Betty Ford, R.I.P.


In recent years, people holding the vice-presidential seat have had complicated, if not vaguely hostile, relationships with pop music. Before Al Gore became Bill Clinton’s veep in 1992, his wife Tipper founded the PMRC. In 2002, six years before taking his seat to the back-left of Barack Obama, Joe Biden introduced the R.A.V.E. Act, which Congress passed a year later. The acronym stands for Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy. (Biden’s legislature clearly worked; the Electric Daisy Carnival—the biggest rave in American history—happened a few weeks ago in Las Vegas.)

But stickering records and/or outlawing big swathes of a youth culture is relatively small potatoes against Betty Ford’s great contribution to pop music. Ford, who died at 93 over the weekend, was an accidental innovator, but she was key nevertheless. By opening the Betty Ford Clinic (now the Betty Ford Center) in 1982, the widow of Gerald Ford removed the stigma of drug rehabilitation—and cemented it as part of the rock mythos, a rite of passage for arena rockers like Stevie Nicks and Steven Tyler seen as similar to a stay at L.A.’s Hyatt House or the Chelsea Hotel.

From Ray Charles’s and John Lennon‘s famous cold-turkey sessions to Keith Richards’s blood-transfusion myth, kicking narcotics has long been a part of the rock and roll narrative arc. But the Ford Clinic, along with other high-profile rehab centers such as Minnesota’s Hazelden, gave doing so a brand-name cachet that eased it into the grand rock narrative. “Betty Ford,” in rock parlance, means not the Second Lady who’d bucked the Republican establishment, championed the ERA, spoken openly about premarital sex, and was vocally pro-choice—instead, it refers to the place you go after your habit overtakes your life. It’s where you go to clean up before, or after, another tour.

If not for Betty Ford, every episode of VH1’s Behind the Music would be about 15 minutes shorter, there would be no Bands Reunited because half the people in them would be dead, Ozzy Osbourne would not have changed television forever by letting a camera crew film his family (because he would probably be dead), Johnny Cash would not have worked with Rick Rubin (because he would probably be dead), and modern therapy-speak would likely be a lot less casually flung about. Neither David Crosby nor Eric Clapton rehabbed at Ford, but their much-retold stories of recovery were made culturally possible by Ford’s work—and post-1970, those narratives are a lot more important than their actual music.