The presidential campaign of 1960 is generally seen as a turning point in the history of First Ladies. Those who served after that date played a larger, more significant
Part of the change resulted from timing and from developments entirely outside the First Ladies' control. All were born in the twentieth century, and most had attended college and at one time held jobs of their own. Expanding television coverage, pulling a candidate's entire family into the public eye, focused on their wives. American women, increasingly aware of political solutions for problems they faced in their homes and on their jobs, looked to the president's wife for an example and for help.
The opportunity for a forceful First Lady to involve herself in policy had been present from the beginning of the Republic. The Constitution left a president free to choose advisers at will, without the constraints of a parliamentary system that tied a leader tightly to a party. Chief executives rarely admitted to relying on the counsel of their wives, however, and since much of the communication between presidents and First Ladies was personal and private, it is impossible to assess precisely what role each woman played. By the late twentieth century, accounts were more plentiful. Presidents' wives often wrote books to tell their own life stories; staff members revealed what they observed about the First Family; and reporters covered the entire White House entourage in detail.
Abigail Smith Adams' tenure as First Lady showed very early how a determined woman could, with her husband's concurrence, exert influence in his administration. John Adams had first been attracted to her by her wit, and during their marriage she often managed family and business matters on her own in her husband's frequent absences. During his eight years as vice president, she observed the careful impartiality and general affability of Martha Washington, and the two women often appeared together on social occasions, but Abigail Adams had her own views about women's roles.
John Adams' presidency, marked increasingly by factionalism, gave his wife the chance to vent her own opinions, if only in letters to relatives and friends and in private conversations. Other people guessed at what she thought—they called her "Mrs. President." Visitors to the President's House reported that she took sides, naming some legislators as "our people" and others as foes. The nearly two thousand of her letters that survive record her views: Albert Gallatin was "sly, artful"; in Alexander Hamilton's eyes she saw "the very devil . . . itself." John Adams' letters underline her role in his administration. After he had made an unpopular appointment while she was in Massachusetts, he wrote to tell her that many people lamented her absence, and called her "a good counsellor." Even though her own illnesses and that of relatives required her to be separated from her husband during much of his presidency, she is generally credited as an important adviser.
As the first occupants of the President's House in the Federal City (yet to be named Washington), the Adamses had a chance to set some precedents that would guide chief executives and their spouses for two centuries. Because her residence lasted only a few weeks, Abigail Adams did not have time to furnish the mansion, even if the plaster had dried, but she transferred some of the customs that had already developed in temporary housing. She opened the residence on New Year's Day to all who wanted to call, a tradition that continued (except during illness or national disaster) until 1932. The party on 1 January 1801 featured the eight-member United States Marine Band, thus associating that ensemble with the president in a special way.
Edith Bolling Galt Wilson is often credited with changing the role of First Lady, although her interest in politics was limited. Before her marriage to Woodrow Wilson on 18 December 1915, she had paid little attention to government, and she confessed that in the 1912 presidential election she could not have even named the candidates. Yet the unusual circumstances that surrounded her tenure pushed her into prominence and gained her an undeserved reputation as one of the most influential of all presidents' wives. During her first years in the White House, she and the president spent a great deal of time together, and she often sat near him as he wrote his speeches or deciphered coded messages. When he traveled to Europe for the talks that ended World War I, she accompanied him, and during a tour of Italy and England she gained considerable admiring attention and was often compared to European queens.
After Woodrow Wilson suffered a devastating stroke in the fall of 1919, Edith Wilson's role changed from romantic companion to diligent nurse. She screened his mail and monitored his visitors and workload, and except for his doctor and trusted secretary, few callers got past her. Rumors circulated that she was taking charge; she was described by a White House employee as an "assistant president," and by a prominent senator as presiding over a "petticoat government."
Evidence that Edith Wilson made important decisions is lacking. She insisted that she only looked out for her husband's well-being, and the facts support her claim. During several major crises throughout the winter of 1919–1920, including the deportation of aliens, a miners' strike, and a steel strike, the White House took little part. Historians have generally concluded that Edith Wilson had neither the ability nor the interest to play a strong political role, but her tenure illustrated the potential for a spouse to control access to the president during a period when he was ill or incapacitated.
