmann is a great example – or being genuinely shocked that Richard Nixon lied to him, or that anyone would lie to him. Where does that admirable quality of wanting to impute good to people – where does that end and a kind of naiveté about people’s motives begin? Maybe that’s too stark a choice. Was he naïve at all about people’s motives?
Vaden Bales: I don’t think he was naïve. I think you captured it when you said earlier he started out with a sense of people were innately good, and I just think people may attribute naiveté to the fact that he didn’t blow up a lot and all that. He did seem to have a capacity for forgiveness. Susan has talked about once he lost his temper, it was over, and it really was. Obviously, if it was a crime or something, no. But I think that he maybe was naïve in the sense he thought everyone else was as good as he was. But when you think of some of the tough decisions that he made, that really cost him politically, he does show a toughness. I think he’s like anyone in that, I will put up with behavior from someone who I believe in and like and have a history with, that I won’t from someone else. I think you look on the current political scene and if a Democrat does it, certain people throw a fit. When a Republican does the same thing, well, there’s a reason.
Vaden Bales: But I think he was forgiving up to a point; but when you crossed this moral line of his, then it was over.
Smith: We were talking with Dick Cheney; the president sometimes has to be ruthless for the good of the country; and the question of whether ruthlessness is not a quality that one associates with your dad. I remember asking Cheney, “How difficult was it for him to fire people?” And he said, “He really enjoyed firing Jim Schlesinger.” And he went on to relate the circumstances. He couldn’t wait. But that’s a relationship where Schlesinger was not just professorial, but condescending.
Which raises a question about your dad’s sensitivity to what we talked about earlier; the whole intelligence thing. He’d been on the House Appropriations Committee, the Defense subcommittee; he knew the Pentagon budget as well, or better, probably than Schlesinger did. Is Schlesinger a type who would push his buttons? It’s one thing to be genial, and to see the best in people, but in reality, there are people you run up against all the time…
Susan Bales: There were people he chose not to be with. He would say people that felt they were friends of his or acquaintances of his, that would ask things of him, that he didn’t like their character. And without having to say, “I don’t like you and I don’t want to be around you,” that’s I guess the beauty of a staff. You just never become available. You just do things like that. Yeah, there were people he did dislike.
Smith: I only heard him speak disparagingly of two people, ever. One was Gordon Liddy and one was John Dean. And in retrospect, he had pretty good judgment. Were there people he was vocal about?
Vaden Bales: Oliver Stone when JFK came out.
Susan Bales: He was very vocal about that.
Vaden Bales: He was as angry as I’ve ever seen him. And he was angry because he thought it was…I remember on the plane, it was around Christmas time that all the came out, and there was a Newsweek magazine, the cover was JFK – History as Fiction. I handed him that magazine when I got to Beaver Creek and he said, “Boy, that’s the truth. It is fiction.” And he was really angry about it and he said, “Plus, I’m trying to be up here with my family and enjoy the holiday, but I’m the only surviving member of the Warren Commission and it is my duty to give a bunch of interviews and all that and back up the Commission findings.” He was really angry about that.
Smith: It’s interesting that he saw himself as having, in some ways, a historical obligation to defend the Commission.
Susan Bales: And I think that some of it is that the majority of the kids that went to see that movie – I’ve never seen the movie; I’m like forbidden to go see that movie – would not do the research to know what is fact and what is fiction, and the whole thing. To them it’s a movie and that was Dad’s greatest fear – that they are not really given the true side. He really did feel a duty to constantly defend the decision that had been made. And most of the generation – I don’t know what the percentage is today, of kids that are alive who don’t know who my dad is, weren’t even alive when he was president. And to me, our job as family members is still and will always be, to continue his legacy, so people know who he is and what he did.
Smith: Did he talk at all about the Profiles in Courage Award? I know he said, “Everywhere I’ve gone for twenty years, people always ask the same question. After that award, they stopped asking.” Which tells you something about the power of the Kennedys; in effect, the imprimatur of the Kennedys. Did he talk about that experience?
