First Ladies: Frivolity, Fact and Why They Matter
By: David Bozeman
Columnist Kathleen Parker recently profiled Michelle Obama’s ascension to pop star status. The first lady is everywhere — dancing with Jimmy Fallon, gracing the patrons of swanky restaurants with her appearance and, most famously, presenting the Best Picture Oscar. Good Morning America co-host Robin Roberts so cooed over her bangs that one could be forgiven for not remembering the budget stalemate, the skyrocketing cost of Obama-care and America’s steady descent into European-style socialism.
Granted, first ladies have traditionally been the subjects of frivolous coverage and speculation, but presenting an Oscar breaks new ground. Presidents Reagan and Franklin Roosevelt both delivered recorded messages to the Academy Awards, and Laura Bush, along with other notables, named her favorite movie (Giant) in a pre-recorded presentation. But not even Ronald Reagan, former actor and head of the Screen Actor’s Guild or his wife Nancy, a one-time actress herself, ever conferred the film industry’s highest honor.
Nothing here is meant to disparage the first lady as a person. Her advocacy of soldiers and their families merits praise. She does not openly advocate policy or incite controversy. But therein lies her danger — she clearly embodies all things Obama, and, indirectly, offers the debt-swelling, malaise-inducing policies of her husband a feel-good, pop culture seal of approval. Think Rosa Parks with just the right mix of Kim Kardashian. Who but someone so out of it could not approve? Her Oscar appearance, by the way, was orchestrated by power-producer and uber-Democrat Harvey Weinstein.
Michelle Obama will almost certainly stand with the most celebrated first ladies of all time, namely Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton. Being a Democrat may not automatically catapult a presidential wife to the top of the list, but consider the legacy of the woman dubbed by historians as one of the worst (though her reputation is enjoying a slight revival).
Florence Harding (wife of the ‘worst’ president), in the words of biographer Katherine Sibley, made the first cracks in the glass ceiling Eleanor Roosevelt is credited with shattering. Space will not allow a full appraisal of the accomplishments of this woman whose energy and political instincts rivaled her husband’s. She was an astute businesswoman; her husband’s newspaper The Marion Star (still in publication) owes its success to her effort and know-how. She advocated for women, black Americans and World War I veterans, including the wounded, whom she referred to as her ‘boys.’ Unlike earlier shy, demure first ladies, she warmly greeted visitors to the White House, speaking to many. Sibley notes that she is likely the first first lady afforded Secret Service protection. She was strong, wildly popular and, most of all, she loved America.
Today, she is remembered as a shrew who may have poisoned her husband (not true). While Democratic first ladies are feisty and independent, Mrs. Harding is remembered as a domineering old biddy. Several years older than the gray-haired president, she was certainly never stylish in the mold of Jackie Kennedy or Michelle, but Main Street patriotism is never as fondly-recalled as even the most benign strain of progressive chic.
Margaret Truman’s famous profile of first ladies savages the Hardings, including an accusation of their “spurious” populism. Mrs. Harding reportedly told servants not to lower the window shades to prevent the public from looking in at a party. “Let ‘em look in if they want to! It’s their White House.” Mind you, this was reported as a BAD thing! But who are we to question – the historians have spoken. They will tell you who is good, but just as importantly, they will remind you who is cool. Worth noting, by most accounts, it was Jackie Kennedy who dubbed her husband’s presidency ‘Camelot,’ leaving her probably history’s only woman with the privilege of defining a presidential legacy for future generations.
Though seldom acknowledged, Mrs. Harding was highly regarded in her day, and she invited filmmakers and stars to the White House, so the practice is not unprecedented. But times change and the pertinent question remains: who defines what is stylish and popular, and should we follow their pronouncements? First ladies largely stand as proxies for their husbands, which explains why the Florence Hardings and Nancy Reagans are seldom extolled as role models. It is not Mrs. Obama’s bangs or her moves with Jimmy Fallon that are meant as lush diversions for the entertainment-starved masses, it is her husband’s top-down governance of the US economy.