- Historic Sites
By Russell Bourne
September/October 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 6
In Mamie Elsenhower’s “Appeal and Cranks” letter file is this note: “[You] would look nicer if you didn’t wear your hair like a six year old kid....[Your bangs] only draw attention to an effort to cover up a high forehead.”
Undeterred, Mrs. Elsenhower kept her bangs. Her conviction about style was expressed in a message to fashion editors in 1953: “As a soldier’s wife I learned early in life that pride in personal appearance is not a superficial thing. It rates high on every officer’s efficiency report—and his family is part of that report. An Army wife sometimes has fewer dresses than her husband has uniforms. Consequently my training has been to select carefully and wear my clothes a long time.”
She also was perfectly consistent about her own role as First Lady. As she once wrote her granddaughter-in-law, Julie Nixon Elsenhower, “There can only be one star in the heaven, Sugar, and there is only one way to live with an Elsenhower. Let him have his way.”
Betty Ford received a great deal of hostile mail after answering a hypothetical question about abortion in an interview in 1975 on CBS’s “60 Minutes.” One person wrote: “Maybe you could do a ‘Nixon’ and resign as first lady.” A more temperate letter said: “Whatever your private feeling regarding the lifestyle of your daughter…belongs entirely to you. However, as the wife of the leader of our country and therefore the highest ranking female and mother in the United States, I think your public opinion takes on a different aspect....I believe in trying to be honest you thought too narrowly and did not think of the impact on the nation.”
But many women thought differently. One wrote a letter in support of Mrs. Ford to her local Michigan newspaper, with a copy sent to the White House and now preserved at the Ford Library: “She’s a crusader in the finest tradition of Eleanor Roosevelt. She’s as dignified and honest as Bess Truman. She’s as elegant as Jacqueline Kennedy. And she’s as gracious and perspicacious as Lady Bird Johnson. So who cares if she’s married to a Republican?”
Yet the central question remains, sharpened by Nancy Reagan’s recent actions. Is it proper for the First Lady to involve herself not just in her causes and her personal relationships but in government policies and personnel as well?
Two actions by the First Ladies themselves may apply here, the first by Mamie Eisenhower. Back in the Army days of 1952, when her husband was still the head of SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers, Europe), she received a letter from a devoted “Eisenhower for President” booster with a new idea. He suggested that the already popular “I Like Ike” slogan be augmented by “Ike will put US in SHAPE.” Mrs. Eisenhower liked it. An aide wrote the reply: “Mrs. Eisenhower has asked me to thank you for your letter....She has put [it] aside for [the general] to read in his first moment of leisure.”
Another example of wifely involvement is a draft of a statement that Lady Bird Johnson wrote for possible presidential use at the critical time when the Mississippi Freedom Democratic party challenged the seating of an all-white, regularly elected Mississippi delegation at the Democratic National Convention of 1964. Asked for advice on this thorny problem, she counseled her husband to express himself as follows: “I believe that the legal delegation ought to be seated. I am not going to bend to emotionalism. I don’t want this convention to do so either. The election is not worth that.
“I am proud of the steady progress that has been made in the area of human and equal rights.
“In 1957, in 1960 and again in 1964, I was in the leadership to bring equal rights and decent progress to the Negro. I would not change a line of what has been passed or written. So long as I am President I will continue to lead the way within the guidelines of the law and within the framework of justice.”
Her draft was not used. The credentials committee eventually worked out a compromise.
Like the wartime mother who wrote President Roosevelt that if he didn’t pay swift attention to her complaint about racial discrimination against her son, she’d write Mrs. Roosevelt, many Americans do discern a positive power in the East Wing. It’s possible, Professor Gould thinks, that there are both bad and good aspects in today’s acceptance of First Ladies as virtually a new government institution. What’s bad is that the gradually enlarging cadres of assistants to the First Lady (Nancy Reagan has two dozen people on her staff) may eventually turn this nonoffice into just another government bureau. What’s good is the recognition that First Ladies can usefully serve in their individual ways and from their special positions as invaluable listeners, protocol setters, and spokespersons.