Vaden Bales: Yes. You ran the museum for a while; you know that this is a guy who has been getting awards his whole life. And of all the things that he ever got during the time that I was around him, he was the most proud of the Profiles in Courage award. He talked about it in the sense that it was really – it gave the imprimatur – everybody, all of a sudden, jumped on the bandwagon – well, he did what was right when it cost him. But the fact that it was so visible and who gave it, and he said to have Ted Kennedy up there in a press conference with the TV cameras rolling, saying basically, he was right, we were wrong, meant a great deal to him. He didn’t use the words, but just, again, the level of his happiness and all that – it meant as much to him as any award that he got.
Smith: I was going to complete your sentence for you: I can’t think of him using the word vindication, but he was vindicated. And I wonder, for example, if your mother had a more intense personal reaction, because I knew for a fact when I was tipped off to it, that he didn’t want to go.
Susan Bales: Right.
Smith: He literally didn’t want to go. When he died Newsweek had a story, and buried in it was this notion that he had somehow cultivated liberal historians, because this would redound to his benefit. And I can’t think of anyone who spent less time cultivating historians, or anyone else, in terms of consciously shaping his place in history. That’s what the rest of us had to do because he wouldn’t do it. And the classic example – he initially didn’t realize the incredible symbolism of this event. And my sense is, that other people had to…
Susan Bales: Coerce him.
Smith: Yes, including I assume, your mother.
Susan Bales: That, I don’t know, and I only wish at the time we would have known more about it because we could have gone to see it. It’s just one of those things – it’s an after the fact moment of, gee I’m sorry I missed that one.
Vaden Bales: Yes, we were on the list, at one point, to go and something came up and we said, “Oh, well.” We didn’t realize what it meant. And that was before the Congressional Gold Medal Award, in which you had a lot of people, some current, some from those days, getting up and talking about he was right, we were wrong, the courage – you remember all that. And that meant a lot to him.
Smith: But it’s also true that with a lot of those awards – she got the award first.
Vaden Bales: Yes.
Smith: She got the Medal of Freedom first. And one sensed that he was just so proud of her. There was no competition in terms of recognition.
Susan Bales: There was never competition between the two of them. They were so proud of each other and their teamwork – I think they were unbelievable soul mates. And not that there weren’t rocky roads – hey, we all know marriage is one of the hardest jobs you have in your entire life, and theirs wasn’t perfect but they worked really hard at it.
Smith: There are stories about the Betty Ford Center alumni event with him on the grill cooking hot dogs.
Susan Bales: Our Memorial Day cookouts. Yeah, he would sit there and help cook on the grill or pass out the pop. That was her thing but he was right there holding her up and supporting her the whole way.
Smith: How traumatic was the intervention? And how long had it been in the imagining?
Susan Bales: Not long in the planning. It kind of was an overnight thing because I talked to Dr. Kruz(?), and once I talked to Dr. Kruz and he kind of put us in touch with the people that we needed to be in touch with, it began to work very quickly.
Smith: You were the chief spearhead?
Susan Bales: I was the chief spearhead that put it all together. I’m the one that went to Dr. Kruz and first said, “I have a friend whose mother has a problem.” By the end of the time in the car, he said, “Susan, you don’t have a friend who has a problem; you have a mother who has a problem.” My mother was his patient and I was his patient, also, so he was not talking out of school. I don’t think we had HIPPA then, but just to be sure. So he’s the one who helped get us in touch with Dr. Kursh(?), and Pat Benedict and all of the people that we needed to put it together. And then I went back and kind of reported to Dad and I said, “Dad, I spent a very interesting day,” and kind of filled him in on it. He said, “That sounds great. What do we do next?” And so once we got the things working, Mike and Gayle were living on the East Coast, Jack was already in San Diego, maybe Steve was up in San Luis Obispo by that point. But trying to get a day that we could get together and pull it off was the challenge. And once we realized that that day was like five days away, things start happening.
Smith: Had he been in denial?
Susan Bales: Oh, absolutely. We all had. We all had been in denial. And I would not say that I was in denial, I didn’t know what it was. I was nineteen years old and Dr. Kruz was actually the one who put a name to it. He said, “Your mother is an alcoholic.” I had been raised in a house where your parents have a drink at night and so did all my friends’ parents have drinks at night. As we all know, it affects different people in a different way. In that sense, it happened very quickly and part of it was, once she left and went to Long Beach, we all took a big sigh of relief and went, “Ahhh, it’s all fixed.” Well, what we didn’t realize was we all had to be fixed. We were as sick as she was, and that was very much of where we were.
