History

Betty Ford Dances with the Sword of Liberation

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Rick Perlstein has a tribute to the late Betty Ford in today's Times, making the case that the former first lady's historical importance may have exceeded her husband's:

My memory is foggy, but I could swear I once read a Bircher tract that denounced Betty Ford for disco dancing.

in August 1975 Betty Ford went on "60 Minutes" and said that if her 18-year-old daughter had an affair, she would not necessarily object. Soon after, she volunteered in McCall's that she had sex with her husband "as often as possible."

Those comments were widely reported. Less well known is what happened next.

Experts considered her a political liability. A syndicated humor columnist imagined aides seeking her resignation—before it was too late: "The networks and women's magazines…are making incredible offers to get the First Lady to sit down and openly discuss adultery, drinking, homosexuality and a proposed postal rate hike."

Bad joke. Two months later a Harris poll found that 64 percent of Americans supported what Mrs. Ford had said on "60 Minutes." By then she was known for her self-assuredness before the media: she had already announced that she had breast cancer, then let herself be photographed in her hospital room after her mastectomy—at a time when respectable people only whispered the word "cancer."

Then, a year and a half after leaving the White House, she famously owned up to her alcoholism and addiction to prescription drugs, even as her husband was quietly putting himself forward as a 1980 presidential possibility. Once more the public embraced her, voting her ahead of the first lady, Rosalynn Carter, no slouch in the popularity department herself, on Good Housekeeping's list of the country's "Most Admired Women."

No one would have predicted this. America had been a nation of shame-faced secrecy in so many of its intimate domestic affairs. The 1970s was when that began to change. Betty Ford was that transformation's Joan of Arc.

Read the whole thing here.

Betty Ford didn't create the social trends that she spoke about so openly, but she reflected and reinforced them. If nothing else, she allowed a cultural revolution to find a home in the White House, sharing a bed with the head of state but representing something larger and more important than mere politics.