When people talk about Gerald Ford being unassuming and modest, it is an understatement. Decisive, strong-willed, occasionally partisan, always principled, but definitely unassuming.
I had followed the former President's career, of course, as a journalist, but in recent years had the privilege of getting to know him in a more personal way through my husband, who served as an economic advisor in the Ford White House. So, each summer, we attended Gerald Ford's World Economic Forum, a seminar on domestic and foreign policy he led near his summer home in Beaver Creek, Colo. Typically, Democrats and Republicans would gather, along with foreign leaders and members of Congress, to exchange ideas, often vigorously.
In the summer of 2001, we were invited to also stay at the Fords' home for the weekend of the conference. We arrived on a Friday night, late. We visited briefly, unpacked and went to bed. First thing Saturday morning, the President helped prepare breakfast (yes, that photo opportunity 30 years earlier was not something he put on for the cameras -- he did it every day). We then left for the conference.
In the middle of the very first presentation, my pager went off. Loudly. I rushed to a phone to call NBC in New York. It was an emergency: Fidel Castro had passed out in Havana. I had to get to Denver and catch a plane, immediately.
By then, Castro had recovered from what was clearly heat exhaustion and dehydration (after giving one of his lengthy speeches under a hot Havana sun, while dressed in full combat fatigues) but it was the first sign of frailty in the aging leader, and clearly newsworthy. What to do? My first thought was of my embarrassment: how could I explain to the former President and First Lady that I was leaving almost immediately upon arrival - to go to the (figurative) bedside of the hemisphere's last surviving communist leader? It is not something you find guidance on in Emily Post.
I mumbled my excuses, went back to the house -- and Betty Ford offered to pack my bag so I could spend some time alone with my husband, saying goodbye. Clearly, I was violating every rule of etiquette, and the Fords must have thought it more than passing strange. But the former President responded with the grace and kindness that he exhibited throughout his life. I went off to Havana, and yet another adventure of a very different kind.