What You Don't Know About First Ladies

Did you know...

Barbara Bush keeps a secret diary.

• The White House residential quarters have no Wi-Fi.

Hillary Clinton used to take undercover walks outside the White House wearing an oversize baseball cap, baggy old clothes and huge sunglasses.

• That Michelle Obama wishes she could anonymously shop at Target and thinks her daughters don’t need cell phones?

You would have learned these little-known tidbits, and a lot more, had you attended “The Legacies of America’s First Ladies” conference Tuesday at American University.

The conference featured a series of panel discussions by staffers who worked for the last six first ladies, historians who wrote about first ladies and journalists who covered first ladies. They all offered insights into what has evolved into a high-profile, high pressure, highly criticized position that has no constitutional authority, comes with no pay and carries no job description.

Ask a first lady for her job description and she will say her job is to help her husband succeed as president in any way she can. But first ladies do that routinely, and a lot more. Each is able to put her own personal stamp on her tenure – whether it is women’s rights in Afghanistan, children’s rights around the world, eating healthy, literacy, alcohol and drug abuse or beautifying America.

First ladies have huge influence as public role models and advocates for various causes, drawing huge media and public attention to them. They also have enormous power through their behind-the-scenes closeness to the president

“The first lady is the one person who provides her husband with unfiltered advice and the one person who can’t be fired,” said Anita McBride, chief of staff for Laura Bush and organizer of the conference.

“They also help humanize the president,” said Susan Sher, who until January was Michelle Obama’s chief of staff.

By “humanize,” Sher means that they remind the American people that presidents have wives and families and often deal with the kinds of day-to-day problems they do – like when the underage Bush twins got caught using fake IDs to buy alcohol. They also can soften some of their husband’s rough edges when things aren’t going so well and make people cut them some slack.

Also, first ladies are their husbands’ closest confidantes and fiercest protectors. None more so than Nancy Reagan, who often played the role of tough guy in getting rid of people in the administration when she felt they were not helping her husband. She was key in forcing out Chief of Staff Donald Regan in the aftermath of Iran-contra

“She always had (President Reagan’s )back, and he knew it,” said Gahl Hodges Burt, Nancy Reagan’s social secretary.

Nancy Reagan also was a major influence in convincing her husband to create a friendship with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and engage in arms control negotiations, Burt said.

Similarly, the quiet and demure Rosalyn Carter was “a very influential political adviser” to husband Jimmy Carter on issues ranging from mental health treatment to the Camp David peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, said Kathryn Cade, Mrs. Carter’s director of projects.

Cade also reveled that Mrs. Carter sat in on many strategic meetings with her husband, including the Camp David negotiations, and took “amazing notes” which the president often referred to later on.

Some first ladies never let us get to know them, such as Pat Nixon, who always presented a firm smile and a kind of wooden wave, but little else to the public, despite some turbulent years in the White House.

But her whispered parting words, “So sad. So sad,” spoke volumes as Marine One lifted off the South Lawn after her husband’s 1974 resignation.

On the other hand, Betty Ford “blossomed” as first lady and eventually did great work using the example of her own drug abuse problems to help others.

First ladies are also have a sensitive finger on the pulse of what really matters to most Americans, Sher said Michelle Obama is a champ. She does not watch the cable TV political talk shows and injects a quick dose of reality to her staff whenever it spins into a tizzy about what’s being said on them.

“She says, ‘Whatever you all are obsessing about, people in the heartland are not thinking about that right now,’ ” said Sher.

And she passes that view of reality on to her husband, Sher said. “She is very grounding.”

Yet, Americans., and the media, attach a wide variety of expectations to their first ladies and are quick to react angrily when they feel she is not living up to their fluid concepts of what they think the job should be, how they should look and how they should act. They criticize their hairdos, their clothes, their causes, their tastes, their choices in food and their demeanor. They say one is too pushy, another is too docile, one is too arrogant and another is too extravagant. And if they look like they are trying to be too powerful, watch out. “Nobody elected you!” they shout.

Hillary Clinton became a punching bag when she took the lead in designing, promoting and lobbying for her husband’s health care plan. Many at the time didn’t think a first lady should be such an upfront player on the policy front.

But she scored a lot of positive points when she stoically stood by her husband and held her family together during the Monica Lewinsky crisis.

“You have to respect the choices these women make operating in very difficult circumstances,” said Melanne Verveer, chief of staff to Hillary Clinton and now ambassador-at-large for Global Women’s Issues.

Difficult, indeed.

It’s tough for any wife to sit by and smile when their husband is being so publicly vilified.

We all would have liked to get into the mind of Pat Nixon during Watergate. Laura Bush never blew her cool when her husband was being called a liar, a murderer and much worse by opponents of the Iraq War.

You can bet that Nancy Reagan would have loved to fire back at those who called her a showoff when she bought new White House china.

And there certainly were times when the outspoken and brutally frank Barbara Bush had to bite her tongue lest she chomp down on critics of Bush 41.

This brings us back to her secret diaries. Jean Becker, Barbara Bush’s deputy press secretary, revealed their existence. She said that as editor of the first lady’s memoirs, she read them all and they are pretty juicy.
But she said not to get our hopes up because we all will be dead when they come out, 50 years after Barbara Bush dies.

“Your great-grandchildren will get to know what’s in them,” she teased.

Richard Benedetto is a retired USA Today White House correspondent and columnist. He now teaches politics and journalism at American University.