Even before she moved into the White House, Eleanor Roosevelt had developed an agenda of her own. Politics was not an unexplored topic in her family (Theodore Roosevelt was her father's only brother), and she had served an apprenticeship of her own, beginning about 1918 when she started doing volunteer work with the Red Cross and meeting women social reformers. After her husband was paralyzed by polio in 1921, she attempted to keep his political future alive by learning to speak in public so that she could represent him. In 1924 she headed a women's delegation that tried unsuccessfully to reach the Resolutions Committee at the Democratic National Convention and present proposals for a long list of reforms, including equal pay for women workers, regulation of child labor, and improvement of education and working conditions. She campaigned for Al Smith, the Democratic nominee, in 1928 and began publishing magazine articles under her own name.
By 1933, Eleanor Roosevelt's political resources were considerable. She had a large network of competent people who could advise her and accept appointments to high-level jobs. Her husband's physical limitations provided her almost unlimited license to travel in his place, and she frequently said she served as "his eyes and ears." The emotional separation between her and the president, often attributed to his romantic attachment to another woman during World War I, apparently freed her to concentrate on her own projects and goals.
Within days of becoming First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt indicated that she would take a fresh approach to the job. She invited women reporters to go on a tour of the White House and agreed to meet with them regularly every week. After announcing that she would not touch controversial issues, she soon broke her own rules, causing news agencies to pay more attention to the meetings. She eventually held 348 press conferences, the last just hours before the president's death, and until World War II the conferences were limited to women. News agencies that did not want to miss an important announcement from the presidential household had to hire a woman reporter, and one of them, Ruby Black, thanked the First Lady for getting her a job with United Press.
Although abundant evidence points to Eleanor Roosevelt's large role in New Deal legislation, she played down the amount of power she exercised. At one news conference she announced that she had "never tried to influence" the president "on anything he ever did" and, she continued, "I certainly have never known him to try to influence me." When one man publicly credited her with getting him a job, she objected, saying he had put her in an "embarrassing position."
Her own writings and those of her friends point to her impact. In 1941, Raymond Clapper, a well-known syndicated columnist, named her as one of the ten most powerful people in Washington, playing the part of "cabinet minister without portfolio." Her influence was particularly evident in the formation of the National Youth Administration, in housing reform, and in increasing opportunities for women and minorities. Her letters contain many references to meetings with legislators and agency heads, and in 1942 she testified before a congressional committee, the first president's wife to do so.
Eleanor Roosevelt provided access to government for people who had previously felt deprived. Molley Dewson, chair of the Women's Division of the Democratic National Committee, credited the First Lady with making it possible for her to discuss important matters with the president. Her papers at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library at Hyde Park, New York, contain many letters from people appealing to her for help—evidence that they thought she could deliver.
The First Lady traveled, both in the United States and abroad, far more than any president's wife before her. None of her predecessors had journeyed abroad on their own when Eleanor Roosevelt decided to go to Great Britain in 1942 to visit army camps, factories, nurseries, and other sites associated with the war. The following year she went to the South Pacific. Her countless trips to Appalachia and to other problem areas of the United States were billed as "fact finding," and they took her to improbable places: into mines, schools, and the dilapidated dwellings of impoverished families.
Eleanor Roosevelt is widely believed to have been more liberal than her husband on many subjects and to have attracted support from quarters where he had less appeal. Her stand on civil rights, especially following her resignation from membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution after that organization barred Marian Anderson, the African-American singer, from performing in its auditorium in 1939, secured her reputation in many quarters. Eleanor Roosevelt made friends with young people, including members of the American Student Union and the American Youth Congress, and she spoke up in their defense. Women's groups also looked to her for leadership, and although she neither joined the Woman's Party nor defended the Equal Rights Amendment as First Lady, she championed the right of married women to work, a right threatened by the Economy Act of 1933.
Although she had a very small staff, Eleanor Roosevelt kept a hectic schedule. Her syndicated newspaper column, "My Day," began appearing in 1936, and she gave hundreds of speeches. The money earned was dedicated to various charities and friends because, although she liked earning money, she spent little on herself and preferred seeing it "in circulation."
After her husband's death, Eleanor Roosevelt remained a strong political force. President Truman nominated her as a United States delegate to the United Nations, where she helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. She campaigned for Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1956. In 1961, President Kennedy appointed her to chair the Commission on the Status of Women, but her health had already begun to fail and she died on 7 November 1962, having lived the final years of her life as "First Lady of the World."
Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy understood the value a popular First Lady could have for her husband's administration, but she did not involve herself in public policy questions. Thirty-one years old at the time of her husband's inauguration, she was the youngest First Lady since Frances Cleveland (1886), and she augmented the attention focused on her by projecting a glamorous image involving designer clothes, expensive jewelry, and a preference "for the best" in food and entertainment. Her savvy in arts and design, her ability in languages, and her extensive travel abroad made her an immensely appealing First Lady, and she was widely imitated.
Ambivalent about a public role (she relished her own privacy and insisted that her two young children be protected from excessive media exposure), Jacqueline Kennedy appointed her own press secretary (the first president's wife to do so) but then encouraged the president's press secretary, Pierre Salinger, to keep reporters away from her and her children.
Besides her glamorous image, Jacqueline Kennedy's strongest legacy was the White House restoration. In 1961 she arranged for a curator to come on loan from the Smithsonian Institution to begin the lengthy process of cataloging the contents of the White House, and she appealed to Congress to pass legislation making the contents of the executive mansion public property so that occupants could not sell or dispose of furnishings "of historic or artistic interest." To restore the mansion to its early-nineteenth-century elegance, she helped form the White House Historical Association, a "not-for-profit historical and educational organization" to "enhance understanding, appreciation and enjoyment of the White House." The sale of guidebooks to finance restoration began on 4 July 1962, and although some critics charged that sales on the premises cheapened the White House, the initial printing of 250,000 copies sold out in a few weeks. When the First Lady showed off the results of the White House refurbishing in a televised tour on 14 February 1962, more than 46 million Americans watched, and interest in the president's residence grew.
After President Kennedy's assassination, his widow helped plan a dramatic funeral, with many of the elements drawn from Abraham Lincoln's. A few days after the interment she summoned Theodore H. White to her Massachusetts home to discuss her own views on the Kennedy administration and how it should be remembered. It was this interview, described in a two-page Life magazine article by White on 6 December 1963, that pinned the tag "Camelot" on the Kennedy administration.
Claudia ("Lady Bird") Taylor Johnson called Jacqueline Kennedy a "daunting" act to follow, but she went ahead to make her own mark on the job of First Lady. Her long residence in Washington, beginning with her marriage in 1934, acquainted her with political workings on the national level and she built her own network of powerful friends. Although she had not wanted her husband to accept the nomination for vice president in 1960, she went out to speak in support of the national ticket that year, causing Robert Kennedy, campaign manager for his brother, to pronounce her a major asset. During the Kennedy presidency, Lady Bird Johnson often filled in for the First Lady when she could not, or chose not to, appear at ceremonies.
As First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson named a large, competent staff, headed by Liz Carpenter, a veteran reporter. Although the number of employees was generally about two dozen, the largest any president's wife had named up to that time, additional people came on loan from other agencies and departments to assist in the First Lady's projects and scheduling. Her understanding of reporters' needs (journalism had been one of her majors at the University of Texas) helped her develop a good relationship with members of the press.
In 1964, Lady Bird Johnson campaigned for her husband on her own—the first candidate's wife to do so in such a visible way. Vowing not to write off support in the southern states, where enthusiasm for Lyndon Johnson was weak, she traveled from Washington to Louisiana on a train, dubbed the "Lady Bird Special." Accompanied by staff, advisers, and, for part of the trip, her daughters, she gave speeches along the way urging people to vote for her husband.
After 1965, Lady Bird Johnson staked out a leading role for herself in the Great Society initiatives, taking an important part in Head Start, a program designed to assist preschool children. Her closest identification, however, was with "beautification." Although the latter suffered from its unfortunate name (which even Mrs. Johnson deemed unsuitable but acknowledged that "we couldn't come up with anything better") and was often denigrated as simply "prettification," it touched on much broader environmental concerns: the upkeep of Washington's monuments and streets, the involvement of Washington residents in neighborhood improvement, a campaign to attract national attention to the value of natural resources, and the struggle to regulate billboards along highways.
While the success of these efforts relied principally on Lady Bird Johnson's ability to attract favorable attention and raise funds from private sources, the last involved national legislation and provoked considerable controversy, particularly after the powerful billboard lobby made its views known. The Highway Beautification Act (sometimes called "Lady Bird's Bill"), passed in October 1965, marked an unprecedented use of the First Lady's implicit power. But the law was seriously weakened during the compromising necessary to passage, and neither she nor the president was very satisfied with the results.
