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Susan Ford Uses White House Experience in Writing Mystery Novel - 2002-05-29

The teenage years are challenging enough for most American young people, let alone the child of a U.S. President. Susan Ford was beginning her last year of high school when her father Gerald Ford became President almost 30 years ago. Now she's looked back to that time to write a mystery called Double Exposure. The heroine is, not surprisingly, the daughter of an American President.

In 1974, Richard Nixon resigned as U.S. President, after being implicated in the Watergate election campaign scandal. Vice President Gerald Ford became America's 38th President. For the nation, President Ford's arrival in the White House symbolized a new beginning. For his daughter Susan, who'd grown up in the Washington area, it meant the end of her old way of life. "I moved to a new house for the first time in my life," she explained, referring to the White House. "I got a better bedroom, didn't have to share a bathroom with a brother anymore, so there were a lot of benefits to living there. But I had friends here, and they'd try and just drop in, like most kids do, and they couldn't get to me. You can feel very trapped living there until you set your ground rules down for your administration."

During the years that followed, Susan Ford would not only learn how to get friends past White House security, but how to help host a state dinner, deal with the media and live with the constant presence of the Secret Service. While those experiences might seem to have all the makings of a memoir, she decided instead to write a mystery.

"I'm not sure I ever would write a memoir. Some of those things are too close to my heart that I'm not sure I really want to share. So this was a way to share some of my inside views and have fun with it," Ms. Ford said.

Written together with novelist Laura Hayden, Double Exposure is about Eve Cooper, a young photojournalist and daughter of a newly-elected U.S. President. She's a few years older than Susan Ford was in the 1970s, and the story is set in the present time. But Susan Ford has worked as a photojournalist herself, and she says she gave her heroine her own outspoken personality.

"Having brothers, there's not a lot I haven't heard, haven't taken from them. [I've] been beat up, pinned down. When you're the only girl in a family of men, you have to be pretty sassy. So in that sense that's pretty much me," she said.

And like Susan Ford in her early White House days, Eve feels trapped - until a body is discovered in the White House Rose Garden. The dead man apparently had a heart attack and is soon identified as the twin brother of a White House employee. In his pocket is a photograph of a mysterious couple in the White House Lincoln Bedroom.

Drawing on her skills as a photojournalist, Eve sets out to investigate the case. But her Secret Service guardians are determined to go along - another experience Susan Ford knows all about. "The way I coped with it was I just thought of them as my older brothers who were always tagging along," she said. "I am still in touch with my Secret Service agents, most of whom are retired now. They really get to be your friends. They watched me grow up, and most of them had little kids, so I was kind of giving them a warm-up of what was coming."

In the book Eve also worries that whatever she does is going to be recorded by the press, a concern that faced Susan Ford as the president's daughter.

"That pressure is probably one of the most difficult things to deal with. Everybody wants to know everything about you - do you have a boyfriend and so on. You cut your hair, and it's reported, or you wear a dress that's a bad choice. My brothers and I were one of the first ones to wear blue jeans in the White House," said Ms. Ford. "And my mother finally said, 'Leave the kids alone. They didn't ask to be put here. They're just trying to be normal kids.' And that's of course a very difficult thing to do."

This book comes to involve a potential scandal concerning some campaign donations, and Eve and her brother worry a lot about their father's public image.

"When we were working on this part of the book I kept trying to think, did my dad have a scandal that I could identify with. And I guess his biggest scandal was the criticism he got for pardoning Richard Nixon. Other than that I couldn't think of a big scandal. But I think politics has changed drastically. The relationship with the press is different. People ask the First Family questions now they wouldn't have dreamed asking any of us. It's a very different world."

To update herself on how White House life has changed, Susan Ford turned to family friends and former colleagues in Washington. The book also draws heavily on her own memories of the challenges, but also the rare opportunities that come with being a First Daughter, such as "the weekends at Camp David we enjoyed," referring to the presidential retreat in the Maryland mountains north of Washington.

"Camp David is a wonderful place for the family to get away and run around and do goofy things. I also had my Senior Prom at the White House, still the only one who did," said Ms. Ford, who recalled some of the well-known people she met when her father was president. "I got to go to China with my parents, back when Mao Zedong was still in charge, which was a fascinating trip. I met Queen Elizabeth. I met King Hussein; I met the Shah of Iran. And then you get into the actors and actresses: Bob Hope, John Denver, Barbra Streisand, James Caan. There are not many lifestyles where you get exposed to some of those things. So it's truly kind of a fairy tale."

Susan Ford still has plenty of memories to use as inspiration. Now living in Albuquerque, New Mexico, she's at work on a second First Daughter mystery.