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The Role of the First Lady

Think Tank Transcripts: First Ladies

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MR. WATTENBERG: Hillary Rodham Clinton. Is she the most powerfulwoman in Washington today, and if so, is that something new? Joiningus to sort through the conflict and the consensus are historian DorisKearns Goodwin, author of the forthcoming book, 'No Ordinary Time:Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, The American Homefront During WorldWar II'; Gil Troy, assistant professor of history at McGillUniversity and author of the forthcoming, 'Co-Presidency: TheEmergence of Presidential Couples Since World War II'; SuzanneGarment, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute andauthor of 'Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics';and Stephen Hess, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution andauthor of 'Organizing the Presidency.'

The topic before this house: the role of the first lady. This weekon 'Think Tank.'

The founding fathers fiercely debated how the president should beaddressed. The Senate offered 'His Highness, the President of theUnited States and Protector of Liberty.' But the House ofRepresentatives, God bless them, demanded and got the simple and moredemocratic 'Mr. President.'

But should the president's wife have a formal title? None appearsin the Constitution. The term 'first ' did not become common untilthe late 1800s. Martha Washington was hailed as 'Lady Washington.'Abigail Adams, an ardent partisan defender of her husband was deridedas 'Mrs. President.' Harriet Lane, niece of President James Buchanannot Pat Buchanan, served as his first lady and was called 'America'sDemocratic Queen.'

Many first ladies have wielded considerable power. Edith Wilsonacted as de facto president after her husband's stroke, promptingmany to complain about the 'petticoat presidency.' And EleanorRoosevelt: Eleanor Roosevelt was a legendary and independentpolitical force. Jacqueline periodically acted as her husband'ssurrogate at campaign and ceremonial functions, but in the beginning,she told her staff not to use the title 'first lady,' saying itsounded too much like the name of a saddle horse.

More recently, Nancy Reagan was credited and criticized forexercising behind the scenes veto power with a heavy hand.

Now, Hillary Rodham Clinton is the first first lady in a newfeminist era with impressive professional achievements andcredentials of her own. From the start, she was put in charge of theClinton administration's most ambitious and controversial program,health care reform. However, her public prominence has attracted bothintense admiration and passionate criticism. Panel, let us begin withone fast question, going around the room, beginning with Doris KearnsGoodwin. Doris and I were colleagues for a brief period on the LyndonJohnson White House staff. Of course, you were only six at the time.

MS. GOODWIN: (Laughs) Wish that that were so.

MR. WATTENBERG: Our opening question: What is the proper role ofthe first lady in the 1990s?

MS. GOODWIN: Well, the most extraordinary thing, I think, is thathistory suggests that the proper role is what the first lady definesit to be. It may be different in the 1990s, but up until today, eachfirst lady has been allowed to become what she wanted.

Look at the difference between Eleanor Roosevelt, the mostpublicized woman of her time; the next woman that comes, Bess Truman,can hide out in the White House, nobody gets mad. Jackie Kennedycomes along. She's got hats, she's got coats, she's running around instyle. The next woman that follows her wears a cloth coat.

So, so far, we've been incredibly tolerant, allowing the firstlady to decide what she wants to be. That may be changing right now.

MR. WATTENBERG: Let me go to Steve Hess. Now, Steve Hess was onthe White House staff of Dwight Eisenhower. He was only 13 at thetime (laughter). It was a bar mitzvah present, as I recall. But inany event, how would you put it, Steve? What is the proper role ofthe first lady?

MR. HESS: Well, similarly to what Doris said, but of course we seewe have to start not at the beginning, but at the end. And thepresent first couple have created an exceptionally interesting highwire act. The idea of a truly almost co presidency is very high risk.If they pull it off, I think other subsequent presidents and theirspouses may do the same thing.

But as a rule of political public administration, it is adangerous proposition to give a great deal of responsibility to aperson you can't fire. And in terms of staff, it is a very trickybusiness to be sitting around the table and one of your co equalstaff is also the spouse of the president of the United States. So ifthey can pull it off, then that could very importantly change theconcept of the presidency.

MR. WATTENBERG: Gil Troy, Steve Hess mentioned your magic word,which is 'co presidency.' What do you think the role of the modernfirst lady or the spouse of the president, because there is noofficial term 'first lady' what do you think her role ought to be?

MR. TROY: Certainly there is no proper role. There are no rights,there are no wrongs.

MR. WATTENBERG: Excuse me. I should point out in this chronology,Gil Troy was born during the administration of Ronald Reagan(laughter).