Although Lady Bird Johnson did not take an active part in the burgeoning feminist movement, she developed her own program to recognize the accomplishments of outstanding women and, at the same time, call attention to significant topics at "women-doer" luncheons. Of the nineteen that she eventually hosted, each of them focusing on a single subject, the most publicized was held on 18 January 1968, on street crime. Among the guests was singer Eartha Kitt, who, after listening to the remarks of the First Lady and several others present, expressed her own view that it was not surprising that young people were turning to marijuana and crime when so many of them faced the prospect of being drafted to fight, and perhaps die, in Vietnam. The First Lady later recorded in her diary how important she knew her response would be. She tried to remain calm and dignified as she spoke about her feelings: she hoped that the war would end soon, but while it continued, "that still doesn't give us a free ticket not to try to work for better things—against crime in the streets, and for better education and better health for our people." The incident, widely reported by journalists who were present, illustrated how easily the First Lady could be drawn into important, controversial matters.
The exact role of Lady Bird Johnson in her husband's presidency cannot be fully detailed until all her papers are open and examined. Perhaps not even then. Her own record of her White House years, published in 1970 and titled A White House Diary , includes only a fraction of the notes that she made while First Lady. Her biographer Lewis L. Gould concluded that all available evidence indicates that she played a significant part in key decisions and that she altered the institution of First Lady by going beyond what any of her predecessors had done in working for legislation. Other historians have generally rated her a substantial asset to the Johnson presidency.
Patricia ("Pat") Ryan Nixon also brought a long Washington apprenticeship to the White House, but she used it in her own particular way. Although she maintained a busy schedule and took on several projects, she showed little interest in claiming credit for her accomplishments, and the president's staff placed low value on her contribution. Journalists saw her as programmed and distant, but she gained enormous popularity with Americans, who named her to Good Housekeeping 's list of "Most Admired Women' every year she was in the White House and for nearly two decades after leaving it.
In her effort to open up the White House "to the little guys," Pat Nixon made special arrangements: persons in wheelchairs and on crutches received extra assistance; blind people were permitted to touch objects; busloads of senior citizens ate Thanksgiving dinner in the State Dining Room. But Pat also traveled to meet people, even those who lived in remote places and were not yet old enough to vote. Her daughter Julie later estimated that Pat had traveled more than any First Lady up to that time, visiting eighty-three nations and criss-crossing North America many times. She persevered whatever the weather, explaining, "I do or I die. I never cancel out."
Although she was overshadowed by the glamour and publicity that had been associated with Jacqueline Kennedy, Pat Nixon worked effectively to gather antiques and artwork for the White House collection. With the assistance of White House curator Clement Conger, who had presided over the refurbishing of the reception rooms at the State Department, she acquired more antique furnishings for the mansion than had been given during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations combined.
Pat Nixon's insistence on privacy gave little opportunity for the public to know what she had done or how she felt on important issues. Frequent staff changes (she named three different press secretaries in just over five years) limited her impact, and when asked to write a syndicated column, she refused, saying, I know a lot but you have to keep it to yourself when you're in this position." Her daughter Julie Nixon Eisenhower, who published a book, Pat Nixon: The Untold Story (1986), insisted that her parents were closer than people thought, but she could offer only one instance in which the First Lady tried to influence an important appointment—she hoped that a woman would be named to the Supreme Court.
Betty Bloomer Ford assumed the job of First Lady without the benefit of a national campaign and at a time when the Watergate hearings had diminished public respect for government officials. She frequently said that she had a special responsibility to be candid and honest. At her first press conference, held on 4 September 1974, she admitted that she sometimes disagreed with her husband on important issues and described her position on abortion as much closer to that of Nelson Rockefeller, who supported the Supreme Court's decision leaving the matter for a woman and her physician to decide, than that of Senator James Buckley of New York, who had publicly disagreed with the Court's stand. Her independence (she later admitted she was often tempted to split her ticket when she voted) is generally credited with increasing her husband's popularity in some quarters, and it accounted for campaign buttons in 1976 plugging "Betty's Husband for President."
From the beginning of her tenure as First Lady, Betty Ford announced that she would work for substantive changes, including ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. She had a separate telephone installed in the White House so that she could lobby state legislators scheduled to vote on the measure. Opponents of the amendment criticized the involvement of a president's wife in such a controversial issue, especially one then before the states, but Betty Ford insisted she would stick with the fight. And she did, although she had to admit defeat when the necessary number of states did not ratify during her term.
