TOPICS > Politics

History and the Role of the First Lady

January 15, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: We go first tonight to some historical perspective on the role and position of the First Lady. That has been current by the Whitewater and Travel Office storms now surrounding the current First Lady, Hillary Clinton. Tomorrow she begins a national tour promoting her new book on children’s issues. But much of the questioning is expected to center on the storms and her role as First Lady. That is what happened today when she took calls on Public Radio’s Diane Rehm Show from Washington.

CALLER: (The Diane Rehm Show) I believe you are perfectly capable of standing on your own two feet and defending yourself, but President Clinton and the national media are seeking to hide you behind Eleanor Roosevelt and make you Eleanor II. I think this strategy is not complimentary to you and it is not a strategy of truth. As a 21-year-old youngster, I cast my first vote for Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. And by chance, I knew Eleanor Roosevelt. And, Hillary Clinton, you are no Eleanor Roosevelt.

DIANE REHM: (The Diane Rehm Show) All right, Oliver, thanks.

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: (The Diane Rehm Show) Oliver, I’ve never said I was, and I cannot imagine anyone for whom I have higher regard than Mrs. Roosevelt, but I do think it’s fair to say that she engendered quite a lot of controversy and criticism. Her husband gave her a job during the war, and congressional opposition drove her from that job, so although I make absolutely no claim to in any way approach the model and the work that she did, I do believe that there are some similarities that historians have pointed out.

JIM LEHRER: And now we examine some of those First Lady similarities. It comes–that examination comes from three NewsHour regulars, Presidential Historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss, journalist and author Haynes Johnson, joined tonight by Carl Sferrazza Anthony, historian and author of First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents’ Wives and Their Power 1789-1990. Doris, you are the expert on Eleanor Roosevelt. Make the comparison.

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, Presidential Historian: (Boston) Well, I think what Hillary means in a certain sense is that there is a role model that she has looked for in terms of potential in Eleanor Roosevelt. Long before the Whitewater troubles, long even before she became First Lady, she’d read every book about Eleanor, because Eleanor represented the first First Lady who really transformed the role of First Lady from a more ceremonial one to a truly activist one, who could do things that were remembered by history over time. And I think Hillary had that ambition, that purpose when she came into the role. I think it’s also true that once she got into trouble on health care and other issues, she looks to Eleanor for solace, because it gives her a great deal of comfort to remember that people wrote FDR and said, what’s the matter with you, do you have lace on your pants for allowing this wife of yours to speak out so much, can’t you chain her up, can’t you shut her up? It gives her a certain comfort to know that that kind of criticism followed another controversial First Lady. Where the difference is strong, however, is that Eleanor always chose to be an outsider. She actually gave voice to people who did not have access to power, poor people, women, migrant workers, blacks, and helped give them a voice in the government. Hillary chose, by contrast, to be an inside policy maker, and that’s a much more controversial choice because it means you’re an unelected character inside the White House with lots of power. And people have always had trouble with that. So I think that’s where the similarities are real, but there’s differences as well.

JIM LEHRER: Michael, other similarities with other First Ladies, do others come to mind?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Yes. One who is sometimes forgotten in this whole business, and that is Rosalyn Carter, who in the late 1970’s was a very extended adviser to her husband on all manner of subjects. We’re finding out more and more about that as the Carter Papers are opened down in Georgia. And she really did bring out this tradition of a First Lady not only being involved in the ceremonial side but in a much more political role. The difference between a First Lady like Rosalyn Carter and Hillary Clinton, however, is that Rosalyn Carter gave private advice. She was involved in a health–excuse me–a mental health task force. She also attended cabinet meetings, but that is not quite the same thing as Hillary Clinton being involved in the most or one of the most central programs of her husband’s administration. And that was the effort during the first two years to carry out one of his principal campaign promises, and that was to bring health care to every American.

JIM LEHRER: Now, Haynes, even more recent than that, Mark Shields on this program Friday night made the comparison with Nancy Reagan. And after all, Shields who was defending Hillary Clinton, said a lot of the people who were criticizing Hillary Clinton remained mute when Nancy Reagan “fired” Donald Regan as White House Chief of Staff.

