Archive for the ‘First Ladies’ Category


By Gil Troy, HNN, 1-28-12

Toward the end of Thursday night’s debate in Florida, which viewers were told repeatedly would be high stakes and very serious, CNN’s moderator Wolf Blitzer asked the candidates to assess their wives as potential First Ladies. Blitzer’s question was valid and relevant.  For decades now, Americans have seen a presidential candidate’s life partner as a window into the soul of the man or woman seeking to lead us. Furthermore, experience shows that controversial First Ladies like Hillary Clinton in the first years of the Clinton administration can distract from the president’s agenda, while popular First Ladies like Hillary Clinton in the later Clinton years can be helpful advocates and effective buffers for their spouses. Unfortunately, Blitzer conveyed the impression that the topic was trivial, a fleeting, entertaining diversion from the weighty affairs of state at hand.

Blitzer bracketed the discussion by saying: we “want to get right back to the rest of the debate, but first, on a lighter subject, I want to ask each of these gentlemen why they think their wife would make a great first lady.” Without mentioning her first name, Carol, Ron Paul described her as wife, mother, grandmother, and “the author of a very famous cookbook, ‘The Ron Paul Cookbook.’”

Mitt Romney echoed Blitzer’s breeziness by first saying, in response to Paul’s quick list, “I’ve got to take a little bit more time, a little more seriousness.” Catching himself, not wanting to show disrespect to Paul on this issue, Romney said to Paul: “nothing wrong with what you said—I’m sorry.” Mitt Romney then described his wife Ann, “My wife,” in fuller terms as “a mom” but also “a real champion and a fighter,” battling her own health ailments and helping young women “in troubled situations.”

Newt Gingrich actually mentioned his wife Callista’s name and described her “artistic flair” and media savvy. Reflecting the now-classic divide between working women and stay-at-home-moms, Newt Gingrich described Callista’s work achievements but had no family tidbits to tout. The former Speaker actually was the most gentlemanly by hailing all spouses involved as “terrific.”

Rick Santorum spoke most movingly, describing his wife Karen as “my hero.” Rick Santorum described his wife both as “a mother to our seven children,” and as a nurse, a lawyer, an author, but someone who “walked away” from her profession “and walked into something that she felt called to do, which was to be a mom and to be a wife.”

In truth, each answer could have invited rich follow-ups, raising discussions of gender roles, of family dilemmas, of core values. The candidates could have discussed what it means to be a First Lady as well as the symbolic importance of the President as head of state. But the token moment had passed.

“Very nice,” Wolf Blitzer said. “All right, let’s get back to the debate….”

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By Gil Troy, 7-10-11

Betty Ford, who died on Friday at the age of 93, in the 1970s was the most controversial First Lady since Eleanor Roosevelt.  During Gerald Ford’s brief presidency, from August 1974 through January, 1977, his wife Betty retrofitted the odd role she inherited to suit the modern media sensibility. Peddling the Ford marriage as a “normal” partnership struggling with the challenges of raising a modern family, Betty Ford inserted herself at the flashpoint of the country’s social upheavals.  In so doing, she became an iconic American figure even though she may have cost her husband the Presidency in 1976.

Mrs. Ford’s acknowledgment that she had breast cancer and a mastectomy in September 1974 was heroic. As thousands of women rushed to get mammograms, the legend of Betty Ford the candid political wife was born. After enduring years of neglect while Gerry Ford politicked, sometimes left at home with the four children for over 250 days in a year, Betty Ford loved the attention.

Most reporters welcomed this refreshing, “normal,” First Lady.  They tired of “Plastic Pat” Nixon, a selfless spouse who, they sneered, traveled with a hairdresser and an embalmer. Betty Ford brought controversy, fun, and a shot at the front page.

Most reporters, therefore, overlooked the fact that Betty Ford spent much of her husband’s tenure dazed by tranquilizers and alcohol. Her oldest son Michael would describe a typical evening in the White House study: “my dad will work in his chair” and “my mother will sit in her chair and she’ll read or maybe she’ll watch TV or she’ll just kind of reflect on things.”  Barbara Walters recognized that “reflection” as the “zombie”-like state of a substance abuser exhausted by her efforts to maintain appearances.