MR. TROY: I have to say that watching the relationship between thepresidential couple and the American people is kind of like watchinga bad date unfold. It seems that the presidential couple at one handdoesn't know whether to be substantive or more focusing on style, andthe American people don't know what they want.

Do they want the first lady and if you read the first lady'scorrespondence, as I have read of Eleanor Roosevelt's, of MamieEisenhower's, of Bess Truman's even at that time, people were saying,we want you to help us out, we want you to take on more of aleadership role. And at the same time, when first ladies do take moreof a role, everybody says, whoa, you're overstepping your bounds,you're Lady Macbeth. So it's very contradictory and no one is quitesure what to do.


MS. GARMENT: I think the proper role of the first lady is to dowhatever it is that strengthens the presidency and thus enables us tobe properly led and governed. What it takes varies enormously overtime, and the situation is made especially difficult by our nationalfear of nepotism and its consequences.

MR. WATTENBERG: Is Hillary Clinton different? People going aroundsaying some men can't stand her because she is a powerful woman andthey've never dealt with powerful women, and she is the first postfeminist. Is she different?

MS. GOODWIN: Well, you know, I think what's different about her isthat she does have the women's movement behind her. What's notdifferent is that Eleanor Roosevelt exercised a lot of the same powerthat we seem to think Hillary is exercising first. She testifiedbefore a congressional committee, she held regular press conferences,she had a syndicated column, she had radio broadcasts. We've sort offorgotten that. Because Eleanor was so unusual, so far ahead of hertime, there are no

MR. WATTENBERG: You sound as if you've written a book about this(laughter).

MS. GOODWIN: Oh, I know. I can't forget. Still, I think what'sdifferent about Hillary is that she has both the strength and theweaknesses of representing the modern women. So when people getfrightened of her, it's not just her. They're frightened of what allof us are becoming. When they love her, it's because she'srepresenting a new possibility for women.

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, let me ask the two women on the panel, whoeach happened to be married to very distinguished husbands in theirown right.

MS. GARMENT: You first. (Laughter)

MR. WATTENBERG: But Suzie and Doris are not on this programbecause they are 'wife of.' They are distinguished academics. Isn'tthis a strange situation, that the feminist cause is saying, isn'tthis great that Hillary Clinton has this power, when in fact she isthe anathema of what they were talking about, which is 'wife of'?

MS. GARMENT: I don't think many feminists today would say 'wifeof' is necessarily pejorative. A lot of people were born on thirdbase, and this is one of those cases. So I'm not sure that it wouldbe considered as much of a contradiction as perhaps it should be.

MS. GOODWIN: I mean, clearly, for the feminist movement, having awoman elected in her own right and being the president would bebetter than having this power devolved to a first lady. On the otherhand, Hillary has made of a position that really has only potentialpower in it she's created the power that she has right now. And Ithink that's what the feminists are applauding, not just that she'sthe wife and she's sitting there as Mrs. Clinton.

MR. TROY: So how come feminists didn't applaud Nancy Reagan? Imean Nancy Reagan was a powerful woman who took advantage ofopportunities, and I always try to annoy my students by treating heras a feminist icon.

MS. GOODWIN: I think the difference is that Hillary Clinton hasbeen at least out front about what she's doing in the administration.She made it clear from the start that she was taking on certainresponsibilities, which gives her a little more accountability. Thefear for Nancy Reagan, I think on the part of some people, was thatall of her power was behind the scenes. The astrologers were floatinginto Washington. You didn't know where her power was being exercised.

MR. TROY: Although Hillary Clinton also changed her tune. In themiddle of the campaign, when people felt that she was coming on toostrong, all of a sudden they had this 'Manhattan Project,' where theyput her under wraps and she put away her scarves, and all of asudden, she was, you know, the mom, and she was baking chocolate chipcookies.

MR. HESS: I think that's an important point, because if we aregoing to have a co presidency, then the American people in a sensehave to vote on it. It has to be up front when you're running foroffice. I mean, I feel sort of put upon because at that point, I wassaying, hey, why all of this attention to the families, and so forth;we're voting for the president.

Well, that wasn't true, as it turned out. So I think the press hasa perfect responsibility to focus on others if indeed they're goingto assume that role ultimately.

MR. WATTENBERG: Steve, you can probably give a better fix on thisthan anyone. Hillary Clinton, as I understand it, is the first firstlady to have an office in the West Wing of the White House. If youcan give us a little architectural history about what that means andher own staff the East Wing, the West Wing, all that stuff. I thinkit's important.