HAYNES JOHNSON, Journalist/Author: Well, she’s right. I mean, Nancy Reagan did do that, and she had an enormous role in the White House, and personnel and people who couldn’t cross her, and that’s the record of that administration. And I think it may be the record with Hillary Clinton also. The difference is that she never was, she, Nancy Reagan, never had what we just heard right here, a policy role over lawmaking. That’s a big huge leap forward, and this is what Eleanor Roosevelt, as Doris said, never did. She never–nor did any of the other First Ladies–

JIM LEHRER: She was one of the people knocking on the door for the–

MR. JOHNSON: Yeah. The influence is one thing. Influence in many ways, I mean, going all the way back from the beginning, we’ve had a split personality about our First Ladies. We want them to be First Hostess; we want them to be hostess and charming and lovely and First Wife and all that, but don’t get involved too much in policy, and for heaven’s sakes, don’t cross the line between professional activity and law and legislation, and that’s what Hillary Clinton has done.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Col. Anthony, take us back further than that. You’ve studied all the First Ladies from the very beginning.

CARL SFERRAZZA ANTHONY, Historian: This–there has always been almost from the beginning a political role played by First Ladies and to some degree made public either through her husband’s political enemies, or through some good reporting, and this goes back to Abigail Adams who, in fact, was so well known to be a political influence on her husband’s thinking that she was called by Albert Gallatin of the Anti-Federalist Party, Mrs. President not of a nation but of a faction, and she was actually criticized in the press. At a time when the President was trying to keep the country from going to war with France, Mrs. Adams apparently was agitating towards going to war with France. You saw Nelly Taft.

JIM LEHRER: Do you mean inside or outside?

MR. ANTHONY: In–it was an internal discussion between the two of them.


MR. ANTHONY: But it leaked out through actually some cabinet advice.

JIM LEHRER: I got you.

MR. ANTHONY: We saw with Mrs. Taft the reorganization of what was, I suppose, then the White House Travel Office. She cut a deal with Pierce Arrow so they would provide a full fleet of automobiles–

JIM LEHRER: Oh, wow.

MR. ANTHONY: –and allow advertisement, free advertisement for the–

JIM LEHRER: She did this on her own?

MR. ANTHONY: Mrs. Taft did, yes, during the transition, and also then fired staff members who had been loyal to Theodore Roosevelt, because she mistrusted Roosevelt and the impact of Roosevelt Republicans on the more conservative Tafts. Mrs. Harding was involved in establishing and setting up the Veterans–

JIM LEHRER: You’re working on a book now on Mrs. Harding.

MR. ANTHONY: On Mrs. Harding.


MR. ANTHONY: And she helped to establish the Veterans Bureau and put into place its first director and one of the great scandals of the Hardy Administration was the Veterans Bureau scandal with its director, Charlie Forbes, on the take, and Mrs. Harding thought of but decided against appearing as a character witness during his hearings. You had Mrs. Grant, who on Inauguration Day, of course, Ulysses Grant, after taking this swearing in, before he began his speech, turned to her and he said, “I hope you’re satisfied now.” Mrs. Grant was involved and implicated in the public press, and the scandal known as Black Friday, the cornering of the gold market in 1869, and House Democrats on the Banking Committee were pressing to have her appear because she profited apparently by $25,000, a fact William McFeelly, Grant’s great biographer, says has never been clarified, and Mrs. Grant clarified by saying a decimal point had been mistakenly moved, and it was actually $25.00.

JIM LEHRER: Michael, what does this say?

MR. BESCHLOSS: I think what it says is that First Ladies have been involved in politics through history, but I think it’s a matter of degree and how prominent and out front the involvement has been. Nowadays that we’re getting into a generation in which wives of husbands are much more involved professionally. It’s going to be much more frequent in the future that you have Presidents with wives or Presidents with husbands who’ve been involved in politics, and I think you’ll see in the future many of the same things as we’ve seen with Hillary Clinton, a First Lady who combines the traditional ceremonial role with the political role, and that is very different from what’s been in the past, because in a way a First Lady gave a President the benefit of the way, for instance, a monarch unifies a nation, sort of a non-political healing role, something that gives a President a great deal of popularity. In a way that could be very much now in the past.

