Betty Ford on her CB radio (1976).
Santa Cruz Sentinel
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When Betty Ford Had Her Ears On

A strong woman using a new tool to talk to people who were otherwise overlooked played as a joke for some. But was it effective?
Betty Ford first tried out the CB on a campaign stop in Wisconsin. An injury limited her ability to go politicking in person, so Ford’s daughter gave her the radio and the Federal Communications Commission gave her the license to broadcast (her call letters were KUY9532). After a warm reception on the Wisconsin airwaves, Ford was taking the CB “very seriously,” her press secretary said. As the Texas primary approached, Ford adopted the First Mama handle (reportedly suggested by comedian Flip Wilson) and headed to San Antonio. Earlier that month, her husband had bitten into a tamale while it was still in its husk. Mrs. Ford's performance in Texas was more in keeping with the state's culture.

Texas led the nation in CB licenses, with Texans holding tens of thousands of the more than 10 million issued in the U.S. by that point. One out of every three cars in the country had a CB unit. Three out of every four trucks did, too. But if Betty Ford's use of CB was swaying anyone, that detail got left out of the coverage. Instead, there were headlines filled with CB lingo and jokes and jabs about a presidential presence on the medium. ABC called the radio Ford's "new toy." One story compared the first lady's "dulcet" voice to the "husky growls of burly truckers." Arguments brewed in letters-to-the-editor sections.

“There were a number of people who thought it beneath her," says Donald Holloway, curator of the Ford Presidential Library in Ann Arbor, Michigan. "She didn't."

There were some substantive policy questions about Ford's radio. Reporters and CBers alike asked how Ford got her license so quickly when the FCC was backlogged with requests from civilians. And some wondered whether politics belonged on the citizens’ band at all. Mostly, though, people had fun with the story and treated CB like a quirky hobby.

The dismissal might have been because the CB seemed reasonably new. Though the technology was nearly 30 years old, its use in the ’70s was called a craze and a fad. In a 1979 story announcing that CB was no longer fun, the Washington Post said the first lady took up CB "in an excess of trendiness." Ford's CB campaign might also have been dismissed because she was a woman in a powerful place. Ford was the most outspoken first lady since Eleanor Roosevelt and a strong advocate for the Equal Rights Amendment and other causes. She was widely admired. But Washington was not always welcoming to strong women.
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