AUSTIN — Whether it was to sneak a first kiss or listen to Led Zeppelin, climbing onto the roof of the White House was apparently a common sneak-out practice among presidents’ children.
Steve Ford garnered laughs during a panel discussion Thursday with fellow children of former presidents as he recalled dragging a stereo onto the roof with a friend his first night there in 1974.
A teenager at the time his father took office, he said, “I think we were playing like Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ Literally, it was like ‘Dumb and Dumber.'”
Jenna Bush Hager later told Ford, “you can still get up on that roof, because I had my first kiss with my husband up there.”
Her twin sister, Barbara Pierce Bush, and Lynda Johnson Robb also spoke during the conference, which is part of a series focusing on the nation’s first ladies. But Thursday’s event was the first in which their children have participated, offering a different perspective about life in the White House.
The conference, “The Enduring Legacies of America’s First Ladies,” was held at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library in Austin and hosted by American University and the White House Historical Association.
Ford noted that his family got to the White House in a “different way.” His father was appointed vice president after the resignation of Spiro Agnew, and then became president after the resignation of Richard Nixon.
He noted that Nixon’s presidency ended so abruptly that the Nixon family’s possessions were still being packed after Ford was sworn in, so the Ford family returned to their suburban Washington home for several days.
After his father was sworn in, his mother, Betty Ford, fixed the family dinner.
“She looks over at my dad and says, ‘Gerry, something’s wrong here. You just became president of the United States and I’m still cooking,” he said.
But he also talked of his parents’ deep devotion to each other, noting their decision to frankly talk about Betty Ford’s breast cancer diagnosis just weeks after he became president.
“I can remember them holding hands and standing in front of the press and saying, ‘We’re going to take the shame off of this disease,’ which was a closet disease for women back in 1974,” Ford said.
When his mother expressed concern after her diagnosis about wearing evening gowns, Ford said, his father told her: “Betty come on, don’t be silly. If you can’t wear cut low in the front, wear cut low in the back.”
Betty Ford’s candidness about her breast cancer diagnosis was also noted in an earlier panel discussion Thursday with historians and former White House staffers as they talked about first ladies throughout history.
Richard Norton Smith, a historian and author, said first ladies’ causes have at times been dictated by circumstance, noting the impact Betty Ford had when she took on breast cancer awareness after her diagnosis.
Her fight against breast cancer also had a significant impact on men across the nation, added Allida Black, historian and director of the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers. “You should read the letters that men wrote to her,” Black said.
Other conferences have been hosted in Texas by the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas and the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station. The next conference will be held in the spring at the Gerald R. Ford Museum in Grand Rapids, Mich.