JIM LEHRER: Doris, on the attack side, the parallels between what has–the attacks on Hillary Clinton, how do they compare with those on Eleanor Roosevelt? Would anybody ever call her a congenital liar in print? Has this happened to Mrs. Clinton?

MS. GOODWIN: Well, they did quite a lot of things. There were rumors constantly about Eleanor Roosevelt. It was said that every time she went into the South she had organized black women into creating something called “Eleanor Tuesdays,” whereby they would go out on the street and knock a white woman down as bounty for Eleanor Roosevelt. Poor Eleanor, of course, had never created such a thing, but she had to somehow get rid of the notion that she had done these terrible things. There were rumors that she would give people jobs and give them a little note, and then they’d go to a factory and say, Eleanor told me, I’m supposed to get a job from you just because of this note, but I think you look way back even past Eleanor. I mean, think about poor Rachel Jackson. I mean, that’s even worse than Eleanor, even worse than Hillary Clinton. There was a–

JIM LEHRER: I saw that movie. I know about that. (everyone laughing)

MS. GOODWIN: Think about it. First of all, they said that she didn’t fit the feminine model that she was supposed to be to be the head of the female society because she smoked a pipe, she preferred riding horses, rather than sitting gloriously in the carriage, and worse among worse, she had actually been married first, gotten a divorce, but the divorce wasn’t quite final when she married Andrew Jackson, so she’s a bigamist. I mean, she was so upset by that criticism it said that it hastened her heart attack and her death before he even became actually inaugurated as President. So I think what’s been said before, there’s always going to be a tax because partisan attacks on the President are going to go toward that wife, and it’s never been a defined role. We don’t really know what we make of it. All we know is we want her to be a ceremonial character carrying out, as was said before, those chief of state roles, so if she’s not there, we get angry with her.

JIM LEHRER: And Haynes, isn’t that one of the issues here, is accountability, that nobody voted, yet, she has power and yet unlike cabinet officers, she–cabinet officers at least have to go appear before Congress. They have to do some things, but the First Lady doesn’t have to do that.

MR. JOHNSON: She wasn’t elected. She’s not in the Constitution. She has no authority to write legislation and legally and so forth and yet, in fact, what this First Lady has done transcends the role. She is the first career professional in the White House, for sure, a First Lady, as you said, Michael, but she’s also making policy-affecting laws, and in the health care case, it was one-seventh the entire economy. And that is bound to attract anybody who’s going to be in that position. I think Mark said it was–or Gigot, on your show, she was the Harry Hopkins of this administration.


MR. JOHNSON: That was a very good analogy, I thought, because she was not only a political adviser as First Ladies have been, but she was also helping to form policy and write the laws, or form through the Congress. That’s a very different role, and that’s a lightning rod.

JIM LEHRER: Yeah. And that is a different role, is it not, Carl?

MR. ANTHONY: Yes, it is, but there have been a couple of instances of women early on who were involved. They were advisers. They didn’t actually put pen to paper in crafting legislation, as Hillary Clinton as an attorney is capable of doing. But, you know, the issue of, of a First Lady and her power is–there’s a larger issue going on here. What it is, is it’s unchecked power, and the spouse of a President, the spouse of a leader, short of a constitutional amendment saying that a President must be single, divorced, or widowed, there is no way getting around this. You’re not going to bring a Senate investigating committee into the bedroom. Alfonse D’Amato is not going to–

MR. JOHNSON: Oh, I wouldn’t count on that. (laughter among group) Not today.

MR. ANTHONY: D’Amato can’t say that Mrs. Clinton must divorce the President. I mean, when we had the Soviet Union, there were questions about Raisa Gorbachev. I mean, this is an issue of the unchecked power, and Mrs. Clinton has operated overtly, but Mrs. Clinton could very well have operated covertly. Now, because she chose not to, she’s more vulnerable to this kind of partisan attack.

JIM LEHRER: And, thus, more publicly accountable because she chose to go this route, is that what you’re saying?


MS. GOODWIN: That’s right.

JIM LEHRER: That was her choice. You agree with that, Doris?