MR. HESS: Yeah. It's a big proximity to power game that's playedaround the White House. The West Wing is where the president has hisoffice, and the closer to the president, the better off you are as anassistant. The East Wing, the other side of the residence, is wherethey usually put the social office and the first lady.

So the movement from the East Wing to the West Wing, in Washingtonterms, is very, very significant.

MR. WATTENBERG: And she has a staff there, a staff of substantivepeople dealing with personnel and dealing with

MR. HESS: Well, she is a public official. There is nothing undercover about the situation now. The question is, will this be thesituation in the future, because of course the odds are very great,given where presidents come from, the upper middle class, that theirspouses will also be what the Bureau of Labor Statistics calls fromthe managerial professional class.

Now, what happens when the spouse is a professional like that?They could take a Marilyn Quayle or Dennis Thatcher role and justdecide that for that period of four or eight years, they will assumethe traditional role.

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, but Marilyn Quayle was 'second lady.'(Laughter)

MR. HESS: Well, but she has

MR. WATTENBERG: And Barbara Bush was first lady, and she wascharacterized

MS. GARMENT: Well, she wielded a lot of power, but not in aterribly public way. I mean she was very visible as a figure. Ibelieve she also wielded a lot of political power in private. Butthat White House worked very well in that regard. She was notgenerally known as a Madame Dufarge or the keeper of the list.

MR. WATTENBERG: She was not known as the Madame Dufarge

MS. GARMENT: But she was.

MR. WATTENBERG: But she was.

MS. GARMENT: No, no. That's too nice a lady. (Laughter)

MR. TROY: Putting these things in broader perspective, what we'rereally seeing is the expansion of presidential power. I mean, a lotof what's going on in the last 40 years it's not just what EleanorRoosevelt did, but it's also what Franklin Roosevelt did and what theprogressive movement did in terms of as the government becomes moreinvolved in daily life, people have more demands, not only on thepresident, but on his wife.

There is in a sense a kind of first mommy/first daddy phenomenongoing on, where people turn to the first lady as first nurturer. Helpus out if we have troubles. If we're invalid, if we're widows, ifwe're frustrated with our children, we turn to the first ladies, wewrite letters to the first ladies saying, you can help us with thegovernment.

And I think that's because the government has become more involvedin our personal lives.

MS. GARMENT: So this puts a first lady in an untenable position,though. If you're going to be first nurturer, you have to have theimage of being a very nurturing human being. If you're going to carryout any official or quasi official duties, you have to be prettytough. And the two are in tension, and I think we're seeing them intension right now.

MR. HESS: But couldn't you have your professional first spouseassume their professional life? It depends on what they do. BillBradley's wife is a professor of German and comparative literature.She could have been that.

MS. GOODWIN: I think we should allow them to do that, but on theother hand, there's no reason to be angry at Hillary for assuming herprofessional life as a policymaker. That's what she was, that's whatshe is. I mean I don't think it necessarily means that all firstladies are going to become Hillary Clinton. MR. HESS: That's right,but Hillary had a choice, though. I just want to say, Hillary had achoice. Before she was a lawyer. She probably couldn't have gone toprivate practice, but she could have been a professor of law veryeasily, but she

MS. GOODWIN: But it seems like policy is her passion. That's whatshe wants to do.

MR. WATTENBERG: But, Doris, when then Hillary Clinton, who hasbeen appointed by her husband as the czarina of health care, which isone seventh of our economy, without a confirmation process, gets insome political trouble Whitewater, cow futures, whatever it ispeople, you know, normally I mean Bernie Nussbaum got in someproblems and he was out of here, you know, gone doesn't she then haveto have the accountability? And how can you have the accountability?You say, I divorce you? Walk around her three times and say, you'reout of here?

MS. GOODWIN: No. The accountability will come in that whatHillary's or a person like Hillary's power depends on is herreputation. If her reputation is hurt by some sort of scandal or bysome sort of misdeeds, then her reputation will be hurt and she willnot have the same power. So her power will be diminished anyway, evenif the husband can't divorce her. She'll be banished. You'll see, youwon't see her as much. In fact, in tough times, we haven't seenHillary as much, and she comes forward when things are better. Sothere is a look, the White House isn't concerned, right? They havelots of power. They can be fired, yes, that's a difference. Butstill, I think reputation is the most important asset a person has ina Washington community. And we do have accountability. If she getshurt, it'll be destroyed.

MS. GARMENT: It's interesting that we are so hesitant to acceptthat kind of informal means of control. And I was mentioning nepotismbefore, and I think that it's a very deep seated fear in ourpolitics. Someone who has reached power through blood relationshipwith a public or marriage relationship with a public official hasn'tcompeted in the same race. We may be better at it, but we can't getthere.

