Betty Ford lifted the veil on addiction, sex

Susan Reimer says that the first lady's candor was revolutionary for those who experienced it

July 18, 2011|By Susan Reimer

I guess you had to be there.

You need to have lived through the collapse of the scandalous Nixon presidency, the shameful conclusion of the Vietnam War, the anger and alienation that was the fallout of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, the assassinations, the race riots and the student riots.

You need to have lived through a time when we came to believe that our government was hostile and venal to appreciate the shocking candor, the frankness, the refreshing honesty of Betty Ford.

You need to understand that there was a time in this country, not too long ago, when women did not even discuss a diagnosis of breast cancer with friends or family — let alone proclaim their disease with pink ribbons and run races to raise money for its cure.

You need to know that there was a time when the grown-ups in this country were drinking way too much, when the mothers were popping pills to cope, and no one ever said a word to them about it. You need to know that to appreciate Betty Ford.

You need to understand that there was a time when mothers didn't talk to daughters about sex, much less birth control, to understand Betty Ford's admission on "60 Minutes" that she would not be surprised if her daughter, Susan, had sex outside of marriage and that she only hoped to be able to "counsel her and advise her." Not forbid her. Not disown her. Not weep over her.

The former first lady, who died this month at 93, was the wife of a Michigan congressman and was looking forward to his retirement from politics when Richard Nixon chose him to replace Vice President Spiro Agnew, who had resigned in disgrace in 1973.

As the waters rose around Nixon, she made it plain that she didn't want to be first lady. But the job was hers when Nixon resigned in 1974. Gerald Ford, when he took office, famously said that he was "indebted to no man and only to one woman."

It was Betty Ford, with her unheard-of candor on the topics of abortion, marijuana, homosexuality and women's rights — and not necessarily her husband — who threw the doors and windows of the White House open and helped end "our long national nightmare," as her husband called it.

When he ran in 1976, there were campaign buttons that read, "Betty's husband for president."

Before she married Mr. Ford, she hadn't been a librarian or a kindergarten teacher. She'd been a dancer with Martha Graham, and she was a divorcee. She made no apologies or attempts to hide either fact.

She saw a psychiatrist when the tension and loneliness of being a de facto single mother to four young children got the best of her, and she talked about that, too.

Mrs. Ford is probably most famous for the clinic named for her. When her family confronted her about her abuse of pills and booze, she made the startling announcement that she was entering treatment for addiction.

These days, many make that kind of announcement. It is both a rite of passage and the last refuge of scoundrels. But in 1978, nobody talked openly about addiction.

After her recovery, she had a face lift — and talked about that, too.

These kinds of confessions, this kind of over-sharing, is the currency of celebrity and political life these days. We know more than we want to know about everybody, from President Barack Obama's dislike for beets to Charlie Sheen's sleeping arrangements.

But this was not the case in the 1970s. Privacy, secrecy, stigma, lies, discretion and denial: These were the hallmarks of family relationships — and the relationship between the government and its people.

When Betty Ford noted that reporters had asked her everything but how often she slept with her husband — and then answered the unasked question with "as often as possible" — we knew we were witness to a new era of openness and frank discussion, for better or worse.

If you were there, you felt the winds of change on your face.

Susan Reimer's column appears Mondays. Her email is susan.reimer@baltsun.com.

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