From left, standing: Nancy Reagan & Barbara Bush From left, sitting: ‘Lady Bird’ Johnson, Pat Nixon, Rosalynn Carter & Betty Ford

Romney v Obama

2nd November 2012

It’s the Ann v Michelle Show… The United States presidential election, which takes place next Tuesday, isn’t only about the names the voters will see on the ballot paper. Jennifer Lipman looks at the role of the First Lady…

On the one hand, you get a white mansion to call home, staff at your beck and call, and private jets at your disposal. On the other, every new hairstyle is front-page news and you can’t even run to the store for tampons without being accompanied by the secret service.

Britain’s political WAGS get a pretty easy ride in comparison to America’s First Ladies. Cherie Blair might have endured constant media censure, and Sam Cam’s pregnancy was certainly fodder for gossip, but the role of the political wife is far less institutionalised.

Of 44 Oval Office occupants, James Buchanan remains the only one who never married – his niece took on hospitality duties. The ‘First Ladies’ exhibit at the Smithsonian American history museum, which features dresses, china and other personal effects, has been displayed more than ten times and remains wildly popular – just one indication of how fixated citizens are on the woman beside the man at the top.

American politics is personal – very personal. Voters don’t just want to hear policy ideas or rousing speeches; they expect leaders to have colourful private lives. And, since the dawn of television, that’s meant a smiling, All-American family in the sidelines.

Ann Romney

At the summer’s Party conferences, the most talked about speeches were those made by the candidates’ wives. Ann Romney spoke of her multiple sclerosis battle and her and Mitt’s ‘love story’ dismissing claims of ‘a storybook marriage’ with wifely tales of rainy afternoons and five screaming sons. The reaction was overwhelmingly positive; proof that first ladies are a president’s best tool to compensate for any shortcomings or appear as family men willing to fight for the average American. Laura Bush, dubbed ‘the quiet librarian’ by the media, was widely praised for being refined and modest in comparison to George W’s foot-in-mouth tendencies.

First ladies are expected to be model citizens, model wives and model mothers, quietly religious and natural entertainers-in-chief at Christmas parties or state dinners. Given the immense appetite for salacious gossip about political wives, they can’t ever slip; reporter Jodi Kantor’s supposedly tell-all book about the Obamas has been a bestseller.

For a White House woman in the age of camera-phones, there is no such thing as a relaxed girl’s night out. ‘The First Lady kicked back with roughly a half-dozen female friends,’ the New York Times reported excitedly, after Michelle was spotted at a Washington steak restaurant in May. ‘The first lady stayed a little over two hours, departing the restaurant around 8:30pm (which is not exactly a raucous night out, but certainly mom-friendly).’ The reporter appeared peeved that the White House would not reveal what she dined on.

Likewise, privacy must be jealously guarded and all friendships chosen with caution, as ‘Lady Bird’ Johnson, Lyndon Baines Johnson’s unassuming wife, discovered in the mid 1960s when her one-time good friend Barbara Howar penned a ten-page exposé in the Ladies’ Home Journal revealing the president’s poor dinner table etiquette and the First Daughter’s frugality. It’s no surprise that one of Michelle Obama’s closest friends is said to be Valerie Jarrett – no mere mortal, but a senior White House adviser.

Michelle Obama

Life for a modern First Lady is perhaps not as stuffy as it once was – Michelle Obama recently appeared on a Nickelodeon series and has spoken about her first date with her husband. But what the public see is no accident, since an outspoken First Lady has traditionally been seen as a failing for her husband. Betty Ford caused no end of Republican raised eyebrows in the 1970s by publicly supporting abortion, acknowledging that had marijuana been around in her youth, she ‘probably’ would have tried it, and admitting that she wouldn’t be shocked if her daughter had premarital sex. Her openness saw her lambasted as a ‘disgrace to the White House’ and her husband censured for lacking ‘the guts’ to control his woman.

They are also required to look the part. Wherever Michelle Obama goes, she is asked who she is wearing – an American designer? – or what it cost. After she and her daughters wore J Crew clothing at Obama’s inauguration, the company’s shares jumped 10.6 percent in a day.

The notion of the ‘first lady of fashion’ is no new thing, of course. ‘When Bess Truman suddenly converted to a poodle cut, thousands of other matrons went out and had their locks shorn and short-curled,’ explained the Pittsburgh Press in 1960. ‘When Mrs Eisenhower first moved into the White House more women demanded bangs across their foreheads.’

When John F Kennedy took oath in 1961, journalists gushed over Jackie’s simple sheath dress. ‘In sharp contrast to the usually fussy, full-skirted gowns worn by first ladies at inauguration balls,” reported one paper.

Jackie, of course, set high standards. Hillary Clinton’s arguably dowdy appearance and proclivity for headbands made headlines everywhere; ‘sexiness was not part of the image,’ recalled the Washington Post in 2007, noting disapprovingly that for the 1996 inauguration, she added ‘long sleeves and a high, almost Victorian collar’ to her Oscar de la Renta gown. And, as Laura Bush discovered, elegance alone wasn’t enough. From 2002 she embarked on a rigorous fitness routine. ‘She has lost 20 pounds since she began to get serious about her health,’ revealed People magazine after the 2005 inauguration.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Eleanor Roosevelt made herself known by campaigning for the impoverished and marginalised. Her legacy was that First Ladies since have been required to be more than decorative. ‘Lady Bird’ Johnson sought to beautify the cities and motorways, Betty Ford was labelled the ‘Fighting First Lady’ by Time for her support for the women’s movement and Nancy Reagan championed ‘Just say No’ to drugs. Both Barbara and Laura Bush encouraged child literacy, and Michelle Obama has brought healthy eating to centre stage.

But if they must find a cause, they must also know their place; be politically engaged but not too political or feminist. Hillary Clinton, the first First Lady with a postgraduate degree, made herself less than popular by demanding an office close to the Oval Office, as well as the East Wing suite (further from the hub of power) that her predecessors enjoyed. Praised by some for reshaping her role, she was the target of many of her husband’s staunchest critics for pushing her own agenda, not least over healthcare and political appointments.

As one of her aides recalled when she ran for the White House, she struggled as ‘a different kind of first lady’, one with ambitions that extended beyond her marriage. Michelle Obama, in another life a successful lawyer, has learnt the lesson and put her career firmly on hold. ‘Americans still seem to prefer their first ladies, no matter how professionally accomplished, as wives and mothers first,” explained Slate magazine’s Libby Copeland in a recent article.

Lyndon Johnson is believed to have once commented that the Vice Presidency, so close and yet so far from power, was ‘the worst job in the country... not worth a warm bucket of spit’. For the elite collection of women who have had front row seats on the Presidency but never sought it themselves, who have been privy to the innermost thoughts of the most powerful man in the world but always had to hold their tongues, is it any better? And all this with the media watching, waiting for you to slip up.

Recalling life as a First Lady, Hillary Clinton once spoke of how she missed doing her own shopping, or simply sitting in pavement cafes ‘people-watching’. “I sacrificed a lot,” she said. Michelle Obama – or Ann Romney, should her husband win in a few days’ time – might well sympathise.

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