So it's a kind of slap in the face to an egalitarian notion of howyou proceed in public life. So I think no matter how effective thatsort of control is, it may not be accepted as such.

MS. GOODWIN: I think you're right. There's going to always bepeople out there wanting to see the person fail because of thismeritocracy business, in a certain sense.

MR. HESS: So that the farther we get away from the traditionalrole, the more a person loses the protective coating that both thepublic and the press put around them. We would see that, in a sense,with Rosalyn Carter a little bit if she went to a cabinet meeting,more so with Nancy Reagan, and now virtually completely with HillaryClinton.

MR. WATTENBERG: Let me try to tie this up for a minute. Doris, Iremember hearing stories and I think actually seeing memos sent toLyndon Johnson that came back with his scrawl saying, 'Ask Bird.' Inother words, somebody said, can we do this, and gave him those threenice boxes, 'Yes,' 'No,' or 'See me,' and it came back, 'Ask Bird.'But nobody went around and said, oh, she's running the White House.

MS. GOODWIN: That's right.

So are we arguing about merely how public is this going to be inthe future, or is there some because of the whole feminism thing, isthere going be a change?

MS. GARMENT: Well, what Doris said about this is, I think, veryimportant, that Mrs. Clinton's role is seen by many as the emblem ofan entire style that may become dominant in public life and privatelife. So the debate over her role is in part a debate over what styleand I used that term advisedly. Someone like Elizabeth Dole wouldexercise much the same power, but probably in a different style. Sothe debate is over what style of relations between men and women.

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, is your theme, the co presidency, is thatsalutary? Do you like the idea of a co presidency?

MR. TROY: I think well, whether it's good or bad, it is. In otherwords, I think one of the things we're missing is the institutionaldemands on the first lady. I don't think that Mrs. Bradley would havethe luxury of teaching college English anymore. I don't think that ahomemaker would have the luxury of just staying at home with thekids.

I mean, if you look at the demands on these women to do all thesocial functions, to do all the diplomatic functions, to have animage I mean, Nancy Reagan had to have an image, and when the imagewas too much that she was focusing on buying china, she had to go andchange that image and get involved in the fight against drugs.Barbara Bush

MR. HESS: But slow down a second. Assuming that Lynn Martin getselected. Her husband is a federal judge.

MR. WATTENBERG: Former congresswoman from Illinois.

MR. HESS: Yeah, former secretary of labor; one of those mentionednot up front, but mentioned

MR. WATTENBERG: Dynamite woman.

MR. HESS: in the Republican Party. Her husband is a federaldistrict judge in Chicago. Would he have to give up his judgeshipunder your expanded role of

MR. TROY: I think well, first of all, we live in a sexist society,and as a result, that means that there are going to be certaindemands on women that there aren't going to be on men. And I thinkthere would be a lot of talk about following the Dennis Thatchermodel and having him check out. And he might and the fact is, if hiscredentials are impressive enough, he might be able to run himself.

But there are so many demands on the couple as a couple, there areso many political demands, so many social demands, so many diplomaticdemands, that I frankly don't think he would have the luxury. And ifI was his boss, I wouldn't want him because he'd be too busy.

MS. GARMENT: That brings up the role of idiosyncracy andindividual temperament. There are some people who can do these thingsrather gracefully and some people who get other people's hackles up.Mrs. Clinton is, for better or for worse, something of a polarizingfigure. So in meeting these often conflicting demands, she doesn'tget a lot of slack cut for her.

MS. GOODWIN: Although she did at the beginning. You know, it seemsto me that one of the difficulties that Hillary Clinton is having nowis that when she was first lady in those first months, the press wentnuts over the idea that this was so powerful, she was soextraordinary that it was almost like they were waiting to pull herdown.

MR. HESS: Well, the press always gets it right by averaging. Theygo too far one way, too far the other way. (Laughter)

MR. TROY: There's also there's a political need for more people tohelp out the presidency. In other words, when Jimmy Carter firststarts running and he's doing his, you know, very intense, one on onecampaign in Iowa, he needs Rosalyn Carter in Florida. And I think thepresidents need those emissaries to the world of television, to theworld of press, to the world of entertainment to kind of make themmore famous, to give them a higher profile.

MS. GOODWIN: You know, he's brought up an interesting pointbecause one difference today from the past is the media exposure ofthe private life of our public figures so that we become moreinterested, whatever the first lady does. She's already been in'People' magazine, and everybody knows about the kid and the fatherand the mother in a way that wasn't true before.

