A Fresh Breeze Upon Our Land07-20-11-margaret.jpg

Betty Ford was a daughter of the World War I generation who came of age in the World War II era. She married a veteran of the War to End All Wars and raised children in the 1950s and ‘60s, a time when Moms were Moms, Dads were Dads and children had a fabulous time running around with each other in what we thought of as neighborhoods and what is now considered sprawl.

Betty Ford and many other women of that fabled generation lived with courage within the social framework of their times, and they managed to retain their individuality and spirit. They were, in the lingo of their era, “tough cookies.”

When Betty Ford died earlier this month, she had been off the national stage for nearly three decades, a misty historical personage for most Americans under 40. Make no mistake, though. Betty Ford was a real woman who changed the way we see ourselves and our American way of life simply by living hers openly and honestly.

It is painful to remember what a low time 1974 was in our nation. Richard Nixon had just resigned, the only United States President ever to do so. His Watergate scandal toppled him and instilled in the American public a poisonous cynicism about politics and government that damages us to this day. Betty Ford’s husband, Gerald, an affable Republican Congressman from Michigan, had been plucked up to replace Nixon’s also corrupt vice president. Both Gerald and Betty Ford must have been flabbergasted not to mention terrifi ed a short year later when Nixon departed, catapulting a Congressman who had expected to retire — and the wife who desperately wanted him to — into the White House as leader of the free world.

I can remember my own disgust standing alone in the small living room of my Chapel Hill apartment watching our nation’s new President, Gerald Ford, tell us that “our long national nightmare was over” and then pardoning Nixon. Millions of Americans, including this one, were outraged, but over time I have come to understand the deep wisdom of his action. Our nation did not need and would have been further sundered by a long and ugly criminal trial.

Meanwhile, Betty Ford was busy being — well — Betty Ford. With her undefi ned but very real duties as First Lady and four children who thought they were going home to Michigan now living in the White House, life was full. She sometimes referred to herself as the “First Momma,” which many Americans took to include not only her own children but them as well.

She was a warm and relaxed First Lady, a welcome reversal of the Nixon’s cool formality. White House parties were said to be fun again, and Betty Ford was anything but partisan, endearing herself to Americans of all political persuasions. She was open and outspoken on topics most Americans kept close to the vest in the 1970s. Shortly after moving into the White House, Betty Ford informed Americans that, yes, she and the President would indeed be sharing a bed there. What’s more she would not be surprised if her young adult children experimented with marijuana, and she was certainly willing to discuss the topic of pre-marital sex with them and about them.

In a most un-Republican departure from the standard party line, Betty Ford was an avowed feminist all her life. She was a prominent supporter of the doomed Equal Rights Amendment and wore buttons to prove it. On the always controversial issue of abortion, she was pro-choice, saying babies are “a blessing, not a duty.”

Her most lasting contributions, though, stem from her own health battles.

Two months after becoming First Lady, Betty Ford underwent a radical mastectomy and talked openly about it at a time when the “C” word still seemed taboo. We all know women and families who lives have benefi ted by her candor about her own breast cancer.

Then came her public bout with alcohol and prescription drugs. After family and friends confronted her in what we now call an intervention, she was reluctantly treated. When that was all over, she and a friend went on to found the Betty Ford Center for the Treatment of Addictions. Thousands of people have sought help there including celebrities and ordinary folk.

Rock star Stevie Nicks says simply that she would “be dead” without Betty Ford, and it is impossible to imagine addiction treatment in our country today without her honesty about her own problem.

She topped off her “new life” with a new face — she got a face lift to celebrate and told us all about it, bringing openness to yet another aspect of American life.

Betty Ford could not boast a resume of professional accomplishments, but we are a more open nation because of her time on the national stage, something she called “an accident of history.”

Her beloved husband of 58 years, Jerry, said it this way. “When the final tally is taken, her contribution to our country will be bigger than mine.”

Photo: Betty Ford in her official White House Portrait. Ford brought an openess and spirit of fun to the White House and taught America about honesty.

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