Sunday, July 10, 2011
I'm feeling two emotions right now: deep sadness at the passing of Betty Ford and deep gratitude that fate arranged an improbable, almost Rube Goldberg-like sequence of events that led to this wonderful woman becoming First Lady just when we desperately needed her.
So many people have so many reasons to be grateful to Betty Ford.
Feminists love her because she made feminism mainstream. In an era when political wives played the role of doting little helpmate, she supported the Equal Rights Amendment and quipped to the White House Correspondents dinner, "You've heard me say many times that whatever makes Jerry happy makes me happy. And if you believe that, you are indeed unworthy of your profession."
Cancer survivors love her because she brought cancer, especially breast cancer, out of the closet and gave millions of women the courage to face their fears and get mammograms.
Recovering addicts love here because she did the same for substance abuse, inspiring millions to seek treatment and turn their lives around.
And I love her because she healed the generation gap.
It's hard now to remember the intensity of the generational war that was going on at the time.
This was in the wake of Kent State, Jackson State and People's Park, where students had been killed and "The Great Silent Majority" had applauded. President Nixon called the dead students "bums" and implied that they got what they deserved.
A lot of us felt like a disinherited generation. I don't want to get too Freudian about it, but it felt like Big Daddy had thrown us out in the cold.
Betty Ford changed all that. Shortly after she moved into the White House she was interviewed by Morley Safer on "60 Minutes," and he asked her what she'd do if she found out her teenage daughter Susan was having an affair.
Instead of playing it safe, she did something unprecedented in politics: She gave an honest answer.
"I wouldn't be surprised," she said. "I think she's a perfectly normal human being, like all girls. If she wanted to continue it, I would certainly counsel and advise her on the subject. And I'd want to know pretty much about the young man."
The firestorm from the right was instantaneous. "Involving any prominent individual, this would be a disgusting spectacle," sneered one newspaper. "Coming from the First Lady in the White House, it disgraces the nation itself."
But it sent a very healing message to millions of other people. People Susan's age. People like me.
It was as if she'd thrown open the windows of the White House and cried, "Come home, children! All is forgiven!"
And we did come home. It wasn't long afterwards that we stopped calling our parents "The Establishment" and started calling them by another name: The Greatest Generation.
Thirteen years ago, on her 80th birthday, I wrote a column expressing some of these sentiments; and I was delighted to receive a letter from her in reply. It's one of my most treasured possessions.
"Over the years I have said many things while being interviewed, and it is nice to know my candidness had special meaning," she wrote. "Being honest is still the best policy, even if it gets you in trouble on some occasions."
Thanks for everything, First Mama.