Both Gerald and Betty Ford spoke of her influence in his administration. She admitted using "pillow talk" to relay her views on important topics, including the nomination of women to important jobs, and he acknowledged that she had urged him to grant a pardon to Richard Nixon.
Much of Betty Ford's popularity resulted from her candor in dealing with personal problems that other presidential families had hidden. She talked publicly about her sons' possible experimentation with marijuana, her teenage daughter's sex life, and her own use of tranquilizers. (Her frank statement about her alcoholism and her establishment of the Betty Ford Center came after the White House years ended.) In September 1974, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she permitted the White House to release all the details to the press. Television programs and magazines featured discussions on radical mastectomies and more limited surgery, on chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Previously almost unmentionable, breast cancer became a household word, and many women were persuaded to seek examinations. Although some criticism charged that the discussions were inappropriate, the First Lady concentrated on the good she had done. "Lying in the hospital, thinking of all those women going for cancer checkups because of me, I'd come to recognize more clearly the power of the woman in the White House."
Rosalynn Smith Carter claimed title to "full partner" throughout her marriage, even in the White House. She had assisted in the Carter family business by keeping the books, and when her husband James Earl ("Jimmy") Carter ran for governor of Georgia in 1966 she went out on the campaign trail (although her fear of making public speeches kept her from anything more than photo opportunity appearances beside the family car). Later, she perfected her speaking skills and grew adept at campaigning so that when her husband began his quest for his party's nomination for president in early 1975, she felt confident about traveling and speaking on her own. She often explained that they could cover more territory if each worked alone.
As First Lady, Rosalynn Carter frequently stood in for the president on ceremonial occasions, and she developed her own abbreviation (BOE for "bottom of the elevator") for the many trips she made to the first floor of the White House to have her picture taken with one delegation or another. But she emphasized the substantive rather than the social and ceremonial parts of the job. She kept an office in the East Wing (where she was sometimes photographed busy at her desk), and she scheduled a working lunch with the president once a week. When subjects that interested her were the focus of cabinet discussion, she joined cabinet members, sitting in "whatever
In a precedent-breaking trip, Rosalynn Carter journeyed to seven countries in the Caribbean and South America in spring 1977 to confer with leaders on what the White House billed "substantive matters." After preparing by meeting with members of the State Department and the National Security Council, she talked with leaders about trade and defense. When she returned to Washington she reported to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on what she had seen and heard. Critics questioned the authority under which she traveled since she was neither appointed nor elected, and some Latino leaders expressed uncertainty about how to treat her remarks. Whether she was responding to the criticism or not, Rosalynn Carter made no more trips of this kind, explaining that her husband had time to "go himself." But she continued with goodwill missions that were more in line with what other First Ladies had done.
Rosalynn Carter had become interested in mental health care reform during the years that her husband served as governor of Georgia, and she continued her efforts as First Lady. As honorary chair of the President's Council on Mental Health, she spoke on the subject in the United States, Canada, and Europe. In February 1979 she went before the Senate Resource Subcommittee to promote mental health programs, thus becoming the first president's wife to testify before a congressional committee since Eleanor Roosevelt.
When President Carter invited Anwar as-Sadat and Menachem Begin to Camp David in September 1978, he asked that Rosalynn and the wives of the other two leaders also be present, saying the negotiations would be more congenial "if all of you are there." Rosalynn Carter's notes on those twelve days later became the basis of one chapter in her autobiography, First Lady from Plains (1984), and critics judged it a particularly valuable insight into the Camp David meeting.
Historians have generally rated Rosalynn Carter as an especially effective First Lady, a major asset to her husband's administration. She weathered some criticism for doing what no president's wife had done before, but she emerged as one of a handful of twentieth-century First Ladies judged more successful in their roles than their husbands in the presidency.
Nancy Davis Reagan was not always candid about her impact as First Lady, although it was, by many accounts, substantial. Some associates noted that she had very savvy political instincts and held strong views on the people who worked with her husband. Apparently uninterested in a political base of her own, she took strong exception to those people she deemed harmful to her husband's success and was generally thought to play a major role in the removal of several cabinet and staff members, including Chief of Staff Donald Regan. After he left the job, Regan endorsed that view and added that she had made scheduling of the president difficult by relying on a California astrologist for advice about when Ronald Reagan should travel and attend important meetings. Rather than refuting this charge, Nancy Reagan explained that her fears for her husband's safety, especially after the assassination attempt on him in March 1981, had made her look for help wherever she could find it.
