The essential Betty Whiteness of Betty White was that, in a world of so much anger and fear, she wasn’t mad at anyone or, seemingly, afraid of anything.
As the antithesis of an angry old person, White became a bigger star the older she got. She seemed to have cracked the elusive code of contentment, which made it seem possible for the rest of us. When she died Dec. 31 as she approached her 100th birthday, White was no longer admired for her roles. She was admired for being herself, loved for being lovable, enjoyed for her joy.
White’s nickname — “the First Lady of Television” — was almost literally true. She was an artifact from a very different era of communications. Her variety shows and sitcom work from the early 1950s made her a professional contemporary of such pioneers as Imogene Coca and Lucille Ball. This era of television grew out of the coast-to-coast radio networks that created a single, homogenized American audience for news and entertainment during the Depression and World War II.
Network television made some of the biggest stars in our star-struck culture. It was a particular kind of stardom, a stardom of addition, not division. Actors and producers — White and Ball were the first women to do both — sought to build the largest possible viewership. So they aimed for shows that everyone could watch: young and old, left and right, urban and rural.
It wasn’t that times were more innocent. White came under pressure in 1954 from racist viewers and station executives to cut the talented Black singer and dancer Arthur Duncan from her variety show. She smiled and gave him more airtime. Through the unrest of the 1960s and strife of the 1970s, White personified a medium that tried to find things people could agree on — no matter how anodyne. In one game show episode, she made money for her playing partner by offering “Scotch” as a better answer than “Watergate” for the question: “[fill in the blank] tape.”
White was gifted with wide appeal, and she never betrayed a moment’s regret about the ordinary, middlebrow business of broadcast TV. She excelled at the mild cleverness and double entendres of daytime game shows. She brought magnetic appeal to such broadly sketched characters as Sue Ann Nivens — the chipper host of “The Happy Homemaker” who is actually tough as nails (“The Mary Tyler Moore Show”) — and Rose Nylund, the geriatric ingenue “The Golden Girls.”
Television changed — indeed, all media changed — with the rise of cable, satellite and streaming. Success is now defined by the passionate intensity of an audience, not by its size. The Fox News host Tucker Carlson averaged about 3 million viewers in the most recent Nielsen ratings, for example. That’s fewer than 1 percent of Americans. On broadcast TV, an audience that size would have meant instant cancellation; today it makes for the No. 1 “news” show on cable.
But if broadcast stars had to be uniters rather than dividers, few came to it as naturally as White. Mary Tyler Moore and her co-producer husband, Grant Tinker, so enjoyed her friendship that they hesitated to give her an audition for fear of hurting her feelings. She later clashed with her “Golden Girls” co-star Bea Arthur because, White said, she was “too happy” for Arthur’s tastes.
Happy proved to be the secret sauce for an amazing final third of her seven decades in show business. In recent years, White was beloved by a generation of people who’ve never experienced broadcast television — or experienced it only through one-off spectaculars such the Super Bowl. It figures that she starred in an iconic Super Bowl commercial; another box checked.
She poked fun at herself, expressed joy in her friendships, sampled youth cultures, and was game for anything so long as it sparked delight. Betty White became an exemplar, an aspiration, for people who not only want to live long, but want to live better. To live with love, forgiveness, kindness and hope.