Smith: How so?
Susan Bales: We were enabling her. I went to functions with my dad because she wouldn’t get dressed and go to functions. We’d say, “Oh, her back hurts, her neck hurts.” I was covering for her and I shouldn’t have. I didn’t confront her. The stories go on and on and if you read her book, they are all there. We didn’t bring friends home because we didn’t know what kind of shape she would be in. She would fall asleep at the dinner table. Things like that. We needed to become transparent again. We needed to stop our behavior. Our behavior was as bad as her behavior.
Smith: And it has been suggested that there was nothing automatic. When she went into Long Beach, it was rough.
Susan Bales: Oh, yeah.
Smith: It tends to be sort of lost in the triumph that ensued just what hell she must have gone through.
Susan Bales: I’ve never been through treatment, but when you read her stories about it and things like that – it’s hell. It’s not fun, it’s not a spa by any means. And Dad went to family and I went to family and we all got help and we helped her and the biggest thing that we all learned was that it is her sobriety. It’s not ours and it’s not our job to manage it; it’s not our job to fix it; she has to do it on her own and we have to fix ourselves and she has to fix herself. But it was the most incredible experience for our family and it’s the best thing that ever happened, because we truly became transparent again.
Smith: Let me ask you something, let me ask both of you; again, this is speculative, but I often wondered – I think I even mentioned in the eulogy – people tend to get more conservative with age. And in their case part of it was that the party went way to the right. But it wasn’t just that. He seemed to be extraordinarily open minded, compassionate, understanding, on a whole range of issues that you don’t automatically associate with a “conservative Republican,” former president, whatever. If he changed or evolved or whatever, how much impact did she have.
Of course children and grandchildren bring their generation’s perspective. In the larger sense of the word, and maybe the hardest to quantify, I wonder how much the experience of going through the intervention, and everything that followed reinforced an existing compassion and ability to understand and empathize with those who were good people, but who were different, or people who had a weakness. You know what I mean? Rather than imposing moral judgments or ideological certitudes on human behavior. He’s still the only president who ever signed his name to a petition for gay rights, which is a pretty remarkable thing. Obviously, there was the abortion issue.
Vaden Bales: My observation in the time I knew him, and got to know him was that he was evolving. I don’t think it was a big change. I think, if you think about his presidency, one of his styles was to get people who were at the complete opposite ends of the spectrum, let them make their best arguments, and he would listen to both. That’s the thing I hear from Carla Hills, Cabinet members, that they really respected about him is that they didn’t always win, but they always got a fair hearing. And I think that’s how he approached some of these issues that people now would call liberal.
The one issue that I can remember that surprised me back when same sex marriage first became an issue, and I’m talking ten years ago at least, and I asked him what he thought about it and I said, “Do you feel like maybe at least the civil union contract and all that,” and I thought he would say yes, or something further to the right and he said, “No, it’s going to happen. We need to just short circuit all the damage that’s being done to people and just let it happen.” And that really surprised me. I think the intervention had an impact on him; I think Mom had a big impact on him because she really stayed current with what I would call more trendy stuff. He knew what was going on in the world, because he read four newspapers a day.
Smith: That’s a very interesting distinction.
Vaden Bales: I think she had a real influence on him on what I would call – now trendy probably sells her short some – but I’m just saying changing sociological trends.
Smith: And the popular culture.
Vaden Bales: Yes, and I’ve seen her step up to the plate for her granddaughters when one of their uncles would say, “Well, you really shouldn’t be living with this person,” and Mom would say, “Well, what’s different about her than you? You’ve done the same thing.” Because that was more her interest and the arts, and she was a free spirit in that sense. But because he valued her counsel so greatly – you know this as well as anybody – she was, in my opinion, his number one advisor, political and otherwise. So I think his constant openness to other points of view – I think that was in his DNA. It’s why I think, even though he was a heck of a partisan, who were his best friends off the floor? Carl Albert, Tip O’Neill, it just goes on and on. So I think it was in his nature.
