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How America’s first ladies balanced public and private life

May 4, 2015 at 6:20 PM EDT
A new book takes an up-close look at the women who have called the White House home. "First Ladies: Presidential Historians and the Lives of 45 Iconic American Women" is a culmination of a year-long series by C-SPAN. Judy Woodruff talks to book editor and C-SPAN co-CEO Susan Swain about the influence they wielded behind the scenes and what the role of a “first man” might look like.
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GWEN IFILL: Now, to our PBS NewsHour Bookshelf.

The next election will bring new residents to the White House, including a new first spouse. A new book, “First Ladies: Presidential Historians on the Lives of 45 Iconic American Women,” focuses on the women who have called it home. It’s a culmination of C-SPAN’s year-long history series.

Judy Woodruff and editor Susan Swain sat down to talk about the book not long ago, in the First Ladies Water Garden at the Botanical Gardens in Washington. Its granite stones were built to resemble the quilt patterns made famous by Martha Washington.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Susan Swain, co-CEO of C-SPAN, moderate of the series on the first ladies, now editor of this book on the first ladies, welcome. Thank you for talking with us.

I have heard some people say this may be the most difficult job in Washington, to be first lady. It’s a job with no real job definition. People — the expectations are sky-high. People are watching you all the time, and yet you haven’t been chosen by the American people. You haven’t been elected. How did you see that?

SUSAN SWAIN, Editor, “First Ladies: Presidential Historians on the Lives of 45 Iconic American Women”: There is a duality in the lives of the first ladies that you see from right very earlier days.

We have a quote associated with each first lady at the beginning of a chapter. And Martha Washington’s captured this. She says: “I feel like a prisoner of the state. I can’t go out in a public place, and so I stay inside.”

She really reflected that she was living a life that wasn’t exactly hers and everything was under scrutiny; 100 years later, Grace Coolidge said of being first lady, “It was I, and yet not I.”  There was the public Grace Coolidge and the private Grace Coolidge. And trying to find the sweet spot between those is what is the interesting thing in this book, because some women do it very successfully. Others really chafe under the glare of the spotlight that has always been part of being first lady.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There are so many, Susan Swain, so many remarkable stories in here, some of them poignant, some of them funny. What are your favorites?

SUSAN SWAIN: Well, my favorites are the ones that I didn’t know anything about. The Coolidges were great lovers of animals. And someone gave the Coolidges a raccoon that they meant them to have as dinner. And the Coolidges were horrified, and so they made a pet of it instead, named it Rebecca, and she moved into the White House. Rebecca is one of my favorite stories.

I also like Florence Harding. Florence Harding is someone that we always think about all the scandals in the Harding administration. But she was really quite a strong woman. And she had a real sense of marketing. She brought Hollywood into the equation during the campaign, used the newsreels at the time to tell the story of the White House.

But her sense of duty, she was really very connected to the veterans and veterans’ issues, but she also really wanted to open the White House up to the public. She thought it was the public’s house and would spend countless hours shaking hands as the public went through.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There are some traditions that you see, patterns that you see through the experiences of these first ladies. And one is their interest in beautifying Washington, making this a lovelier place, in fact making the country lovelier, starting with Mrs. Taft.

SUSAN SWAIN: Washington and cherry trees are synonymous now. People come from all over the country and even all over the world when our cherry blossoms bloom every year. That was Helen Taft’s idea.

She had lived in Asia with her husband. He was the U.S. representative to the Philippines. And she spent some time in Japan and fell in love with the cherry blossoms. The city was — especially around the Tidal Basin, was really very undeveloped and it was a dirt track that people used to race their carriages on at 15 miles an hour. She had a vision that it could be a place where people would come from all over the city, as they do now — her vision really played out — to walk beneath the cherry blossoms and really enjoy it as family.

The Japanese government heard about this and donated the first cherry blossoms, which she dedicated in 1912. And then, in the ’60s, Lady Bird Johnson her beautification program, which was a complement to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society efforts. She thought that the capital needed to be a place that people could be proud of, and it would set the stage for other cities around the country.

And that in fact happened. She planted 3,000 more cherry trees. And then in 2012, it was the 100th anniversary, and Michelle Obama went down to the Tidal Basin and planted centenary trees. So, it’s a tradition that has made its way through 100 years of first ladies history.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We talk a lot about the softer side of their effect on the president and their effect on the country, but, in fact, some of them significant influence.

SUSAN SWAIN: And that’s one of the things that is so interesting about uncovering their stories, because they had a great deal of influence. But they aren’t recorded. We don’t have to keep records about that.

And yet they go to bed every night with the most powerful person in the world, and the first person that person talks to in the morning. And most first ladies have learned how to use that Influence wisely.

Even Mary Todd Lincoln — Abraham Lincoln was devastated after his unsuccessful early run for the Senate. And it was Mary Todd who said, you can do this. What if she hadn’t been that kind of encouragement to him, and we wouldn’t have had Abraham Lincoln rising up in politics?  It goes on throughout history.

You very well know the story of Nancy Reagan and how powerful she was in a very quiet way in this town. She didn’t have obvious influence, but we know that she watched his back all the time and was his closest personal adviser. They worked as a couple from the time he entered politics.

The women in the Victorian age, Frances Clevelandwas out youngest first lady, enormously popular, first celebrity first lady. And yet her husband didn’t want her in the public eye. So, she had to find other ways to wield her influence. He’s our only nonsequential president.

She actually when they lost the White House after the first time, turned and said to the staff, keep the drapes as they are. We will be back in four years. And they were. She was right about that.

(LAUGHTER)

SUSAN SWAIN: She knew. She knew the strength of their political power.

But I think, over time, you see women emerging more, beginning to get their feet, using the media more as a venue. And then in this modern age, from the ’60s on, we now have this project that every first lady seems to have.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Hillary Clinton stands out as a first lady who, of course, went on in her on way to serve as secretary of state, now running for president herself.

I think the question on a lot of people’s minds since is, she’s given this a serious shot, how much thought is being given to what the role of the first gentleman or first husband would be?

SUSAN SWAIN: I think it will be very interesting.

We had an interview with Laura Bush. And she speculated about whether or not we had reached the maturity level as a country to allow the people — the spouses in this job to have their own lives, to have their own careers.

And of course there’s all kinds of conflict of interest at that level of politics that come into it. But we’re about to put that to the test during this campaign. And lots of questions will be asked about the roles of the two Clintons and what role he might have in the White House.

The interesting thing is the social side wouldn’t go away in a Clinton White House. So you can’t see the first gentleman being the social partner that the first ladies often are. So, it is fun watching the different trends and things that come full circle throughout the lives of the first ladies.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Some amazing stories.

The book is “First Ladies: Presidential Historians on the Lives of 45 Iconic American Women.”

Susan Swain, thank you.

SUSAN SWAIN: Well, thanks for your interest.

 

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