Photo Ops, Public Images, and the Glare of the Press:

A Review of Rating the First Ladies


Friday, May 23, 2003

John B. Roberts II, Rating the First Ladies: The Women Who Influenced the Presidency (Citadel Press 2003)

Reading John B. Roberts's recent book, Rating the First Ladies, provides a fascinating glimpse at the evolution of the modern First Lady. One learns from it the vast difference between the public and private personas of these women: Many wielded tremendous political power privately, but projected a more passive image of femininity to the public's eye.

Though the author only alludes to it, the burgeoning role of the media plainly shaped this public/private contradiction. Often, society just was not ready to accept the true level of power that the First Lady had in the White House. The press's constant surveillance thus forced First Ladies to adopt a false public image, denying that they wielded much power at all.

This is a compelling book. Among other virtues, it provides a lively refresher course on American and presidential history. Within this historical account, it focuses on the role of each First Lady in influencing her husband's - or, in a few cases, uncle's or father's - policies and politics, and ensuring his electoral success.

The book would have been even stronger, however, if Roberts had made more comparisons and connections between and among the first ladies. Instead, he relies primarily on individual portraits - covering the highlights of the First Ladies in chronological order based on the start of the relevant Presidency.

Nevertheless, this thorough coverage at least allows the reader to make such comparisons and connections for herself when Roberts does not offer them.

In addition to his own analysis, Roberts also refers to the ratings of the Siena Research Institute poll of academics' ratings of the first ladies. It turns out that the Siena Institute's polls results are far less interesting than Roberts's own portraits of the First Ladies.

Roberts also makes a persuasive case that the Siena Institute's ratings are too heavily reliant on First Ladies' politics: First ladies who advocate or advance women's rights tend to rate higher, he points out. For instance, Siena rated Mamie Eisenhower lower than Roberts believes she deserved, simply because, he argues, the academics polled judged her for her traditional 1950s values regarding the role of women.

First Ladies and The Press: Photo Ops 101

Throughout the book, Roberts demonstrates how the popularity of each First Lady depends on her success with the media, and how each becomes increasingly aware of the importance of the role of the media in developing her public image. The popularity of a First Lady - and in turn, her President - often depended upon the skill with which both could manage and manipulate the media.

Grace Coolidge, for instance, "knew how to cultivate the media" because she "understood that a modern First Lady had to be accessible to the press," Roberts explains. She staged photo opportunities, posing with visiting diplomats, riding in parades, and cutting ribbons as the media watched. The author compares Coolidge to Jackie Kennedy and Hillary Clinton, "both of whom followed on the heels of matronly first ladies" and therefore, he contends, captivated the press and public.

Roberts deems Florence Harding "in many ways the first of the modern first ladies" because she understand the public role she was expected to play in the press. During the Harding Administration, Roberts notes, "Radio and mass-circulation newspapers combined to create the first mass media, and Florence learned to mask her dark side through cultivating relationships with the press."

Like Coolidge, Harding staged photo ops, this time with war veterans and the Animal Rescue League - fostering a positive image that Roberts suggests was at odds with her real personality.

Eleanor Roosevelt spoke out on radio and in speeches and in newspaper columns, as well as in newsreels that preceded feature films. Her writings and speeches may have been the key to her status as perhaps the best-loved first lady ever.

The Nixon White House was the first to try to stage the First Lady's press coverage to tie in with the activities of the president; Pat Nixon was on her way to becoming more political in her public role when Watergate intervened.

The Scandals That Weren't: First Ladies Before the Advent of Mass Media

Roberts chronicles how in the days before the development of mass media, many political scandals and marital infidelities failed to attract nationwide attention. They were the stuff of local gossip, not of national stories.

It wasn't that the scandals weren't shocking for their times, simply that the stories were not as widely disseminated. Eleanor Roosevelt lived apart from Franklin in a house with three women (one of whom was Eleanor's lover) while she published a paper, ran a school, and started a pottery business. Forty-something Grover Cleveland married the 21-year old he had helped raise from childhood.

And as Roberts writes, Mary Todd Lincoln, "[h]ad she lived today...would have been arrested for domestic violence": In her rages, she threw stovewood at Abraham Lincoln and once chased him with a butcher's knife. She also overspent exorbitantly on redecorating the White House, and on her own clothes--in just four months, she bought three hundred pairs of gloves! (Roberts should be applauded for adding colorful details like these, which spice up what could have been a dull read, and make these portraits come to life.)

Given today's media glare, it is hard to see how Lincoln could have become President given his wife's instability, or how the Roosevelts' unconventional living arrangement could have survived. Imagine the field day Fox News would have with what Franklin called Eleanor's "love nest."

