How To Be First Lady

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Julia Grant, not the foolish, or tragic, person Mary Lincoln was, still was no heroine. She too was from the West and uneasy about what the capital’s society would think of her country ways. In the White House she developed a taste in clothes and parties that was overblown even for a mid-Victorian, and she exploited her position to raise the money to pay for them. But unlike her extravagant predecessor, she did not spend money she did not have. Her stumpy figure inspired Henry Adams to say she looked like an isosceles triangle, but if people laughed at her, she somehow managed to escape any taint from the corruptions and scandals of her husband’s administration. And if she went job hunting for her family and friends, unlike Mary Lincoln she did it with discretion. Extravagant and ridiculous, perhaps—but she never broke the rules that delimited women’s sphere.

Mrs. Grant heartily enjoyed her eight years in the White House. In the memoirs she wrote a few years before her death in 1902, she said: “I love the dear old House.… Eight happy years I spent there.… It still seems as much like home to me as the old farm in Missouri, ” her childhood home. Indeed, when her husband’s term ended, she was so reluctant to leave the White House that she insisted on welcoming President Hayes there by giving him and his inaugural party a luncheon, as if it were still her house. As the train taking the Grants back west pulled out of the station, the ex-President found his wife weeping in her compartment. When he asked what the matter was, she said, “Oh, Ulys, I feel like a waif.”

Eleanor Roosevelt’s refusal to play a passive role remade the position of First Lady.
 

The nineteenth-century view of what a First Lady should be and do was remarkably durable. Lou Hoover, Eleanor Roosevelt’s immediate predecessor, majored in geology at Stanford in the 189Os—a most unusual choice of subject for a woman—and was an accomplished linguist. In 1899 she went to China as a bride, just as the Boxer Rebellion was gaining force, and helped defend the besieged foreign compound in Tientsin. When World War I began, she was in London and there led the organization of the American Women’s Hospital. Yet in the White House this dauntless woman fitted herself quietly into the traditional posture of female passivity. It was Eleanor Roosevelt’s refusal to do the same, and her success in winning first a grudging public respect and then widespread admiration, that remade the role of First Lady.

Thus today’s presidential wives, whatever their preferences and talents, live with a new set of rules. To some—Rosalynn Carter comes first to mind—politics are second nature. For others the new rules may be as wearisome and constraining as the old ones were to such a person as Abigail Adams. And while all contemporary wives, whatever their natures, follow the new rules during campaigns, as Nancy Reagan gamely did, once in the White House the traditionalists edge back out of politics into interests they find more congenial.

Still, as so often in history, there is one exception, one modern First Lady who refused to make herself over in any way whatsoever to suit public taste. That woman was Bess Truman.

When Mrs. Truman died in October 1982, the New York Times obituary eulogized her as a “quiet and unassuming woman” who “fought efforts by the press and the public to pry her out of the place she had chosen for herself … in her husband’s shadow.” While at first “Mrs. Truman resigned herself to trying to emulate the Eleanor Roosevelt style, she soon recognized that that was impossible.” A first press conference was scheduled but she canceled it and never scheduled another. Asked what qualities she judged most necessary for a President’s wife, she answered, “Good health and a sense of humor.”

The obituary ends with a story about President Truman finding his wife burning some of his love letters to her. Why was she burning them? “Why not,” she said. “I’ve read them several times.” “But think of history,” he admonished. “I have,” she replied.