The more I see and learn about Michelle Obama, the more I admire her. I thought her speech at the Democratic Convention last week was fantastic—moving, heartfelt, intelligent, inspiring. What an incredible public speaker. I get very excited at the thought of Michelle as First Lady. I feel in my gut that she’d be one of the best this country has ever seen and I know she’d accomplish great things in the White House. I pray we all have the chance to find out how she’d take to this role. And who knows—she’s certainly more than qualified to pull a Hillary Clinton at some future date and run for public office herself.
I am far less impressed with Cindy McCain but look forward to hearing what she has to say at this week’s truncated Republican Convention. Unlike Michelle, she can hardly focus on the early days of her relationship since John was still married to his first wife at the time. I was disgusted when Cindy pounced on Michelle Obama last February after her widely misinterpreted line about being proud of her country. And Mrs. McCain, what’s the deal with submitting recipes cribbed from the Food Network to national magazines and trying to pass them off as your own? She did this not once, but twice. As if we care how good a cook she or any First Lady is. (This just in: Just heard Laura Bush and Cindy McCain speaking at the convention. You'd be hard pressed to find two less compelling speakers or listen to more bland words even though they were mostly talking about a potentially devastating natural disaster. The constant focus on Hurricane Gustav makes me want to hurl since it is so calculated. The Republican leadership is probably disappointed that the hurricane wasn't as bad as people feared—McCain is losing his chance for a true Giuliani moment.)
My strong desire to see Michelle Obama in the White House has made me think about the ten other First Ladies who have lived in the White House since I was born. Here is how I’d rate them, from best to worst. This is off the top of my head, I may desperately want to switch the order as soon as I post.
1. Jacqueline Kennedy. As I’ve mentioned, watching Kennedy’s funeral on TV with my sobbing mother is my first memory (I was four years old). I could almost say that the haunting image of Jackie with her black veil may be the first visual that got saved in my memory banks, and I’ve been in love with her ever since. Forgetting that she was the most beautiful woman ever to step foot in the White House, I am mightily impressed by Jackie’s intelligence and her passion for U.S. history. When the Kennedys moved into the White House in 1961, the building was nearly trashed and looted of many of its historical treasures. The incredible work Jackie did to restore the White House in her short time there should be lauded by anyone who cares about this history of this country. I recently watched her wonderful 1962 television tour of the White House (available on both iTunes and YouTube). Though awkward at times and clearly scripted, her expertise shines through and you almost hate it when President Kennedy joins her at the end and she reverts to a more subservient role. Despite her breathy Marilyn Monroe-like voice, Jacqueline Kennedy embodied a host of new possibilities for modern American women.
2. Hillary Clinton. Abrasive? Sure. Loathed by many during her years in the White House? Absolutely. Brilliant? You bet. I remember in 2000 when people first started talking about the possibility of Hillary running for President, I laughed and laughed. “It will never happen,” I said with smug certainty. “She could never get elected for any office in this country, much less President.” Well, as we know, Senator Clinton came extremely close to clinching the nomination and though she remains a polarizing figure, I hope she stays in the Senate for many years to come. She is doing a fabulous job and I think she has much more to contribute to this country, despite what she’s endured and dished out herself while in the public eye. And at this point I sure wouldn’t rule out the possibility that she’ll run for higher office again at some future date.
3. Betty Ford. See, I’m not just top-loading my list with Democrats and relegating all the Republican wives to the bottom tier. I had great respect for Betty Ford during her few years in the White House. At 90 she is now the oldest living First Lady. She was the first one in my memory who had been divorced. And what she did to bring awareness to alcohol and drug addiction had an enormous impact on this country, along with her open discussion of her breast cancer. Though a lifelong Republican, she supported the Equal Rights Amendment, was strongly pro-choice, and even spoke candidly about marijuana and pre-marital sex. In today’s climate, such a Republican wife would be ostracized and shunned. I remember Betty Ford’s good-natured appearance as herself on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” She was clearly way more popular than her unelected husband. Following Ford’s unsuccessful 1976 presidential campaign, Betty said, “I would give my life to have Jerry have my poll numbers.”
4. Rosalynn Carter. Oh, how I love Rosalynn Carter. Say what you want about Jimmy Carter, his troubled presidency, and his recent controversies, I will always remain a huge Rosalynn fan. This is a woman who was always able to show her unwavering support and love for her husband without seeming like a Stepford Wife, and her work in the mental health field was ground-breaking for a First Lady. Despite my attraction to Jackie’s breathtaking glamour, I loved that Rosalynn wore the same (hideous) gown to her husband’s inaugural ball as she had worn six years earlier when he became governor of Georgia. I’ll never forget the sight of Jimmy and Rosalynn walking hand-in-hand down Pennsylvania Avenue on Inauguration Day. Has there ever been a First Couple so clearly in love with each other? (I guess the Reagans qualify.) I admire all of the tireless work Rosalynn has done since leaving Washington, including her efforts for Habitat for Humanity and with the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving at Georgia Southwestern State University. She’s a damn good writer and, though she probably never met a Jew until she was an adult, Rosalynn Carter is someone I’d call a real mensch.