I mean, there was one time when President Pierce spoke about thedeath of his son at his inaugural, it was considered an incrediblebreach of dignity because you didn't talk about your privatelife--even though his little kid had just died before he becamepresident and his wife wasn't even going to speak to anyone becauseshe was so upset. So that's different today. I mean today I thinkit's gone the opposite direction.

MR. HESS: There's nothing we can do about that.

MS. GOODWIN: You don't think there's anything we can do about it?Are we going to have just no private lives anymore?

MR. HESS: I think it will just have to be understood, to thedegree that you ask for the power from the people, you give up thatcomparable amount of your privacy.

MR. WATTENBERG: You have all been around this operation. Everypresident that I have observed at some point or another says, I needa zone of privacy. This is just absolute--I mean, Camp David and allthat--blah, blah, blah.

And then the next day, you get the photo opportunity schedule fromthe White House Office of the President. I'm not talking about thecurrent incumbent, but believe me, I'm sure she'll be there, thedaughter will be there, the son will be there, her Secret Servicecode name is such and such, her favorite hobby is tennis, blah, blah,blah.

I mean, don't those presidents of ours want it both ways?

MS. GOODWIN: Oh, of course they do.

MR. HESS: Absolutely.

MS. GOODWIN: I'll tell you, that's another interesting piece aboutthis first ladyship because one of the important functions in thepast that I think first ladies performed for their husbands was toallow them to relax. I mean, the famous comment that Jackie Kennedysaid, when Jack comes home at the end of the night, he doesn't wantto talk about Cambodia and Laos with me; he wants to talk about thekids and have candlelight dinners, and so forth. And that was one ofthe difficulties that Eleanor Roosevelt had. Poor Franklin would bein there trying to have his cocktail hour, and she'd come in talkingabout migrant workers and blacks, and he couldn't relax as a result.

So I'm not sure it's very relaxing between Hillary and BillClinton at this point in time. And that's a normal function. LadyBird, as you know, when Johnson would go off on these crazy jagsabout the press and, you know, paranoid sometimes, she would stickher hand on his knee and just say, now, Lyndon, don't believe thoseFBI reports, you know they're not true. And that settling device isvery important, but to the extent that a woman becomes aprofessional, it's hard to be the relaxer.

MR. TROY: Mamie Eisenhower was in the Oval Office three times ineight years because she didn't want to get involved.

MS. GOODWIN: No kidding?

MR. TROY: She wanted to keep, you know, that zone of respect.

MS. GOODWIN: But you know, I think one of the problems is, to theextent that politicians give in to the press's desire forinteresting, dramatic stories about their personal lives, as I thinkClinton and Gore did in this last campaign, when they gave theirconvention speeches, they talked so heartfeltly about their privatelives, I worry that to some extent they can become like Oprah Winfreyafter a while. There's got to be a mystery to leadership. Part of thegreat leaders of the past--we didn't know them all that well. I don'tknow that I want to know what kind of boxers Bill Clinton wears whenhe gets up in the morning.

MR. WATTENBERG: I never believed that presidents could be, quote,overexposed. You said, oh, don't overexpose them. Do you get thefeeling that Clinton--I mean the president is overexposed?

MS. GOODWIN: Oh, absolutely overexposed. Absolutely.

MR. WATTENBERG: For just that reason. I mean you lose some dignitywhen every time you turn on C Span, there he is. You say, oh, himagain--even if you're interested.

MS. GOODWIN: That's right.

MR. WATTENBERG: Let's wind this thing up. Let's go around the roomand let me ask you each two questions. The way this whole thing hasdeveloped--and we can go this way--is it good for women? Is it goodfor America?

MS. GOODWIN: To the extent that--you mean the way this whole thinghas developed, that there's more room for a first lady to have power,exposure and public stance? I think it is good for women and good forAmerica, yes.

MR. TROY: I think the co presidency is good for women in that itbrings them in. I think it's problematic for America in that it doescreate this confusion between governance, which is, after all, whatthe president is supposed to do, and the more fluffy side of things.

MS. GARMENT: I think it may be problematic on both counts.

MR. HESS: I do, too. I started by saying this is a high wire act,and we will have to see what happens when they get to the other end.

MR. WATTENBERG: And that, Steve Hess, is about where we began thisdiscussion. Thank you, Stephen Hess, Dr. Suzanne Garment, ProfessorGil Troy, Professor Doris Kearns Goodwin. And thank you.

This is a new show, you know, and we would like to hear from you.So please send your comments to the address on the screen.

Until next week, I'm Ben Wattenberg. END

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