When Betty Ford was active, she was too active. On “Sixty Minutes” in August 1975, she speculated that “all” four of her children had “probably tried marijuana,” and confessed that she “wouldn’t be surprised” if her eighteen-year-old daughter Susan had “an affair”—quaint language for premarital sex. More than thirty-thousand letters bombarded the White House, with 23,308 “con” letters, 10,512 “pro.”  Betty Ford had provoked a nationwide symposium on sexual morality.

Mrs. Ford’s fans championed her as a new kind of First Lady, candid and “hip.”  Most approving letters wished she were running for president or her husband were a Democrat — implying she earned their love not their votes. At best, Betty Ford neutralized some hostility to her husband, but few liberals were willing to cross party lines to support a president they disliked just because they liked his wife.

Mrs. Ford’s detractors, on the other hand, abandoned the President. “We think this error is much more serious than anything that President Nixon did,” a Southerner wrote. “Your statements on ’60 Minutes’ cost your husband my vote,” one woman added. “Until now I thought we had someone in the White House who thought along the same lines that I did.”

Nearly two weeks after the broadcast, Gerald Ford was still trying to clarify the “misunderstanding.” His popularity had dropped from 55.3 percent to 38.8 percent. The President said that “Betty meant we’re deeply concerned about the moral standards” in the family. Feminists snapped that husbands should not speak for their wives.

At a critical moment, when the conservative former governor of California Ronald Reagan was contemplating a direct challenge to an incumbent president of his own party, Betty Ford alienated President Ford’s right flank. Within a month Nancy Reagan criticized “the new morality” for young people. Mrs. Reagan’s talk had the desired effect, garnering headlines that “MRS. REAGAN, MRS. FORD DISAGREE ON SEX.”

The “60 Minutes” controversy helped encourage Reagan’s run, which crippled President Ford during the 1976 election against Jimmy Carter—the only presidents to lose re-election campaigns in the last fifty years first faced serious challenges for the nomination.  Gerald Ford initially speculated that his wife’s remarks would cost him ten million votes—but quickly doubled that estimate. Ultimately, Carter won by less than two million votes out of eighty million cast. Despite the polls and the media adulation, Betty Ford cost Gerald Ford the presidency.

Mrs. Ford showed that in the modern era, First Ladies often do more harm than good, electorally. As a lightning rod for criticism, she personified one aspect of her husband’s character that some feared, in this case, that he was too soft. As with the Carters, the Reagans, and the Clintons, the stronger the wife appeared, the more popular she became, the weaker the husband seemed.

The political damage Betty Ford caused reveals the difficult balancing act facing First Couples. Reporters and voters often have conflicting needs. Popularity does not always translate into political success. In America’s mass-media popular-culture-drenched age, presidents and their wives cannot afford to alienate either their journalistic mouthpieces or their voting constituents.

A little more than a year after the Fords left the White House, the family staged the intervention that ultimately led to Betty Ford drying out, then establishing what became the “Betty Ford Center” in 1982. As with the breast cancer, Betty Ford’s frankness was pathbreaking and timely—Americans were ready for such openness. Her emergence as the iconic figure of America’s 12-step culture boosted her standing with the American public. Few remembered the backlash against her in the 1970s, the political harm she caused her husband. In fact, many assumed that she entered treatment during the Ford presidency, simply clumping all her candid moments into one appealing package.

As a result, for decades she was one of America’s most admired women. And, while it is difficult to prove, the adulation Betty Ford enjoyed in the post-presidential years probably did Gerald Ford a world of good. When he died in 2006, most of his most controversial moves, including his pardon of Richard Nixon, were hailed. Thus, while the evidence suggests that Betty Ford’s candor harmed Gerald Ford’s electoral chances, the evidence also suggests that, in the long run the Betty Ford legend enhanced Gerald Ford’s historical reputation.

