Tuesday, October 23, 2007

First Ladies in a Fix

The Washington Post today ruminates about the role of Presidential spouses and concludes that they, well, differ from those of the past.

They sure do. In half a century as an editor, I knew First Ladies from Eleanor Roosevelt to Nancy Reagan, both of whom wrote for me. They differed from one another back then, too, but what they had in common was, after Mrs. Roosevelt, they had little to say about policy issues--in public.

But now, according to a professor of government quoted by the Post, “there is a greater acceptance of assertive women that is consistent with other societal trends. But there is still a divide in the country in what people want and expect. Look at how much people like Laura Bush."

First Ladies were in a bind back then, and they still are today. How much resentment of Hillary Clinton comes from the fact that in 1992 she said she was not the little woman who bakes cookies and stands by her man? She wasn’t, isn’t and is now running for President on her own, but some voters will never forgive her for not being Barbara Bush or Nancy Reagan.

For other spouses, it’s still like walking a tightrope. Shouldn’t Michelle Obama have kept her high-powered job instead of helping her husband? Is Jeri Thompson too involved in Fred’s campaign? Is Elizabeth Edwards too outspoken? Does Judith Giuliani ring Rudy’s cell phone at the wrong time? What gives with Elizabeth Kucinich’s pierced tongue?

Today some of them will be talking about all this on TV with Maria Shriver, who as the wife of Governor Arnold and the niece of Jack Kennedy, knows a little something about the subject.

In 1960, when I sent a reporter to interview her aunt, Jacqueline Kennedy, she sounded like a Stepford wife: "The most important thing for successful marriage is for a husband to do what he likes best and does well. The wife's satisfactions will follow...If the wife is happy, full credit should be given to the husband because the marriage is her entire life."

She never deviated from this submissive line, but even then, it wasn’t simple. When the reporter was about to leave, Mrs. Kennedy looked him in the eye and said, "But I'm smarter than Jack, and don't you forget it."

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