The Washington Post

Betty Ford’s contribution

Betty Ford’s death should remind us again of how critical she and her husband were in bringing the country together after the profound divisions bred by the cultural changes of the 1960s, broad disaffection with the Vietnam War and, of course, Watergate. Both of them were more important figures in our history than either gets credit for.

The Post’s Donnie Radcliffe does a wonderful job describing Betty Ford’s life elsewhere. What’s especially important, I think, is to realize how much Betty Ford (and, again, her husband) cut against the grain of politicizing everything for the purpose of polarizing the electorate to produce a majority on your side when Election Day arrived. Advisers to Richard Nixon used to call this process “positive polarization.”

The tactic can work, but it has high costs. It can produce a sullenly divided country. And it encourages public cynicism about every pronouncement made by a first lady and a president. Everything they say comes to be judged by its political impact. Both Betty and Gerald Ford rejected “positive polarization.” And Betty Ford seemed incapable of calculating every word she said.

It was hard to see political calculation behind her outspokenness. During an interview on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” she was asked what she would do if her 18-year old daughter came to her and said she was having an affair. “Well, I wouldn’t be surprised,” Mrs. Ford said. “I think she’s a perfectly normal human being, like all young girls.” For good measure, she suggested that premarital sex might cut the divorce rate. She also said that marijuana experimentation for the young was like “your first beer or your first cigarette.”

Of course more socially conservative Americans were not happy about such pronouncements, and their reactions were perfectly understandable, given their views. But I think that even those who disagreed with Betty Ford on one matter or another saw her genuineness and candor as a refreshing rebellion against the conventions of politics. She was saying: You’re not going to program me, and I’m not going to weigh every single word I say for its political effect.

That can drive political consultants crazy, but in Betty Ford’s case, it had a positive effect on the country and, I’d argue, on her husband’s political prospects. She was complementing and augmenting her husband’s message: that the divisions of the past were behind us, that the country could absorb the social changes of the previous decade without falling apart, and that the First Family, like every other family in America, was doing its best to cope with these changes — and flourish. The country will always owe a debt to the Fords. They really did, in the words of Gerald Ford’s brilliant reelection advertisements, make us feel good about America at a time when we needed to.

E.J. Dionne writes about politics in a twice-weekly column and on the PostPartisan blog. He is also a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, a government professor at Georgetown University and a frequent commentator on politics for National Public Radio, ABC’s “This Week” and NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

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