Smith: I also wonder, though, if in some ways, the Reagan challenge alerted him, sensitized him – when he would talk about the hard right, there was kind of a code word – these people who were trying to take over his party, trying to redefine conservatism.
Susan Bales: Well, to back up what Vaden said, I would say he was probably one of the best listeners I’ve ever been…I mean when you, as a kid, were pleading your case to get off the “I’m disappointed in you,” which is the worst thing your father…you hated to hear that.
Smith: That was the worst form of discipline?
Susan Bales: That was the worst. “I’m disappointed in you. But I’m willing to listen.” And that’s what he did. He truly listened for you to plea your case. Whether I ever changed his mind on my discipline, I don’t know, but I felt fairly heard. And I wouldn’t say he made judgment on it or anything else, he just said, “Well, this is how we’re going to deal with this.”
Smith: By the way, this may be more applicable to your brothers, were spankings ever administered?
Susan Bales: Oh, yeah. I would not say by him, that I can remember. Now I don’t know if this is the father/daughter relationship, but I can tell you my mother spanked me and Clara spanked me. I was spanked and I spanked my children. Child abuse.
Smith: Clara was sub-contracted to discipline.
Susan Bales: We were spanked.
Smith: What was different about the pace of life in the desert versus Vail? He was in the office every day, I’m sure.
Vaden Bales: His routine wasn’t that much different because he got up – he was an early riser most of his life – he got up before her. He came down, fixed his breakfast; I usually had breakfast with him at either place while we were visiting, and he would read the newspapers. Well, the first thing he did was take a swim, both places. Then he would go down, fix his breakfast, read the newspapers, and then he would go to the office. The Beaver Creek office was physically in the house, as you know, and then in Palm Springs it was about a fifty foot walk. And he’d spend a couple of hours over there.
More activity, in terms of either place, happened at Beaver Creek at Christmas time, because we were all there. There were sixteen or seventeen people in this house; we were skiing; you had kids from infants to teenagers; and we were all there, but he didn’t change his routine that much. And we all had family dinner at Christmas time, at a certain time Christmas Eve we went to the four o’clock service, and God help those who didn’t show up on time or miss the bus from the ski slope, but his routine didn’t really vary. You know, when he was in his office in Beaver Creek, you had to walk by it to get to the other parts of the house if you were on that floor. He didn’t shut the door, but when he had his head down at his desk and had the pencil or was reading, everyone knew that unless you had some compelling reason to go in, in which event, he was available, he was working.
Smith: Did you have the ski tow that went behind the house?
Susan Bales: Behind the house. The other thing I would say that was different between Palm Springs and Beaver Creek was they had a heavier social black tie schedule in Palm Springs. I mean, there are weeks where they went to two and three black tie events a week in Palm Springs. Which is just unbelievable, but that’s the way they do it. Beaver Creek, there was no black tie. There was no formal, it was a polo shirt and maybe a sports coat, occasionally a suit.
Smith: And what about your mother’s day?
Susan Bales: Well, my mother is not a morning person, has never been a morning person. And so he was in the office by the time she usually came. He would come back over to the house, especially in Palm Springs, while she was having breakfast and he might sit down with her and go over the day’s schedule that they were doing together. But her day consisted of making calls, going to the Betty Ford Center, going for hair, nails, all that kind of stuff. She had events. She had friends, she had women’s groups that she met with. And she had a desk and an office that she worked at. But lunch they normally had together unless he was on the golf course, and they always had dinner together. Rarely did she do anything at night. Sometimes if he did something in the evening, he would go and show up and then come home and have dinner with her, especially if it was a local something in the desert. But Beaver Creek was way laid back, and they would go to Ford Park and hear the symphony and do things like that and have dinner with friends. So that was truly a vacation for them – to go to Beaver Creek in the summertime.
Smith: How tough was it for him to get old?
Susan Bales: He complained about it – “Oh, I’m getting old, these knees are getting old.” Didn’t really seem to affect him. You know, Richard, he traveled and did _____________.
Smith: Yeah, in fact, I’ve often thought – really he was in great shape up until about his 90th birthday. And when the doctors told him, “You really have to cut back or stop traveling,” that was a kind of death. Because it had been his life; he loved it.