As wife of the governor of California, Nancy Reagan had worked with the Foster Grandparents Program, and as First Lady she published a book on the subject. But her chic image did not seem grand-motherly to many Americans, and the program was not popular. Her ratings dipped in 1981, partly because of what appeared to some people as extravagant spending on the White House and on herself. The timing of a White House announcement on the purchase of nearly $210,000 worth of new china (although paid for by private donations) was particularly unfortunate since it coincided with revelations about cuts in social programs.
At a meeting in late 1981, involving her staff and the president's, a plan was devised to improve Nancy Reagan's image, and she embarked on an antidrug crusade, later billed as "Just Say No." The First Lady insisted that she had a long-standing interest in the topic and would have become involved in an anti-drug campaign sooner had her advisers not vetoed the subject as too downbeat. She raised money for school programs and for conferences, including one at the White House that drew spouses of leaders from nations around the world.
Because Ronald Reagan underwent several periods of major illness and lengthy convalescence, Nancy Reagan was watched closely to see what power she held. In July 1985, while he recuperated in hospital following cancer surgery, she returned to the White House to greet visiting dignitaries. Reporters speculated that a triumvirate was in charge: the president, his chief of staff, and the First Lady. Ronald Reagan endorsed this view when he thanked her for "taking part in the business of the nation." She was widely believed to favor an arms limitation agreement with the Soviet Union, and her enthusiasm was sometimes cited as significant in the president's quest for an accord. Before she left the White House, The New York Times credited her with expanding the role of First Lady.
Barbara Pierce Bush became First Lady after eight years of relatively inconspicuous preparation while her husband served as vice president. At age sixty-three, she was one of the oldest ever to take on the role and she chose to play it in the style of women a generation earlier. Staying away from decisions involving the president's scheduling and his appointment and retention of staff, she stressed the ceremonial, traditional side of being a White House wife. Her tendency for self-deprecation won her many admirers, and she insisted on retaining the image that had served her well: practical and down-to-earth, without much attention to hair coloring and dress designers. Her mail told her, she said, that there were "an awful lot of white haired, wrinkled ladies out there just tickled pink" with her approach.
In the decade before moving into the White House, Barbara Bush had undertaken a leadership role in the campaign to improve literacy in the United States, and she continued this work as First Lady. Struggling with the dyslexia of one of her sons many years earlier had convinced her, she said, of the importance of the ability to read. Although George Bush billed himself as the "Education President," it was his wife, frequently photographed visiting schools and reading to children, who became most closely identified with the cause. In 1991 she published a humorous book of photographs of the family dog, Millie's Book , as Dictated to Barbara Bush, and when it quickly became a best-seller, she donated nearly $800,000 in royalties to the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy. Had she not given the money away, she would have banked far more than the president's annual salary.
Barbara Bush kept her views on controversial issues to herself although she was widely believed to disagree with her husband on abortion and gun control. Since she had dropped out of college—she had attended Smith—and married at nineteen and had never had a full-time job of her own, she was not widely perceived as a leader among career-oriented feminists. An invitation extended to her by the administration of Wellesley College to speak at graduation ceremonies in June 1990 drew many protests from students enrolled there who objected that she had become a prominent person solely because of her marriage to a famous man. Some students signed a petition asking that the invitation be withdrawn. The First Lady spoke out in defense of students' right to live their lives differently from her, but she did not decline the invitation. Instead, she invited Raisa Gorbachev, who happened to be slated to visit the United States about the time of the graduation, to accompany her to Wellesley and give a speech also. The event, widely covered by the media, underlined Barbara Bush's practical, confident approach to the job, and it helps explain why she remained popular with Americans holding differing opinions about how a president's wife should act.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, the first woman born after World War II to become First Lady, was heralded as ushering in a new era. Her own credentials suggested a departure. She was the first president's wife to have a professional degree from the same institution as her husband and to have had a successful career of her own. After graduating in 1973 from Yale Law School, where she met Bill Clinton, she worked briefly in Washington, D.C., on the legal team employed by the House Judiciary Committee to investigate President Nixon's connection to the Watergate break-in and the events that followed it. When that assignment ended in the summer of 1974, Hillary Rodham moved to Arkansas and taught at the state university law school in Fayetteville. She married Bill Clinton in 1975; he was elected Arkansas attorney general the following year. In 1977 Hillary Clinton took a position in Little Rock at the prestigious Rose Law Firm—one of the first women the firm had hired. Eventually she was made a partner at Rose and won praise from her colleagues, who named her to the National Law Journal list of "100 Most Influential Lawyers in America."
