January 16, 2021

First Ladies Second to None

Posted on 28. Nov, 2011 by Stephan Helgesen in Politics, Social/Cultural

Want a tough job? Try being married to the leader of the free world! Presidents’ wives are stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place, hitched to a man whose work is never done and whose office is right downstairs.  Add to that the ever-watchful eye of the press and the gaze of every American woman at her hair, outfits and makeup (as well as her every action) and they soon see that life in the White House is like that of a guppy in a fishbowl. Modern day First Ladies from Eleanor Roosevelt through Michelle Obama have had to cope with over-achieving men while attempting to find their own equilibrium when it comes to carving out a ‘career within a career’ as First Wife.

Modern day First Ladies from Eleanor Roosevelt through Michelle Obama have had to cope with over-achieving men while attempting to find their own equilibrium when it comes to carving out a ‘career within a career’ as First Wife.

I only remember Eleanor Roosevelt after her time in the White House, but I admire her pluck and stamina having to cope with FDR and his debilitating illness while he was dealing with the War and the depression. She was one tough cookie, and according to what I have read, handled the job well and set the tone for future spouses wanting a life of their own.

Followed by Bess Truman, a resilient Midwesterner with a no-nonsense husband, Bess didn’t make waves and supported President Harry S. Truman by keeping a lower profile than her predecessor.Post-WWII occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Mamie Eisenhower, was probably the last of the walk-one-step-behind variety of wives of Presidents, often preferring the safety of the shade rather than the sunlight.Then came Jackie Kennedy and all bets were off. America found a First Lady right out of Vogue Magazine with a pedigree that qualified her for all the glitter the White House could muster.

Fortunately for her, husband Jack was comfortable in his own skin, realized her assets and promoted them to his advantage and hers. Unfortunately, America lost her deft touch and charm with the untimely death of JFK, but she remained America’s darling throughout her life. Lady Bird (Claudia Alta) Johnson will probably be remembered for her Beautify America’s Roadways Program, but anybody who knew President Johnson well also knew the kind of patience and persistence it took for this Texas woman to not only handle her First Lady role successfully, but also be a tower of strength for her husband.

The Republicans had Richard Nixon and Richard Nixon had Pat – a counterweight for his beleaguered presidency, and it appeared to America (with the wedding of their daughter Tricia) that Pat had done her best to make a home out of the ‘big house.’ Watergate cut their time short and ushered in the Ford Administration.

Betty Ford’s battles with her own demons made her a very real person with very real problems and, I believe, earned her America’s respect as she stood by her man, President Gerald Ford, who was thrust into the job when President Nixon resigned.

Rosalynn Carter seemed to be the female version of her husband, and that identity defined her four years in the White House while her husband presided over a nation in deep economic trouble and with an intractable Iranian hostage crisis. Her post-presidency work with husband Jimmy on Habitat for Humanity proved that the partnership was real and enduring.

The Reagan years saw First Lady Nancy firmly at her husband’s side. Her ‘Just Say No’ campaign to stop youthful drug addiction raised the ante on First Lady ambitions, and while some saw her as a behind-the-scenes string-puller, there was no denying that theirs was a marriage that worked well for them — and for America.

For many, Barbara Bush was the ‘bad cop’ to George H.W. Bush’ ‘good cop,’ and her forthrightness (some would say brashness) redefined the First Lady job description. Barbara Bush was not America’s Sweetheart, but did earn the unofficial title of America’s Grandmother during her time in the White House.

The next generation was waiting in the wings with First Lady Hillary Clinton, a young, well-educated go-getter. The training wheels came off when husband, Bill, raised her profile by letting her tackle one of the most ambitious challenges facing 1990s America – healthcare. After being rebuked by the medical industry, she retreated somewhat to a more traditional first spouse role. Later years would see her star rise as she became Senator from New York and then Secretary of State, something no First Lady before her could claim.

The pendulum swung back to the middle with Laura Bush in 2000, and Mrs. Bush, a former schoolteacher and librarian, took up the challenge of highlighting the problems of America’s plummeting scholastic scores with vigor, assisting her husband who was preoccupied with America’s War on Terror in the aftermath of 9/11.

Our current First Lady, Michelle Obama, decided to make one of America’s seldom addressed ills – obesity and failing child health – her cause. While avoiding the limelight, Mrs. Obama has nonetheless stepped forward from time to time and re-inserted herself into the national healthcare dialogue. By planting a healthful victory garden (like Eleanor Roosevelt did) on the White House lawn she reminds us all that some of the solutions we seek may indeed be found right beneath our feet.

I guess the bottom line is that we should all be a bit more understanding and forgiving of these brave women as they sometimes stumble and fall, making their way through the minefield of public scrutiny and criticism.

Theirs is a demanding job as any wife of any successful (or unsuccessful) man will tell you. Keep the home fires burning while not letting the flames reach the drapes. Be supportive, but truthful. Be strong, but not too forceful (at least not in public). Be aware of your appearance at all times, but remember we all have a ‘bad hair day’ once in awhile. Be the perfect hostess, but don’t get too attached to the house…it’s a rental. Remember to nurture your family, but don’t forget your extended family of 320 million.

Given that this is an unpaid job, it kind of makes you wonder why we don’t at least honor our First Ladies with a ‘Presidents’ Wives Day’ holiday. Who knows? It could be the ultimate bi-partisan piece of legislation for the next Congress, and I’m sure there are a few ex-Presidents that would support it, too.

- Editor

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