Susan Bales: And the thing is, he used to be able to sleep anywhere. Sleep on a plane, sleep in a car. I did get that trait which I’m so thankful for, but he wasn’t sleeping well on the road. He didn’t like the pillows, he didn’t like this – and I would say it was into his 90s. There wasn’t the joy, there wasn’t the exhilaration, and it took longer for him to recover, would be the best way to put it. I think it was harder on us to watch him get old than him.
Smith: Was your mother reluctant to acknowledge the need for outside help?
Vaden Bales: Uh, if she was reluctant – that was an understatement. It was just her generation. They pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. She considered it a moral failure on her part to even think about it. But at some point, as his mobility was less and less and she’s a very tiny, formidable, but tiny woman, and we finally were able to get help. We started it, “Let’s try it part-time.”
Susan Bales: It was part-time only in the evenings from like ten at night until ten in the morning.
Vaden Bales: It took a concerted effort from all of us. Because she was deteriorating just from exhaustion, and I think when they came in, it was surprising how well she adapted to it. She didn’t want people – I heard it from my mother when my father started having problems – she didn’t want someone in her house. She was perfectly able to take care of her husband. So she was a hard sell, but she came around.
Smith: What about him?
Vaden Bales: I think he adjusted to it pretty well.
Susan Bales: We had some personality issues with some. Part of it is figuring out the right people for the right thing, and until you get that adjusted…
Smith: It’s like adjusting drugs – literally.
Vaden Bales: I think he knew he needed it and I think he saw what was going on with her. I would say he generally, if we talk about how accepting he was of different views and things, he would say things like, “I just can’t recover like I used to.” And I remember one time I looked at him and he said, “I don’t know what’s up with that.” And I said, “You might want to go look at your birth certificate.” And he laughed. But I would say he pretty much aged majestically.
Smith: That’s well put. I would get calls from the press, and one of them was from Tom DeFrank, “What was the cause of death? What was the cause of death?” I said, “Tom, he died of being 93.” It’s called old age.
Vaden Bales: But the fact that we went to Mayo Clinic when we did, tells you – even though he was not thrilled with the diminished capacity that you have as you age – he was willing to go at 93 and possibly have open-heart surgery because he loved his life so much. We were shocked when he made that choice.
Susan Bales: We would not have told you that was going to be his decision. Never would have said that.
Vaden Bales: We met with the Hospice people before we met with the doctors because we knew he was going to say, “I don’t want to go through that.” And I’ll never forget – there are things in your life that you can play on a video, and we had a cardiologist and his primary physician at Vail there, and we had a guy from Mayo Clinic on the telephone and we probably had an hour long discussion. And we got done and they said, “Well, what do you think?” And he looked around the room and he said, “I’m inclined to proceed.” And there was this deafening silence. And he looked and said, “What do you think, Mother?” And she said, “Well, I’ll support whatever you want to do.” And then as he did – it was eerily like when we were in Philadelphia and he had this problem with his tongue after he had the stroke where he went around the room and asked us what our opinion was.
Smith: Was there a corresponding sense of disappointment on his part when he got to the Mayo and found that for a number of reasons they couldn’t do the surgery? Had his hopes been raised in a sense?
Vaden Bales: Yes, he was disappointed, but he had seen – he didn’t know because he wasn’t really aware of the impact the sedatives had on him with minor procedures, meant that the heavy duty stuff they would have given him, had they put him on the table – we didn’t know – and he seemed to accept it and understand it. He didn’t, in front of me or Susan, I think, emote greatly, but I’m sure he was disappointed because he made the decision to go to Mayo in the first instance. Before we went, they talked about if this worked, what it would be like, what his life would be like. He asked that question. “Is it going to be more of this?” “No, if we’re able to do it, this and this and this,” and these people had a fairly remarkable history of doing this procedure on elderly people. I’m sure he was disappointed. But at the end of that, when we knew where we were going, this will sound – it gave us time to say goodbye in a nice way. Often you lose people unexpectedly. We knew it was coming so all of us got to meet with him and the last six months of his life I spent a week a month with him. So we got to say what we meant to each other.
Smith: Quality time.