During her student days, Hillary Rodham Clinton had become interested in the legal rights of children and of the poor, and as an adult she focused on these concerns. She took leadership roles (often as board member or chair) in the Children's Defense Fund, an organization to protect the rights of minors; the Legal Services Corporation, a federally funded nonpartisan effort to make legal aid available to the indigent; and the New World Foundation, a philanthropy that gave small grants to community groups and minorities.
By 1993, two decades of professional contacts had resulted in a network of savvy, competent men and women who could assist Hillary Rodham Clinton in whatever projects she undertook as First Lady. Many of them went with her and the president to the White House. Two colleagues from the Rose Law Firm achieved particular prominence: Vincent W. Foster, Jr., served as assistant White House Counsel until his suicide in July 1993, and Webster L. Hubbell was associate attorney general until his resignation in March 1994 amid charges that he had approved excessive billing of clients while at the Rose Law Firm.
After her marriage, Hillary Rodham Clinton had taken primary responsibility for the family's financial affairs, and during her husband's run for president in 1992, Money magazine titled an article, "How Hillary Manages the Clintons' Money." Her handling of investments came under especially close scrutiny in regard to two matters: one dealt with the Clintons' participation in the Whitewater Development Company, a real estate project in Arkansas that had foundered in the 1970s; the other, a remarkably successful venture into trading in commodity futures in the late 1970s. In the latter, the Clintons had earned a large return (generally reported as nearly $100,000) on a tiny investment of $1,000 in a matter of a few months. When a special prosecutor, Robert B. Fiske, Jr., was appointed to look into the Whitewater affair, he questioned both the president and First Lady separately about their roles—an unprecedented event.
During the 1992 campaign for president, Bill Clinton had insisted that voters would be getting a bonus if they elected him—two excellent people for just one vote. But not all Americans seemed pleased with the idea of a First Lady participating in the presidency, and Hillary Clinton's role was de-emphasized later in the campaign. She often accompanied her husband on the campaign trail, and after the nominating convention she and Tipper Gore, wife of vice presidential candidate Albert Gore, Jr., frequently appeared together, either with their husbands or on their own.
None of this activity broke any new ground for a prospective president's wife, but several months before Bill Clinton was nominated his wife played an important part in keeping his candidacy alive. A tabloid had run a story about Gennifer Flowers, an Arkansas woman who boasted that she had enjoyed a long sexual liaison with Bill Clinton, and other newspapers picked up the story and ran it. To counteract the charges, the Clintons agreed to appear together on the CBS television news program 60 Minutes and answer questions. While the candidate admitted to causing "pain" in his marriage, he gave no specifics. His wife was more candid, saying that whatever happened, it was the Clintons' business and not a matter for voters to decide. She concluded that if they did not like the candidate, then "don't vote for him."
After the November 1992 election, Bill Clinton welcomed congressional leaders to Little Rock, and when he later described the meeting to the press, he said that his wife had been present, "talked a lot and knew more than we did about some things." Among the very first announcements from the Clinton White House was the First Lady's appointment to chair the Task Force on Health Care Reform and her assignment to an office on the second floor of the West Wing, a few feet from the Oval Office.
Through the first months of 1993, the task force held meetings that resulted in an unusual legal ruling on the role of First Lady. Physicians and others who wanted to participate in the meetings and express their views were barred on the grounds that only "government officials" could attend. Attorneys for the physicians argued that the president's wife did not qualify as a "government official" and that the meetings should be opened. A district federal court agreed, but on 22 June 1993 a federal appeals court reversed that decision, ruling instead that there existed "a long standing tradition of public service by First Ladies . . . who have acted (albeit in the background) as advisers and personal representatives of their husbands." Even a dissenting opinion by Judge James L. Buckley took note of the official status of a president's wife, who is "greeted like a head of state, guarded by the Secret Service, and allowed to spend Federal money." Since the task force had already finished its work, the verdict had no immediate effect, except to codify what had become a general acceptance of the First Lady's status.
Beginning in September 1993, Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared in front of congressional committees to answer questions about the task force report and recommendations. Although she made five such appearances in the course of one week, segments of which were carried on national television, and was generally heralded for her expertise and poised delivery, the task force proposal found little support, either in Congress or with the public. The First Lady was generally thought to have harmed her image and that of the president by being so prominently tied to an effort that failed. Even she conceded that she had tried to do too much.
