The Constitution doesn’t even mention first ladies, but that doesn’t prevent them from creating some amendments of their own during their White House years.
In fact, most first ladies married their husbands before the men became nationally famous and helped transform them to ascend to the presidency. For example, Eliza McCardle Johnson taught her husband to read and write before he became President Andrew Johnson.
I divide first ladies five types: “pink ladies,” “blue stockings,” “green hornets,” “platinum princesses,” and “red-hot tomatoes.”
Pink ladies don’t know a thing about tariffs or taxes and, if they do, they pretend they don’t. They see the job as looking after their husbands.
Mamie Eisenhower was one, devoting her total attention to “my General.” Some people even called her “pink lady” because it was her favorite color.
Another lady who never offered a political opinion publicly was Pat Nixon. But she told her husband, Richard, not to run for governor of California, and she was right.
She was in the vice president’s limousine when Communist demonstrators in Caracas attempted to kill him. Secret Service Agent Jack Sherwood, a Marine, noted her plastered-on smile and aplomb and said, “I’ve never seen a braver person, and I was at Iwo Jima.”
Blue stockings are more interested in foreign affairs than fashion. Sarah Childress Polk was President James Polk’s chief of staff, secretary and chief adviser. She was childless, and she was a petticoat power whose only interest was policy: cutting tariffs and annexing Texas. These two Presbyterians didn’t drink or smoke and worked 10 hours a day except on the Sabbath, when they worshipped.
The term first lady was applied first to Lucy Webb Hayes, bride of Rutherford and another blue stocking. She strong views on women’s rights and temperance. She was nicknamed “Lemonade Lucy” for her ban on alcohol in the White House..
The most eminent blue stocking was Eleanor Roosevelt. Even if she was not Franklin’s bedmate, she was the ears, eyes and legs of the 32nd president. The highlight of his day was happy hour, when he mixed what he hailed as a “wicked martini” for staff and guests.
Sometimes when she wasn’t around, his oldest child and favorite, Anne, would hide a shaker in her bra and collect some choice gossip and risqué stories for her father. In 1943, they were sipping cocktails when she heard the recognizable stride of her mother advancing to the Oval Office. The president shoved the shaker and glasses under the desk as he heard, “Franklin, I do want you to read this memorandum on the poor coal miners.”
Blue stocking Rosalynn Carter even attended Cabinet meetings. She is about the only first lady in a century who didn’t buy a new gown for the inaugural. She recycled one she had worn for a benefit in Atlanta. It was the least she could do if Jimmy was foregoing the presidential limo to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue.
Another blue stocking was Hillary Clinton, the embattled warrior of the so-called “right-wing conspiracy.” Her source of inspiration was Eleanor Roosevelt, with whom she often claimed to commune. She was a political activist who once assisted in the legal defense of the Black Panthers. As she pledged, right after Bill was inaugurated, she set to work on a healthcare proposal, but it went down in flames.
She was less focused on the health of her daughter, Chelsea, who complained of a headache and pains at school one day in 1993. The principal asked for her mother’s phone number to get permission for pills. “Oh,” she reportedly answered, “call my father. She’s much too busy!”
Green is the color of jealousy, and “green hornet” fits the insecure Mary Todd. She would fly off in a rage if Abraham was alone with another woman. Once, she rode across the Potomac to see her husband, who was inspecting Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Union troops. She had a tantrum when she found Mrs. Grant alone talking with her husband. It was a lucky thing for Mrs. Grant, who overturned her husband’s acceptance to go to Ford Theater that fateful night.
Florence King Harding, another green hornet, was a rich divorcee (the first in the White House) when she married the Warren Harding over her father’s objections. Harding, a womanizer, didn’t restrain his wandering eyes after election to the Senate and then the presidency in 1920.
Mrs. Harding’s staff called her “the duchess.” They would back away when she charged through the halls yelling “Warren, Warren,” as she did one day when the president was enjoying an afternoon tryst. A Secret Service agent blocked her entrance until the mistress was spirited away.
Bess Truman may seem like an unlikely green hornet, but like Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Harding, she married socially beneath her, at least in her mother’s opinion. She never forgave Harry for running in 1948 and spent a lot of time in the next four years in Independence, Mo. She was a tough taskmistress. After years of Eleanor’s benign neglect at the White House, Bess spent her first day running her white gloves over the tops of doors and under tables and barking commands at a cowering staff.
