By Gabe Bullard
As her motorcade passed through San Antonio in late April 1976, First Lady Betty Ford picked up the microphone of a CB radio, pressed the talk button, and announced her presence.
"You got First Mama," she said to anyone within range tuned to channel 12.
Peg Leg Charlie, replied. He was at a nearby shopping mall and asked Ford if she was headed to the airport. She confirmed. That was all. Over and out. It was a mundane conversation, one of thousands to happen that day in Texas, and one of the millions across the U.S. But the involvement of the First Lady of the United States in this exchange made it newsworthy.
Papers and TV newscasts carried coverage of First Mama's conversations on the campaign trail. Her chats with CBers like Big Buck and Brushstroke ran next to updates on President Gerald Ford's fight against Ronald Reagan in the Republican Primary. Reagan had upset Ford in North Carolina, and Texas looked competitive.
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. In 1976, there were no women in the Senate and just over a dozen in the House of Representatives. Or maybe Ford's tactic was mocked because the CB, given its association with hillbilly hobbyists and truck drivers on desolate highways, seemed déclassé. Perhaps it was all these things combined: A strong woman using a new tool to talk to people who were otherwise overlooked played as a joke for some.
CB's image was inexorably linked with the South, even though it wasn’t an inherently Southern medium. People described the CBer accent as "Arklohoma," but CB users spanned the country. Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois followed Texas in applications for licenses. In popular media, truckers, who came from all over the country, were portrayed as modern-day cowboys — lovable rural rogues in wide-brimmed hats. CB was central to good-old-boy movies like Smokey and the Bandit, and the radio got more mentions in country songs than rock records. In his book Country Music, USA, historian Bill Malone writes that "truck-driving songs constitute the single-largest category of modern work songs." C.W. McCall's No. 1 hit “Convoy” (the lyrics of which mention four locations, and only one — Tulsa — could even remotely be thought of as Southern) had just left the charts when First Mama hit the air. A movie version would land two years later.
"It's kind of like Twitter today, I suppose," Holloway says. "Except that today, Twitter is used largely by people you might call the establishment: journalists, politicians, and others who use it regularly. The CB craze in the 1970s was more a common-folk thing. It was blue-collar, where today Twitter might be considered white-collar."
Not everyone on Twitter is a newsmaker (and the way marginalized groups use it and other sites to connect are worth its own story), but the homepage encourages users to sign up and “see what’s happening in the world right now.” Users’ value is measured by their followers and their ratios of retweets to replies. If journalists or other politicians used CB radio in the 1970s, they didn't get the broad coverage Betty Ford did. And maybe this explains the disconnect, too. CB wasn't something many national commentators were familiar with, or willing to take seriously.
CB was fun to use, but it was always political. It was the tool truck drivers used to stage a national protest over the proposed 55 mph national speed limit. It was one way African American activists in Louisiana organized defense during civil rights demonstrations. In the North, it spread word of counter-protests when white parents rallied against busing to integrate schools. It was a way for people who felt ignored or pushed aside to make themselves heard, at least by each other.
"I think it's fair to call it a democratic tool, but a small-d democratic tool," Holloway says. "It was a technology for the people."
Of course, like Twitter, it was full of trolls. At their least harmful, these CB shit-posters were annoying — clogging channels with nonsense and spreading misinformation. At their worst, they were dangerous — scamming others, monitoring the emergency channel for crime opportunities, or organizing for nefarious purposes (in the mid-1960s, Congress considered revoking CB licenses from Ku Klux Klan members).
CB was anti-authoritarian, sometimes dangerously so. In the 1970s, as President Ford was trying to heal the nation after Watergate (it was one of his campaign themes), CB became mainstream, while remaining a messy place. Almost no one except Betty Ford thought it was any place for a First Lady.
No candidates thought it was for them, either.
Gerald Ford lost Texas, but he won the Republican nomination. Afterward, he made fewer campaign trips to the South. His campaign figured Jimmy Carter, a native Southerner, would win the region.
Carter didn't need a CB to connect with Southerners. His accent and life story broadcast for him. Ford didn't have a Southern strategy like Nixon. He saw no need to launch his campaign in Mississippi, as Reagan would four years later. The CB might've come close to being a Southern strategy if it were as Southern as the people covering the first lady seemed to think it was.
Carter won every Southern state except Virginia. Did Betty Ford's CB radio have an influence? She did broadcast from the White House, and Ford won many of the counties within range of Washington, but this is undoubtedly unrelated because these were also the wealthy D.C. suburbs, which went for Nixon in ’72 and Reagan in ’80.
Holloway says the CB certainly didn't hurt Ford. Except for Texas and Hawaii, the incumbent won every state west of Missouri: places where CB was more of a lifeline than the urban North.
"You’ve got roads everywhere," Holloway says.
After 1976, CB campaigns were nonexistent or widely ignored. Ford hung up her microphone. By 1980, CB was back in the margins, and First Mama was a footnote. Candidates stuck to TV spots and stump speeches. Reagan won all the South except Georgia.
Today, when Twitter (though still full of trolls) is a preferred outlet for the president, journalists, and activists alike, it's hard to imagine a candidate's use of a new way of communicating (especially one that can be used to fund-raise) being dismissed as handily as Betty Ford’s CB campaign. If there's a way of reaching a voter, someone will try it. It may sometimes seem silly. It may not always make sense. But it's never a joke.