- Historic Sites
By Russell Bourne
September/October 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 6
Well, sentiments change,” said Lady Bird Johnson. She was speaking of the years when Americans would no longer support President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Vietnam policies. “It was a long war, it was an undeclared war, and it was fought in the living room through the medium of television. I don’t think there’ll ever be another war like that. If we ever got, heaven help us, into anything else, and may the Lord forbid it, it had sure better be preceded by an Alamo or a Pearl Harbor so that there is a clear-cut declaration and coalescing of the American people.”
These deeply felt words from an extraordinary American woman won’t be read in her book on the White House years or in publications by journalists of the time. They are from a recent oral-history interview with Mrs. Johnson by the LBJ Library archivist Nancy Kegan Smith, conducted to help meet the increasing curiosity among scholars about the role of First Ladies. Many of the answers to questions about how much power a First Lady has can be found in the First Ladies’ papers at the eight presidential libraries and the Nixon Presidential Materials Project, which are part of the National Archives and Records Administration.
Because of this new interest, many of these files are being examined by scholars for the first time, and more and more of these papers are being made available for research. The increasing importance of the files was highlighted recently by the controversy that followed when Nancy Reagan ventured her opinion of how her husband might improve his staff after the Iran-contra story broke.
Among those who weren’t unduly surprised was Professor Lewis L. Gould of the University of Texas, a nationally recognized authority on the Presidents’ wives. “Because of the [historical] contributions of Eleanor Roosevelt, Lady Bird Johnson, Betty Ford, and Rosalynn Carter,” he says in an essay for the National Archives’ journal Prologue (Summer 1987), “the activist model for first ladies seems firmly in place. Mrs. Reagan’s causes are conservative and less feminist, but the means by which she follows them builds on the example and techniques of her predecessors.”
Recently, several presidential libraries have opened records that reveal the workings of the First Lady’s office—known as the White House Social Office under several presidential administrations. Over the years, as the responsibilities of the First Lady increased, so did the files—there are more than three thousand boxes documenting Lady Bird Johnson’s White House years—and the sheer size of the collections will keep archivists and scholars busy for many years.
Long-overlooked White House “Social Files” are revealing just how much power Presidents’ wives have had—and how they have used it.
How did it happen that modern Presidents’ wives became more than, in Professor Gould’s words, “hostesses and passive helpmates”? The record is best followed in their own newly available writings and in the messages directed to them. Each of these modern First Ladies in her exchanges with the public chose a characteristic way of dealing with her responsibilities despite outside criticism. At the same time, each contributed to the growth of an evolving federal bureau, the “Office of the First Lady”—as it is now forthrightly labeled on Mrs. Reagan’s stationery.
Prologue describes a previously unexamined file of Eleanor Roosevelt’s labeled “Letters from Servicemen, 194245.” In it is an angry note to the President’s wife from a black private who had at first been refused service at a People’s Drug Store counter in Washington, D.C. Finally he was served his drink in a paper cup while the white man next to him received his soda in a glass. The private wrote Mrs. Roosevelt that he had four brothers in the service “but, as to what they are fighting for God only knows. I’m going to feel fine, fighting in a Jim Crow Army, for a Jim Crow Government...and when I might see a white boy dying on a battlefield, I hope to God I won’t remember People’s Drug Store on January llth....This is just to let you know how one negro soldier feel going into the service.”
In fury he attached the offending receptacle and added: “Here is the cup. Too bad some negro boy couldn’t give a dying [white] boy a cooling drink on a battlefield.”
Mrs. Roosevelt’s response was sympathetic yet crisp: “I can quite understand how what happened to you made you feel as bitterly as you do feel. There are many things of that kind which many of us in this country deeply regret. The only thing I can say to you is that under the Germans or the Japanese you would have very little freedom, and you certainly would not have the freedom to write to me as you have. You are free to go on working as a people for the betterment of your people and you are gradually gathering behind you a larger and larger group of white people who are conscious of the wrongs and who are helping to correct them.”
This President’s wife fully recognized the importance and the methodology of correspondence from the East Wing. In her autobiography she related: “Out of my response to an individual develops an awareness of a problem to the community, then to the country, and finally to the world. In each case my feeling of obligation to do something stemmed from one individual and then widened and became applied to a broader area.”