How First Ladies Learned to Shape Their Own Public Images

As the role of the media expanded, it became more common for a potential First Lady to choose to shape her own public image in order to help her spouse get elected.

According to Roberts, Eleanor Roosevelt "would have stumped the country more extensively, except that Roosevelt's campaign strategists feared she would overshadow him."

Later, even "[w]ithout making her role public, Bess [Truman] plunged into campaign planning. She might remain silent, even stony faced, among groups of political figures, but she was listening carefully and making her own assessments. Later, she would privately offer Harry her counsel."

Barbara Bush projected an image of a wife who did not interfere with the presidency. Yet, as Roberts notes, like other first ladies before her, Barbara Bush was politically savvy and willing to get her hands, and the campaign, dirty. For instance, she influenced her husband to use the infamous "Willie Horton" ad in his campaign. (Similarly, Nancy Reagan was behind the investigation of Geraldine Ferraro's husband, which resulted in a criminal conviction.)

Sometimes, the President may invoke the First Lady in a media appearance as a defensive move, in order to evoke an image of familial happiness and stability. When Nixon came under attack for allegedly using an $18,000 slush fund for personal use, Pat appeared alongside him when he made a televised speech. In the speech, he mentioned her three times - talking of how she wore a cloth coat, not a fur one, and mentioning her fighting Irish spirit.

In retrospect, this seems a precursor of the famous 60 Minutes interview of Hillary and Bill Clinton. There, in the midst of Bill's first Presidential campaign, Hillary expressed support for Bill, and avowed the lasting strength of their marriage, despite rumors of his infidelity with Gennifer Flowers.

An Image of Gentility - In the Nineteenth Century, and Even Today?

Roberts explains that, by the end of the nineteenth century, "the role of First Lady had evolved into one of Victorian gentility. While many first ladies exercised substantial power privately, in public their role was to be hostess of the White House and, every four years, join in political campaigning." This description leads one to wonder, have things really changed that much between then and now?

Roberts later describes how Nancy Reagan had to soften her public image because the public viewed her as taking too aggressive a role in the President's policy and personnel decisions. And, to take a more dramatic example, consider the image makeover that, according to Roberts, Hillary Clinton undertook in response to controversy and criticism.

Hillary Clinton had to retreat from her health care plan and activist role, and "lower[] her public profile in policy making so as not to draw attention to the co-presidency that she shared with Bill." She then chose a more traditional "project" that would be acceptable to the public-- working on policies influencing children.

It seemed for a while, as if it might be different. As Roberts notes, it seemed Hillary might "legitimize the power sharing that so often exists between spouses in a political partnership by being so open about her involvement." But the failure of her healthcare policies to gain popular support, in combination with controversies such as TravelGate and Whitewater, Roberts explains, doomed any chance for public acknowledgement of a First Lady's true status as Presidential partner.

Today, Laura Bush, in my opinion (though not necessarily Roberts's), in stark contrast to her predecessor, seems actually to hearken a return to the image of Victorian gentility that Roberts evokes. From her modest manner of dress, to her traditionally feminine job as a librarian, to her eschewal of interest in policymaking, Laura Bush seems more gracious than powerful. Of course, behind the scenes, it may be another matter entirely.

Roberts claims at the start of his book that First Ladies, for a long time now, have been able to go as far as the public will let them: "[A]fter Eleanor Roosevelt, first ladies were free to be as active in the job as they wanted to be and to achieve as much as they wanted," he claims, "subject to the sole limitation every politician faces: They have to be able to maintain public and political support for their efforts."

What this statement leaves out, however, is that it is a different - and harder task - for a woman, than for a man, to win such support. Society demands that women, and thus First Ladies, conform to certain roles, and conditions its support, at times, on adherence to these stereotypes.

When women depart from these roles, as Hillary Clinton did, society may choose to punish rather than applaud. First ladies, then, are in an odd Catch-22 position: With their national podium, they are perfectly positioned to advance women's rights and causes. Yet they are restrained publicly by current standards of femininity from doing so as strongly as one might wish.

Eleanor Roosevelt was somehow able to be both political and popularly beloved, but she is the exception to a very powerful rule. And as noted above, in the glare of today's media, even Eleanor Roosevelt might not have been able to lead the life she had chosen.

One can only look forward with great anticipation to how the first male presidential spouse - First Man, perhaps - manages to fulfill his role as political spouse. He too will doubtless have to perform a delicate balancing act between public and private, like First Spouses before him.

Laura Hodes, a 2000 graduate of the University of Chicago Law School and a frequent FindLaw guest columnist and book reviewer, is an attorney and writer living in Chicago. Her work can be found on this site's guest columns archive, as well as in Slate and The New Republic Online.

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