MS. GOODWIN: Oh, actually, I think that’s a better choice for the country at large. I mean, would we rather have Nancy Reagan charting Reagan’s course with her astrologer charts, or have Hillary Clinton at least make the stab at saying this is what I’m going to do? Look, it didn’t work out right. We all know that the health care thing failed, but had it worked, this would have been the first time the First Lady had actually created national health insurance, had a public policy war, and then maybe she would have gone onto welfare. It was a huge risk. And just because it failed doesn’t mean that it wasn’t the right thing to have an overt job. I’d much rather know what she’s doing, rather than having some charts in the background telling me what the husband should do.

JIM LEHRER: As a matter of politics, Haynes, is there any evidence one way or another that, that people cast votes based on what the First Lady–I mean, people say, hey, I like Jackie better than Pat Nixon, so I’m going to vote for Jack Kennedy, I like Barbara Bush better than I do Hillary, I’m going to vote for George Bush?

MR. JOHNSON: I don’t think there’s any evidence in political science or whatever that would show that that’s the case, but I do think that voters do make a choice in their impressions of a President. It is the President you’re voting for. And in this case, with Hillary Clinton or the Roosevelts, I would say, Doris may disagree people knew that they were so closely aligned, and they represented something together. I think the Clintons do too in terms of policy, what they stand for, so I, so I think in this case it’s harder to separate the role, but I don’t think they voted for Nancy Reagan. They voted for Ronald Reagan. I think they voted for Franklin Roosevelt, not Eleanor. I think they’ll vote for Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton and Hillary may be the closest analogy–


MR. JOHNSON: –in this case.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think about that, Mike?

MR. BESCHLOSS: I think Haynes is absolutely right, although it does have a lot to do with Presidents going up and down. One example, Jacqueline Kennedy, remember her as someone who was uniformly popular during the Kennedy years, that isn’t quite so. I’ve gone back to the Gallup polls for her. She was not only up and down, there was a lot of criticism of her, of all things, for not being politically enough, that this was someone who liked to travel to Europe, liked to be with her family–

JIM LEHRER: Speak French and all that.

MR. BESCHLOSS: –did not cam–absolutely–didn’t campaign with her husband, didn’t do the kind of things that many First Ladies did. And so the result is that a President has to think very carefully about his wife or husband in the future as a political entity, but I agree with Haynes, not decisively.

JIM LEHRER: What does long history tell us about this, Carl?

MR. ANTHONY: I think what’s also going on here is we sort of treat our First Ladies like we treat our mothers. You know, we basically love them; we basically want the best; but there’s always going to be a couple of kids who can’t stand what they do and a couple of kids who think that they did the best thing. And so Hillary is always going to have a constituency that says she’s doing the right thing, and she’s a perfect role model, and then there’s going to be a bunch of other kids who say she’s doing the wrong thing. You find the same thing with Mrs. Bush. People loved Mrs. Bush, but there is also an element that felt Mrs. Bush didn’t use the opportunity to speak out on public issues. That was her choice. This has no constitutional outline, this role.

JIM LEHRER: Has–do you–what is your reading of history on the question of whether or not people have voted for or against a President based on his, what they thought about his wife?

MR. ANTHONY: I would say here and now right now on this show we should recommend that as in Exit Polls this November for the first time that people be asked the question whether or not they voted for or against a candidate because of his spouse, because that’s never been asked in any Exit Poll.

JIM LEHRER: Do you have a thought about that, Doris?

MS. GOODWIN: Oh, I think there’s some sense in which–and I think Haynes mentioned this earlier–subconsciously when you vote for the President, I think you’re really voting about what his leadership is going to make a difference in your own life, and that’s the primary thing, but subconsciously, the relationship he has with his wife, particularly when they’re partners, as Hillary and Bill have been, as Eleanor and Franklin, that’s got to make an impact. It’s part of the whole package. Certainly, there were some studies shown that blacks, when they moved from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party in 1936 and 1940, they, themselves, said it was more Eleanor than Franklin that pushed them in that direction. So I think there’s no question it has an impact, but certainly you’re not voting, otherwise, George Bush would have won in 1992. Look how popular Mrs. Bush was, but it didn’t affect him.

JIM LEHRER: Right. I got you. Doris, gentlemen, thank you all very much.