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Candid and frank, Betty Ford helped define her times

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
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Betty Ford dies
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Frum says Betty Ford struggled passionately, poignantly with first lady role
  • He says her openness about sex, drug addiction, breast cancer, face-lifts unprecedented
  • She's seen as modern, but she was last of first ladies to play nonadvisory role, he says
  • Frum: Her frankness may have hurt husband's election bid; still, she was iconic
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Editor's note: David Frum writes a weekly column for CNN.com. A special assistant to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2002, he is the author of six books, including "Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again," and is the editor of FrumForum.

(CNN) -- The role of first lady is one of the most difficult in American public life. Few women have struggled with the role as passionately and poignantly as Betty Ford, who died last week at 93.

Betty Ford arrived in the White House at the same time that the new media culture arrived on TV. It suddenly became permissible for journalists to ask questions that no respectable journalist would have ever dared ask before. And it was not Betty Ford's nature to leave a question unanswered, once asked.

In 1975, Betty Ford sat down with Morley Safer of "60 Minutes."

Safer: What if Susan Ford (who was then 18 years old) came to you and said, 'Mother... I'm having an affair'?

Betty Ford: Well, I wouldn't be surprised. I would think she's a perfectly normal human being, like all young girls.

Betty Ford shared with the nation her views of her children's marijuana use. (She guessed that, yes, they had tried it.) She shared the information that she and President Gerald Ford slept in the White House in a single rather than double beds. She shared details of her life before her marriage to Ford. She shared her views on abortion (pro-choice). She shared news of her breast cancer, her face-lift and her dependency on painkillers, alcohol and cigarettes.

A journalist once asked President Ford:

"Have you ever said to your wife, 'Why do you have to be so revealing, so honest?' "

He answered: "I've told her a million times. It has no impact."

The journalist Tom Wolfe archly dubbed the 1970s the "Me Decade." He didn't mean that people had become any more selfish than previously. He meant that they had become more compulsively self-revealing. "Let's talk about me!" Betty Ford epitomized -- and to a great extent accelerated -- that trend of the times.

Betty Ford is often seen as a very modern figure. She claimed a more public role than any previous first lady, especially her two immediate predecessors, Patricia Nixon and Lady Bird Johnson.

Yet in another way, she might be seen as the last of the old-fashioned first ladies. Almost every one of her successors has functioned as an intimate adviser of the president, an integral part of the White House political operation.

Betty Ford's political role was much more modest. When she asserted herself, she did so outside the White House system. For example, she joined a protest march in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment outside the Republican Convention in Detroit in 1980. If Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan, Hillary Clinton or Michelle Obama had or have something to say on public affairs, they had no need to carry a placard.

More than most first ladies, Betty Ford contributed to the reshaping of American society.

Her open discussion of her addictions created space for more public understanding of this once-concealed subject. Her post-presidential co-founding of the Betty Ford Center allowed for the development of advanced techniques for recovery from addiction. If anything, her contributions became more important after her departure from the White House.

Yet Betty Ford's public role exacted a public cost, both for husband and for herself. Her strong but not always deft advocacy galvanized opposition to Ford, weakening him against Ronald Reagan's 1976 primary challenge, which Ford barely won, and then the general election against Jimmy Carter, which Ford barely lost.

None of her successors in the fraught role of first lady has seen Betty Ford as a model to emulate.

But perhaps each and every one of them has wished they could speak just once in a year as freely and frankly as Betty Ford did every day of the year. Her candor may have helped sink her husband's presidency. That same candor made Betty Ford an icon whose power is still felt all these years after the Me Decade came to an end.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.

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