A “platinum princess” shines on the White House stage and relishes her role as first lady, the way Julia Gardiner Tyler did. She was of the Long Island Gardiners of Gardiners Island who ruled their fiefdom for centuries. But the beautiful brunette with the flashing eyes and long legs had ambitions beyond Long Island. She had a brief, but unsuccessful, thespian career in New York City, and her greatest acting role was just ahead.
She sighted an opportunity when President John Tyler invited her father, State Sen. David Gardiner, to Washington for a party on the USS Princeton to celebrate the new Navy cannon called the peacemaker. President Tyler was a widower and though 16 years older was a catch. On the boat, the cannon exploded, killing her father and the secretary of the navy.
Julia, in a swoon, backpedaled moaning and fell into the president’s arms. They were married months later.
For receiving women at the White House, Julia had a platform constructed so that the Washington ladies had to extend their hand to her as if she were on a throne.
Julia Dent Grant was no great beauty, but she carried herself as if she were. Platinum princesses follow fashion, but Mrs. Grant set fashion trends. She had an hourglass figure that was the envy in that era, but a walleye marred her face. She designed a black necklace lace that would border the cleavage, attracting guests’ stares. The lacy undergarment became the rage in Eighth Avenue New York and Chestnut Street in Philadelphia.
No first lady ever swept a nation with such style, elegance and presence as Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. When she and President Kennedy visited Charles de Gaulle in 1962, the French-speaking Jackie won Parisian hearts with her chic and wide-eyed appreciation of French culture.
She was so popular that JFK introduced himself at a luncheon by saying, “I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris, and I have enjoyed it.”
Jackie was well aware of her husband’s philandering. Her adored father Black Jack Bouvier was just the same. But she set limits with the president: “Jack, none of my fellow debutantes, Miss Porter’s, or the Vassar set.”
The story goes that her husband had two secretaries, nicknamed Fiddle and Faddle, who serviced his needs. Once she found a pair of panties stuffed under the bed. She took them to her husband’s study and, with her typical aplomb and cool dignity, she dropped them into his lap and said, “Jack, these are not mine. You should return them to their owner.”
Nancy Reagan was another platinum princess. She not only consulted with fashion designers but also befriended them and invited them to lunches at the White House. Her husband was her first priority. A noted quote about Ronald is: “He was a friendly man who had only one friend, and he married her,” and he was her best friend and focus of attention. But after Ronnie, her watchful eye and careful attention were devoted mostly to her wardrobe.
The final category, the “red-hot tomato,” designates one who will burn you if you cross her. She’s neither a policy wonk nor wallflower. She could turn on the heat as well as the charm.
The best example is the greatest of our first ladies, Dolley Madison. If I asked you who the longest-serving first lady has been, you’d say Eleanor Roosevelt. Wrong, it was Dolley. She was in the White House for the widower Thomas Jefferson, then eight years for her husband, James. After he died, she eyed the White House of widower Martin Van Buren. His son John was a bachelor. Dolley’s niece Ann married John Van Buren was enamored of this polished and cosmopolitan lady and married her. Ann became the hostess for the White House, but Aunt Dolley told her whom to invite.
The Polks’ White House in 1845 became another hostess opportunity. They banned alcohol from the White House, so Dolley set up the “Wet House” at her residence, the Octagon House, for thirsty American politicians and foreign diplomats. She served sour mash, hard cider and French brandy to those on the way to the White House before their dinner.
So Dolley reigned as first lady of Washington, after a fashion, for a half century, 1801-1852.
Lady Bird Johnson was a “Don’t Mess with Texas” first lady. After her husband, Lyndon, left the White House, Barbara Walters interviewed asked her about his relationships with other women. With a smile, “Yes, Lyndon has many friends. Some are women. You must know something about that. Your father ran a burlesque show in Boston.” Walters, who always tried to hide that fact, spluttered in response.
Another tough first lady was Barbara Bush, who had a long memory for those who crossed her husband, George H.W. When she was told that the husband of one longtime friend, the American-born Queen Noor of Jordan, didn’t back the United States in Desert Storm the way other Arab Nations did, Barbara cut her off. That included no invitations, and no answering phone calls.
As for future first ladies, my bet is that Cindy McCain would be a pink lady, and Michelle Obama would be a red-hot tomato.
James C. Humes, a former presidential speechwriter, is the former professor of language and leadership at Colorado State University/Pueblo. He is now Schuck Fellow and Visiting Historian at the University of Colorado/Colorado Springs. He is the author of “The Wit and Wisdom of Ronald Reagan.”
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