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Grand Rapids — Former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said she advised secretary of state nominee Mike Pompeo when he called her for counsel prior to his Thursday confirmation hearings.

“For any of you who followed the Benghazi hearings, all nine of them, that might surprise you because he certainly went after me, to no avail I might add,” Clinton said at a Grand Rapids luncheon Wednesday.

In remarks that ranged from the role of a first lady to women’s issues to national security, the former secretary of state addressed more than 600 people Wednesday at the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park.

Clinton said she was happy to speak with Pompeo.

“We can’t allow the partisanship and the politicization of everything to interfere with our national interests,” Clinton said. “I told him that I thought he should take a hard look at retaining career diplomats who could advise him”

She said a wholesale “purge” of the U.S. Department of State has deprived the department of some its most qualified foreign service officers.

“In the unit that is supposed to be combating Russian propaganda in our country, we have no Russian speakers,” Clinton said.

Clinton’s remarks came during an annual luncheon celebrating former first lady Betty Ford’s 100th birthday and honoring the country’s first ladies. Ford’s daughter, Susan Ford Bales, and the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation hosted the event that also featured former President Lyndon Johnson’s daughter, Lynda Johnson Robb, in a conversation moderated by journalist Andrea Mitchell.

Grand Rapids Republican businessman Peter Secchia, a member of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation board, also attended the luncheon.

Clinton said Betty Ford’s “fierce personality” and outspokenness on women’s issues and alcohol and substance abuse broke new ground.

“I just thought that took so much grit and guts,” Clinton said of Betty Ford’s support for the Equal Rights Amendment.

Clinton also praised Gerald Ford and his decisions upon first taking office after the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

“Although it is controversial in some quarters, I think what Gerry Ford did in pardoning Richard Nixon was an extraordinary act of not only personal generosity and courage but putting country over party in the most obvious and important way,” Clinton said.

“Our country goes through ups and downs, in case you hadn’t noticed,” she added. “And it’s really important that we have people with bedrock values who understand what’s important, what’s lasting, even what’s eternal.”

Both Betty and Gerald Ford were raised in Grand Rapids. The Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum is located in Grand Rapids, and Ford’s presidential library is in Ann Arbor.

Robb has advocated for women’s and children’s issues for years and served as first lady of Virginia from 1982 to 1986, while her husband Chuck Robb served as governor.

In remarks prior to the luncheon, both Bales and Robb reminisced about the day Betty Ford took Robb and her mother for a tour of the upstairs rooms they used to live in at the White House. Robb said she later learned that Betty Ford was headed to the hospital that day to begin treatment for breast cancer.

“Even now, it just makes me tear up to think that she would spend her last times, minutes of that day with us instead of nestled with her children or feeling sorry for herself,” Robb said.

Betty Ford later shared her battles with breast cancer, and alcohol and substance abuse with the public. She died in 2011.

Bales said increased media scrutiny has changed the role of the first family since she lived in the White House.

“I have a lot of empathy for the people that live in that glass bubble,” she said.

eleblanc@detroitnews.com

(517) 377-1167

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