Hillary Rodham Clinton then turned to more traditional, ceremonial tasks associated with presidents' wives for more than a century. In July 1995 she began writing a weekly syndicated column, "Talking It Over," that ran in newspapers across the nation, but, in the style of Eleanor Roosevelt's "My Day," she usually stuck to safe topics such as visits to art galleries and travel. Her own trips abroad, although not entirely uncontroversial, focused on issues typically defined as women's province such as family planning and human rights. In May 1995 she accompanied the president to Russia, but rather than investigating areas associated with her professional interests she visited museums and laid wreaths on soldiers' graves. After considerable controversy because of the record of the People's Republic of China on human rights, Hillary Rodham Clinton agreed to speak at the United Nations Conference on Women, held in Beijing in September 1995.
Critics complained that Hillary Rodham Clinton could not decide on the image she wanted to project as First Lady. Her competence and sympathies for the underdog propelled her to an activist role, such as that pioneered by Eleanor Roosevelt, but she also recognized that more traditional models, such as Barbara Bush, continued to be very popular.
The Senate run dominated Mrs. Clinton's schedule for the final two years of her husband's second administration. In early 1999, she embarked on "listening tours" through New York State and by January 2000, she had moved into a home the Clintons purchased in Chappaqua so that she could qualify as a New York resident. On 7 November 2000, when she delivered her victory speech, she summed up the campaign as "Sixty-two counties, 16 months, three debates, two opponents and six black pantsuits" but that understated the enormous effort she had expended.
After her election, Hillary Rodham Clinton sought to balance the demands of her two roles-Senator-elect and First Lady. She attended briefing sessions with other newly elected legislators and hosted dozens of receptions and dinners at the White House. A book auction for her memoirs reaped her an $8 million dollar advance, and the Clintons bought a house in Washington, D.C.
Hillary Clinton's early months as New York's junior senator were plagued by continuing attention to pardons her husband had granted just before leaving office. But in each case, even the one which involved her brother Hugh, who admitted taking a payment from a person who received a pardon, she insisted she had known nothing about it. Her first major speech in the Senate dealt entirely with economic development in New York State, but the press persisted in questioning her about her role in Bill Clinton's decisions as president—a unique situation for a senator to be in. Speculation increased that she would run for the nation's highest office herself but she disavowed any intention to do so, saying she meant to concentrate her energy on being a good legislator.
Laura Welch Bush, who had succeeded her in the White House, distanced herself from Hillary's activist record but, at the same time, disavowed the "traditional" label so often attached to her mother-in-law. In fact, Laura Bush combined many of the characteristics of both. Like Hillary, she held a graduate degree, having earned a master's degree in library science in 1972. After enjoying a satisfying career as elementary teacher and school librarian, she had, like many women born after World War II, married
Although she once quipped that she had agreed to marry George W. Bush only after he had promised she would never have to give a political speech, campaigning was part of Laura's marriage from the beginning. Since he had already decided to run for Congress in 1978 and his father was well on his road to the White House, she could hardly expect to avoid politics.
As popular First Lady of Texas (1995–2001), Laura Bush worked hard to improve literacy. Her most notable achievement was starting the Texas Book Festival which featured local authors and, beginning in 1996, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy books for libraries. Laura later added breast cancer awareness to her agenda, along with attention to the problems of Alzheimer's sufferers and their families after her father died from that disease in April 1995. During her husband's campaign for the presidency (in which she made hundreds of appearances and demonstrated how comfortable she had become in front of the microphone and speaking to large audiences) she indicated that she would concentrate on similar causes as First Lady.
Already familiar with the White House, having visited often during her father-in-law's presidency, Laura Bush put together a staff that included trusted employees she had come to know in Texas and experienced Washingtonians who had worked for Barbara Bush. Frequently cited as a stable emotional anchor for her husband and a major support in his decision to quit drinking alcoholic beverages several years earlier, Laura demurred about a larger role. When asked if she would serve as an adviser to her husband, she once replied, "I'm just his wife. Don't you think that's better?" implying that as American women entered the 21st century, the definition of political wife had expanded greatly. Once free to decline a public role, a First Lady was now expected to be a polished speaker, tireless volunteer, efficient White House administrator, and politically astute assistant. What had once been remarkable had now become routine.