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.

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