Hildene hosts symposium on presidential descendents

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(Host) The unique experience of being the child of a U.S. president was the subject of a symposium held on Wednesday by Hildene, the Lincoln Family home in Manchester.

VPR’s Steve Zind talked with one of the speakers – the daughter of former president Gerald Ford.

(Zind) Few childhoods include as a rite of passage ditching the secret service agent assigned to watch you. But Susan Ford Bales says it’s an experience many presidents’ children share.

Bales says she’s swapped stories of teenage mischief in the White House with other presidential offspring – and talked with them about more serious matters.

(Bales) “What happens the day that your parent dies? What is it like to have a state funeral? There’s nobody else you can ask these questions to, except for these people who have been through it.”

(Zind) Bales’ White House experience was more unusual than that of other presidential children. There was no inauguration for Gerald Ford. He became president on short notice when Richard Nixon resigned in 1974. Under the circumstance, the mood was far from celebratory. And there was no time to prepare for the move to the White House. Bales says she suddenly found herself living in a fishbowl one day, a seventeen-year-old whose life, down to the way she dressed, was of interest to an often critical public.

(Bales) “The level of criticism the minute you walk behind those gates is unbelievable, because nobody really cared as vice-presidential kids what we did.”

(Zind) Bales mother, First Lady Betty Ford, was also a very public figure. She shocked some people and won the admiration of many for her willingness to go public about her struggle with substance abuse and her battle with breast cancer.

(Bales) “It’s one of those things that you just burst with pride for what she’s done for women, and women and health issues.”

(Zind) Bales says she feels fortunate for the opportunity she had to see the presidency up close but she admits that as a teenager, she didn’t talk politics with her father. Today she does. Recently they discussed the revelation that the former number two man in the FBI was the legendary Deep Throat of the Watergate era. Ford-Bales asked her father if he’d known all along who Deep Throat was.

(Bales) “He wouldn’t say. I guess the good thing about that coming out was my dad was on the list of potential Deep Throats.”

(Zind) Bales describes herself as a pro-choice, moderate Republican. And she says in her father’s time, political discourse was less strident and her father was close to many Democrats in Congress.

(Bales) “Those people were friends with my parents, social friends. They came to our house and everything else and I knew their children. I don’t think those days exist anymore.”

(Zind) Susan Ford-Bales chairs the board of the Betty Ford Center.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind in Manchester.

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