As Michelle Obama traveled around Brazil with her husband last month, I thought she looked particularly glamorous and represented our country well. During her few public speaking engagements, she exhibited her warm personal demeanor along with the intelligence she wears as comfortably as the beautiful dresses unveiled during this trip.
I was reminded how difficult it is being the First Lady of this country and how you must be all things (personable, intelligent, fashionable), and yet, be nothing that calls too much attention or upsets current public opinion of what a First Lady should be. Maybe Jacqueline Kennedy described it best when she told a friend sometime after the election, “I feel as though I had just turned into a piece of public property.” Hillary Clinton characterized the position of First Lady as a “role,” not a job.
It seems that Americans demand that First Ladies check their authenticity at the door of the White House . . . or else. No longer can one follow the dictates of Eleanor Roosevelt in explaining her work as First Lady, “Do what you feel in your heart to be right, for you’ll be criticized anyway. You’ll be damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”
These days, the damning is just so toxic, as Hillary Clinton can readily attest. Folks in Washington didn’t want her Wellesley and Yale-educated brain applying itself to work on health care reform, so she was accused of all sorts of crimes and misdemeanors — including murder (Vince Foster) — to scare her back to her proper role of planning State dinner parties and decorating the White House Christmas tree.
Of course, to some degree, women are accustomed to backing down and donning masks to win approval. They must reinvent themselves multiple times during their lives, balancing on that tightrope which will make the difference between acceptance and rejection, trying to make the grade, appeal to others, and satisfy multiple roles, including wife, mother, worker, and chief laundress, to name a few.
First Ladies, at the top of the womanhood pyramid, are confronted with an audience of millions that must be satisfied. Instead of receiving daily critiques of ideas or policies, like her husband, the presidential wife is often taken to task for issues relating to matters involving her self-image. She is criticized for her wardrobe choices and hair styles, e.g., Hillary had too many hairstyle changes, and Michelle Obama has the audacity to wear sleeveless tops and dresses. Laura Bush virtually erased herself, instructing her speech writers never to use the personal pronoun “I.”
One commentator suggests that Democrat women inspire more negativity than Republican women. Why else, he asked, would worthy causes like nutrition and childhood obesity be suddenly suspect as something barely short of a communist plot? The same commentator suggested that if Laura Bush had been a Democrat, the right wing would have decried reading and crucified her for promoting literacy.
Too young to remember much about Jacqueline Kennedy during John F. Kennedy’s presidency, I was fascinated by an exhibit of her White House Years at the Met in 2001, highlighting her contributions to JFK’s presidency and her popularity with press and public, along with her fashion legacy. I can’t help but wonder how she would be treated in today’s 24/7 news cycle and blogosphere.
Like the first ladies of today, Arthur Schlesinger writes, Jacqueline was keenly aware of the role she would be playing as first lady. “She was all the more remarkable because, at the age of 31 she was 9 years younger than the youngest of any of the presidential wives before her or since.” She was quoted as saying, “It’s really frightening to lose your anonymity at thirty-one.”
Her solution was to approach her role as any great actress, using her wardrobe, which she called “state clothing,” as a shield, and her style as an weapon. One of her dress designers, Oleg Cassini explained her approach to trips of State, “every country was a campaign, with clothing an essential element in the battle plan.” Apparently, she disarmed many.
Her impact on the word stage became clear with JFK’s first State trip to Canada in May, 1961. The Canadians went wild, screaming “Jackie, Jackie” in the streets. As Leticia Baldridge, her social secretary, remarked, “Canadians just don’t scream like that normally.”
A month later during the European tour, the public and press were no less enthralled with her. After her reception upon arrival to France, President Kennedy famously quipped at the press luncheon in Paris: “I do not think it entirely inappropriate to introduce myself to this audience. I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris, and I have enjoyed it!”
Jackie had studied in France for a year and obtained a degree in French literature from George Washington University. A former french ambassador noted that Jackie’s “influence was extremely efficient as far as Franco-American relations were concerned . . . Jacqueline helped [President Kennedy] very much to understand France.” Author Pearl Buck wrote, “It was a source of pride to me that she appeared in France simply, but well dressed, and that she spoke to the French people in their own tongue.”
In Latin America, where JFK sought to improve his Alliance for Progress initiative, Jackie’s fluency in Spanish was a tremendous asset. During a ceremony to present land titles to families in Venezuela, the president introduced his wife as “one of the Kennedys who does not need an interpreter.” The first lady then delivered her own remarks in Spanish to resounding applause.
She even beguiled Khruschev who the AP reported “looked like a smitten schoolboy when the ice thaws along the Volga in springtime” upon meeting her. And after a day of tense and unresolved negotiations between the premier and JFK, photographers asked Khruschev to shake the President’s hand. He responded, “I’d like to shake her hand first.”
Many more incidents serve to illustrate how this woman adapted to her role of First Lady and created a character that beguiled the world while furthering this country’s foreign policy objectives. Today, I expect that she would have been roundly criticized, beginning with her own penchant for sleeveless dresses. And speaking fluent French AND Spanish!!?? She’d be bombarded by the proponents of Freedom Fries (remember them?) and the English ONLY movement. And that’s before you even consider that she might be accused of dipping her finger too deep into foreign policy!
I have to admit that I can hardly wait for the election of the first woman president so I can witness how the First Gentleman (what else?) will adapt to his role. How will he cope with having his every move scrutinized and questioned in a public debate? If he’s a golfer, will he be criticized for playing often, his handicap mocked, and his swing deconstructed? Will his hairstyle be an issue, or the suits he wears?
On the other hand, all the issues that First Ladies have had to cope with may not even arise with the First Gentlemen. And, just to warn you on this, that would really piss me off!!