5. Nancy Reagan. Surprised to see her in this position? So am I. I loathed Ronald Reagan’s Presidency (although compared to George W. Bush he seems like the most brilliant politician who ever walked the earth) and I had nothing but contempt for Nancy during those years. As much as I appreciated Jackie Kennedy’s glamming up the White House, I was offended by Nancy Reagan’s attempts to do the same thing after sweeping out the Carters with yesterday’s trash. Her famous “Just Say No” campaign seemed ludicrous at the time, and her relationship with her kids was troubled at best. And, as a final dig, I thought most of her old movies stank up the joint. But since leaving the White House I admit I’ve re-evaluated my opinion of Nancy. Her love for her husband was fierce, almost to the point of dysfunction. I admired how she cared for him, even if meant ordering people like Strom Thurmond out of his hospital room following the assassination attempt. I thought she handled her husband’s illness with dignity and class and I cried when I saw her break down while hugging his coffin at his 2004 funeral. But what really made me change my tune about Nancy and helped her move up my list was how she refused to back down in her support of stem-cell research and basically told the leaders of the Republican Party to go fuck themselves.
6. Lady Bird Johnson. Oh wait, I’m already feeling guilty that I’m putting Lady Bird behind Nancy Reagan. I’d change it but I said this would be off the top of my head. As a kid, I remember negatively comparing Lady Bird to Jacqueline Kennedy but now I have much greater appreciation for her time as First Lady, especially her efforts to beautify America and work to conserve America’s natural resources. I’ll never forget the stricken look on her face in that famous shot from the plane in November 1963 when LBJ was taking the oath of office next to a blood-spattered Jackie Kennedy. Lady Bird is responsible for turning the role of First Lady into a real job. She was the first to have her own Press Secretary and Chief of Staff. She worked hard for passage of the Civil Rights Act and was a huge asset to her husband even though she was easy to make fun of. In her later years she continued to work for conservation issues, something I value a lot more now than I did as a kid. She and her husband and their two daughters all had the same initials: LBJ. A true American original.
7. Pat Nixon. Mrs. Nixon scared me when I was a kid. I found her aloof and impenetrable, like she hated every second she spent in the public eye. She seemed the last of a breed of traditional First Ladies. She was voted Outstanding Homemaker of the Year and the Nation’s Ideal Housewife when her husband was Vice President. Once she became First Lady, she continued Jackie Kennedy’s efforts to bring important historical items back into the White House. Before Hillary Clinton, she was the most traveled First Lady ever, and she was the first Republican First Lady to address a national convention (something that is expected now). She was dead-set against her husband resigning in 1974 and was seen crying as he gave his farewell speech. She later told her daughter, Julie Nixon Eisenhower, “Watergate is the only crisis that ever got me down…and I know I will never live to see the vindication.” She died in 1993, a day after her 53rd wedding anniversary, and I remember feeling newfound sympathy for President Nixon, seeing the anguish her death caused him. He died 10 months later. I was haunted by Joan Allen’s portrayal of Pat Nixon in the otherwise forgettable Oliver Stone film about President Nixon.
8. Mamie Eisenhower. Well, I was only 15 months old when Mamie Eisenhower left the White House so I have no actual memories of her then or later. She was the last First Lady born in the 19th century and was really of a different world. What a mind-blowing era change that must have been when Jacqueline Kennedy breezed into the White House after eight years of Mamie. I’m amused to read that Mrs. Eisenhower was a real penny pincher who even clipped coupons for the White House staff. She apparently was not happy about Kennedy’s election and was very snippy to Jackie when she gave her a tour of the White House before the inauguration. What else is there to say about this woman? How about the Hollywood starlet who signed a contract with Universal on the day Eisenhower took office and was given the First Lady’s name by the studio. Who was that? You guessed it—Mamie Van Doren. Oy, now there was someone light years apart from her namesake!
9. Laura Bush. Yawn. Has there ever been a First Lady who has squandered her time in the White House more? I realize that may be unfair, but I can’t possibly be unbiased about anyone who would choose to marry that guy. As a former teacher and alleged literacy activist, she should have been fighting against her husband’s crazy-ass policies including the God-awful No Child Left Behind Act. Hmm, let me find something positive to say about her. In 2000, she had the chutzpah to say that she didn’t think Roe v. Wade should be overturned (she hasn’t said that since). In 2006 she said that she didn’t think people should politicize the fight over same-sex marriage. And she had the class to defend Michelle Obama when people were attacking her for the “proud of my country” comment. “I think she probably meant I’m ‘more proud,’" Laura told an ABC News reporter. “You have to be very careful in what you say. I mean, I know that, and that’s one of the things you learn and that’s one of the really difficult parts both of running for president and for being the spouse of the president, and that is, everything you say is looked at and in many cases misconstrued.” I suddenly feel bad about all the obnoxious judgment I’m meting out in this post. Laura Bush is probably a good person. I wish her well in her post-White House years—and those years can’t come soon enough!
10. Barbara Bush. Wait, is there time for one more bout of my obnoxious judgment? Unlike her daughter-in-law, I cannot give Barbara Bush the benefit of the doubt. I thought she was relatively harmless when she was First Lady, but in retrospect I’d almost peg her as the true menace of the Bush family, as slyly manipulative as the Angela Lansbury character in “The Manchurian Candidate.” I find her a vile person. Her comments about Geraldine Ferraro during the 1984 campaign were utterly classless. (She said she couldn’t say on television what she thought of the vice presidential candidate but that “it rhymes with rich.”) One of her most offensive comments came when she was visiting a Houston relief center for victims of Hurricane Katrina three years ago this week. “What I'm hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas…Everybody is so overwhelmed by the hospitality, and so many of the people in the arenas here, you know, were underprivileged anyway. This is working very well for them.” There’s a great scene in Spike Lee’s documentary “When the Levees Broke” when feisty Katrina survivor Phyllis Montana-Leblanc hears this line and starts angrily shouting her actual phone number over and over again, daring Barbara Bush to call her and repeat the statement that anyone was better off following the hurricane. No wonder McCain is doing back flips today to appear sympathetic to the victims of Hurricane Gustav.
Let’s just hope that I’ll soon be adding Michelle Obama to this list.