Written by Melanie D.G. Kaplan Thursday, March 10 2011
|From left, Susan Sher, Anita McBride,
Connie Morella, Melanne Verveer
WASHINGTON D.C. -- Last week, on the first day of Women’s History Month, American University’s School of Public Affairs hosted “The Legacies of America’s First Ladies,” a conference including historians, curators, authors, journalists, and former White House chiefs of staff. Organized by Laura Bush’s former chief of staff Anita McBride, an executive in residence at American, the conference panelists examined and discussed the influence of these women on society, policy, and their husbands. There were about 200 in the audience, including 12 of the 13 directors of America’s presidential libraries.
The Unpaid Job of Being the Leader behind the Leader
The conference began by looking at the job of the first lady. While these women have excellent job security (they can’t really be “fired”), the position is unpaid – and undefined in the Constitution. Presidential historian Richard Norton Smith said that nearly all of the women who have held this job have been targets of criticism, whether it’s over their dress, furniture, or children. “Being first lady,” he said, “has never been a bed of roses.”
Allida Black, founder of the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project and program manager of the Women’s Political Participation Team at the National Democratic Institute, said Roosevelt is seen as the first modern first lady. She explained that each woman molds the position to her personality and interests, but there is still a lot of uncertainty about the expectations of the president’s spouse. “Is the first lady supposed to be first wife or first mate?” she asked. Whether she is a role model for a traditional partnership or she represents the aspirations of ambitious female Americans, Black said there will always be disapproval for these smart, tough women – whether Hillary Clinton and health care or Jacqueline Kennedy and the restoration of the White House.
Black said as records become available, the American public will further understand that these women are major historical actors “and they are getting the same reassessment as their husbands get, because they are shapers of our time.”
The Press: Stuck on First Lady Minutia?
Throughout the conference, panelists returned repeatedly to the topic of press coverage and how the post-Watergate era of reporting and a 24-hour news cycle have changed coverage of first ladies. But in some ways, it’s hardly changed; the problem remains that that coverage errs more on the side of Clinton’s headbands and Michelle Obama’s sleeveless dresses than their substantial accomplishments.
“It’s a challenge,” said Kathryn Cade, Rosalynn Carter’s former director of projects, “to get the press to pay attention to what the first ladies are doing.”
And many of them do vitally important work. Carter, for example, used her position to mobilize leaders in the area of mental health, and she became honorary chair of the President’s Commission on Mental Health, continuing this work after leaving the White House.
But Carter was also invaluable behind the scenes, said Cade, who now chairs the board of the Judge Baker Children’s Center in Boston. “There’s a lot of that back and forth that goes on, where first ladies are exercising their influence in subtle ways,” she said. “When President Carter decided he wanted to do something to move the [Middle East] peace process forward, he and Mrs. Carter spent an entire weekend talking about whether or not this would be a wise thing to do. There were certain huge risks to bringing those two individuals (Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin) [to Camp David]. Mrs. Carter said, if you don’t try, we won't know whether it will be helpful or not. She was the sounding board for the president.”
Other first ladies also played critical roles in international relations, from Jacqueline Kennedy helping negotiate French trade policy with President Charles de Gaulle to Nancy Reagan allowing her husband to become friendly with the final Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, leading to the fall of the Soviet Union.
But no matter how often these women triumph on the world stage, panelists agreed, they don’t get the praise they deserve. “[These projects were] not considered sexy,” Cade said. “What was sexy was whether you had wine in the White House or whether Mr. Carter had ‘lust in his heart.’”
Jean Becker, former deputy press secretary to Barbara Bush, who covered the 1988 campaign as a reporter for USA Today, said we’re stuck as a country and a society.
“Michele Obama, who is a lawyer and had this wonderful career and is doing all these things on nutrition and obesity, is still being written about more [because of] the clothes she’s wearing,” Becker said. “Hillary Clinton had to get her own job; before, she was judged on what she wore. We’ve become obsessive on minutia.” She said Barbara Bush set a precedent in the job of first lady: She didn’t care what her critics said – about her looks, her weight, or her lack of a college education and career – and she was just going to be herself.
