AUSTIN, Texas – Whether it was to sneak a first kiss or listen to Led Zeppelin, climbing onto the roof of the White House was apparently a popular practice among a few presidents' children.
Steve Ford garnered laughs during a panel discussion 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 hosted by the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library in Austin and was presented by American University and the White House Historical Association.
Ford said 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 said 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.
He also talked of his parents’ deep devotion to each other, saying 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.”
When asked to reveal something the crowd might not know about their mothers, Robb said her mother was a big “Gunsmoke” fan and noted that state dinners could interfere with her mother’s viewings, so her father came up with a solution.
“Somehow he got WACA, that’s the White House Communications Agency, to find a way to tape ‘Gunsmoke’ for mom,” she 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.
The conference ended with a panel featuring former first ladies Barbara Bush and Laura Bush during which the two revealed former President George W. Bush has taken up painting.
“And he’s good, that’s the most extraordinary thing,” his mother said.
His wife replied, “The truth is he gave up cigars and he had to find some pastime.”