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Betty Ford, 1918-2011 | Globe Editorial

Leading society by example

Then-first lady Betty Ford in 1975. Then-first lady Betty Ford in 1975. (File 1975/Associated Press)
July 12, 2011

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IN “LOVE Story,’’ the wildly popular novel by Erich Segal, the heroine is diagnosed with cancer on page 113 and dies on page 130. That was the expected outcome in 1970, when the novel was published. It wasn’t true back then, and is even less so now. But the stigma of cancer was so great that few people felt comfortable even saying the word. The silence was deeper for those with breast cancer, since the treatment - a mastectomy - was almost as frightening as the disease.

Four years after the novel came out, Betty Ford, the wife of the president, was diagnosed with breast cancer. She openly shared her experiences, declaring that women no longer felt ashamed to talk about cancer and mastectomies. And she, more than any other figure, made it so.

Betty Ford, who died Friday at age 93, never learned the established etiquette for first ladies. Her husband occupied a safe seat in the House, which required a minimum of campaigning, before he unexpectedly vaulted to the vice presidency and then the presidency. Instead of affecting the bland graciousness expected of political wives, she had a gift for seeming natural in the spotlight.

When she referred to sharing a bedroom with her husband or the possibility that her daughter might have sex outside marriage, she provoked murmurs of disapproval. Her candor unnerved some people, but won over many others. Still, it would undersell her accomplishments to suggest that all she did was blow some funky ’70s air into the musty halls of power.

Her openness about her cancer, and her long survival, changed the way America viewed the disease. Then, after leaving the White House, she blew away more taboos by discussing her alcohol and drug dependency. By founding the Betty Ford Center, she transformed the way our society discusses and deals with substance abuse - to a degree younger Americans would find astonishing.

Now, nearly 35 years after the end of the short Ford Administration, that two-and-a-half year interregnum is remembered less for its policies than its role in restoring public confidence. Gerald Ford’s straightforward commitment to service played a big part; so did Betty Ford’s ability to connect with those whose concerns were closeted by ignorance and fear. And her work continued long after her husband left the presidency.

Other first ladies, from Edith Wilson to Hillary Clinton, were far more deeply involved in politics. Many others had greater sway over the styles and conventions of their eras. But Betty Ford did much more, by changing the way lives are lived in this country.