And being herself meant being a woman who privately counseled her husband and followed her own spontaneous streak. Becker recounted a time when Bush read in the paper that the malls in Washington were going to kick out the Salvation Army bell ringers. “It absolutely made her furious,” Becker said, “so she marched us all to the mall, and she made a very public donation to a bell ringer. And every single mall in the city changed its mind.” Another time, she read that very few Washingtonians go to the White House, so when she was first lady, every fourth grader in the city was invited to visit her and the president’s home.
“I don’t think we’ve made any progress at all in the coverage of first ladies, which just kills me,” Becker said. “I just hope we can get beyond covering minutia and let them be who they are. Hopefully Michelle Obama doesn’t care that she [was criticized for wearing] capris coming off Air Force One.”
|From left, Richard Norton Smith; Allida
Black; Edith Mayo, curator emeritus, National
Museum of American History; Kristie Miller,
author and political biographer, Ellen and
Edith: Woodrow Wilson’s First Ladies
The Heart of the Administration
No matter what the administration, the first lady’s office has always been the heart, said Susan Sher, former chief of staff to Michelle Obama. “There’s so many things that unite these women that are much more important than the things that divide them.”
American University Ambassador in Residence at the Women & Politics Institute Connie Morella, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives for 16 years, moderated a panel with the most modern-day former chiefs of staff, who talked about their bosses’ legacies. Sher said part of the chief of staff’s job is to work with the first lady and the president’s team to figure out ways in which she can leave a legacy, and it’s impossible for a first lady to understand the extent of her platform until she’s at the White House. Obama’s work in childhood obesity started from her simply being a mother, Sher said, and her efforts in the White House garden have expanded to broader nutrition advocacy.
“The luxury of being able to choose your issues is empowering,” Sher said, compared to the president, who has to deal with everything from volcanic ash in Europe to oil spills to war. She said she thinks Michelle Obama's international agenda is still in its infancy.
The job of first ladies in terms of presidential support is often unrecognized. Sher said Michelle Obama is the president’s best friend, and they talk about issues large and small. “She humanizes the president in just her simple presence,” Sher said. “She has a sense of what people are thinking and what they care about. It’s very grounding to all of us, and I’m sure it is for him as well.”
McBride, whose White House career spanned two decades and three administrations, said that first ladies define the job; they don’t let it define them – which is extraordinary in such a public role.
“It’s remarkable the kind of work you can get done when the head of an agency really welcomes the voice of the first lady,” McBride said. “She can pick and choose the issues she wants to get involved in. It helps further the message of any one department or any one initiative of the president.”
When first ladies are faced with a blank slate, there are several considerations. “You think about what you’re going to do, in line with who you are, and, of course, your husband’s priorities . . . and your major consideration is what you’re going to do to help him in his presidency,” said Melanne Verveer, former chief of staff to Hillary Rodham Clinton and the Obama administration’s ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues. “You can’t predict when you start where you will end up.”
Clinton, who was the first to enter the position with a career, spending the last year of her husband’s term running for Senate, set a precedent by continuing her role in public life. “She’s able to do so much as secretary [of state] that she started as first lady – the embracing of public diplomacy in the 21st century,” Verveer said. “It’s very much what she did as first lady in her travels.”
The final panel, made up of those who have covered first ladies in the media, continued the dialogue about legacy and how we will remember the first ladies – whether they were protectors of their husbands like Lady Bird Johnson and Nancy Reagan or policy-oriented like Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton.
“Betty Ford went all over the country campaigning for the Equal Rights Amendment, which her husband, the president, opposed,” said ABC News White House correspondent Ann Compton. Then, referring to the Betty Ford Clinic, she said, “Her husband may have gone to play golf after his presidency, but she did something really, really important.”
Louis Romano, national political correspondent for the Washington Post, said it’s difficult for these first ladies, who need to both appear wifely and have a platform. “If you look at Hillary Clinton as a great case study, she was so criticized for getting out there,” she said, “but I’m of the opinion now that every first lady is judged against her. It’s very interesting. I think history will define Hillary Clinton as being a real watermark for first ladies.”
Finally, the conversation during the conference turned several times, albeit briefly, to the day when we elect our first female president and the role of her spouse: Will he be paid? Will he continue in his career? Will he stay home with the kids? And most importantly, what will he be called? One suggestion; first dude.
Melanie D.G. Kaplan is a contributing editor at SmartPlanet/CBS Interactive and a regular contributor to The Washington Post, where she writes about road trips with her beagle. She lives Washington, D.C.