WASHINGTON — When Republican Lindsey Graham suggested his sister “could play” first lady if his long-shot presidential bid proves successful, the life-long bachelor knew what he was talking about. Daughters, daughters-in-law, sisters and nieces all have subbed as first lady for America’s bachelor and widowed presidents.
James Buchanan, a Democrat who served one term just before the Civil War, never married. His niece, Harriet Lane, filled the first lady’s role.
Grover Cleveland, a Democrat who served two non-consecutive terms after the war, began his first term as a bachelor and ended it with a wife. His sister, Rose, was the hostess until Cleveland wed 21-year-old Frances Folsom a year into his term.
The scenario that Graham recently outlined “is not without precedent, but it sure has been a long time,” said Robert Watson, an American studies professor at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida. Not since Woodrow Wilson, in the early 1900s, has a president been without a first lady.
“It’s been a century, basically, since we’ve had this kind of a situation,” Watson said.
“I’ve got a sister. She could play that role if necessary,” Graham, 59, said in an interview with Daily Mail Online. His parents died when he was in college and he became guardian of his younger sister, Darline. “I’ve got a lot of friends. We’ll have a rotating first lady.”
After Buchanan took office, his niece, Harriet, carried out first lady obligations. Buchanan had become her guardian after she was orphaned at age 11, and he was her favorite uncle, according to a biography of Lane on the White House website.
The administration of Buchanan’s predecessor, Democrat Franklin Pierce, was marked by sadness. Pierce took office shortly after his 11-year-old son was killed in a train wreck. His wife, Jane, avoided social functions for much of her first two years as first lady.
So when Buchanan and his niece arrived on the scene, “the capital eagerly welcomed its new ‘Democratic Queen’ in 1857. Harriet Lane filled the White House with gaiety and flowers, and guided its social life with enthusiasm and discretion, winning national popularity,” her biography said.
Anita McBride, director of American University’s first ladies’ program, said Graham’s comment shows he understands the importance of first ladies.
No one in the White House is closer to the president than his wife, who becomes an important sounding board, McBride said.
First ladies often stand in for the president, and they use their position for the good of the country. Laura Bush promoted literacy, which fit with her husband’s education agenda. First ladies receive no salary.
Mrs. Bush also made 26 trips to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, McBride said, adding that no president could have visited that often because of job demands.
“You cannot imagine that position (of first lady) not being there to help the president do what he wants to do,” said McBride, who was Laura Bush’s chief of staff.
Wilson, a Democrat who served two terms from 1913-1921, was briefly without a spouse. His wife, Ellen Louise Axson, died in 1914. The following year, he met and married Edith Bolling Galt. As a widowed president, Wilson’s daughters served as White House hostesses, Watson said.
The daughter-in-law of President John Tyler, a member of the Whigs, assumed hostess duties for his ill wife, Letitia.
Should former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton win the presidential election next year, daughter Chelsea could be called upon to play the role her mother once did. That’s because it likely would be an unnatural fit for her father, former President Bill Clinton, to oversee the East Wing of the White House, where the first lady is based and helps plan social functions, after heading up the powerhouse West Wing.