Betty Ford was one, bold, sassy, classy lady, who successfully forded the huge divide between the traditional culture into which she was born and the modern, let-it-all-hang-out-culture she helped spawn. She will be missed.

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Gil Troy “G20: America’s golden couple Sarah Wildman: If Michelle Obama is the new Jackie Kennedy, will she upstage her husband on their European trip?”:

To be fair to the Obamas, there’s another reason the couple should shun the Kennedy comparison – one that historian Gil Troy shared in an email. When Kennedy famously declared himself simply the “man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris,” the line was barbed, not humble.

“True, Michelle Obama is generating the kind of excitement Jackie Kennedy generated, but Mrs Kennedy upstaged President Kennedy,” says Troy.

“JFK was making the best of a bad situation, but he envied his wife’s popularity, bristling a bit at Charles de Gaulle’s flirtation with Jackie. Even more ominous if the comparison holds, while that first European trip was triumphant for Jackie, it was a disaster for Kennedy.

“At the meeting which counted – a superpower summit with Nikita Khruschev of Russia in Vienna – Kennedy failed. ‘He savaged me,’ Kennedy later confessed to James Reston of the New York Times, bruised by Khruschev’s blustering performance when they met. For the first time in his life, it seemed, (or certainly in a long time), Kennedy met someone impervious to his charm. Obama may too.”

Source: UTV, 4-2-09

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Gil Troy “Barack and Michelle: A more perfect union? First Couple-to-be could be relationship role models for nation, experts say”

Source: MSNBC, 11-29-08

The Obamas have the best of both worlds, said Gil Troy, professor of history at McGill University and author of “Mr. and Mrs. President: From the Trumans to the Clintons.” “The Obama marriage is a modern partnership between equals; they are a working couple just like the Clintons,” he said. “But, unlike the Clintons — and more like the Bushes — the Obamas appear to be a solid couple, devoted to each other, with no fidelity questions hovering overhead.”

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Trish Crawford, Toronto Star, November 21, 2008, LIFE; Pg. L01

Every time Michelle Obama wears one of her unusual dress selections on television, the item flies off the shelves.

The famous $148 sundress she wore on The View and the J.Crew yellow suit she wore on Letterman were huge hits with shoppers, while the red dress she wore on her first visit to the White House proclaimed, says Bonnie Fuller in the Huffington Post, “I’m ready to be Page 1.”

Experts say it is she, not her president-elect husband, who will be setting fashion and cultural trends when the couple reaches the White House.

She nixed getting a designer pooch, saying her kids would adopt a rescue dog, and will continue this thrifty, socially conscious pattern throughout the term, predicts marketing guru Alan Middleton, of York University’s Schulich School of Business.

“She’s saying, ‘You don’t get much more down-to-earth that I am,'” says Middleton. He predicts there will be “a number of symbols that say, I am one of you.”

The American-made family car, a Ford Escape hybrid, is a perfect example of this, he points out, as it is both patriotic and environmentally responsible.

“It’s smart and good value,” Middleton says, “and I can see that in everything she does.

“This is the Hollywood side of politics. It’s that old star quality.”

Widespread interest, even adoration, doesn’t necessarily result in copycat behaviour, says political scientist Renan Levine, of the University of Toronto.

Jimmy Carter tried to get Americans to wear sweaters during the energy crisis of the ’70s and, even though he happily sported a cardigan, the style never really took off, Levine says.

On the other hand, he says, Ronald Reagan’s love affair with the colour brown was widely adopted in men’s clothing.

When fashions were adopted, such as Jackie Kennedy’s clothes and J.F.K’s refusal to wear a hat, they were widespread throughout the U.S., regardless of politics, Levine says.

“It has a bipartisan effect. The cultural impact is broad-based.”

He agrees it is Michelle Obama who is setting the style.

“No one has looked like her before. She is establishing a new palette.”

Alice Chu, an expert in fashion and colour at Ryerson University, notes the array of brightly coloured dresses provides a feminine silhouette.

“Her clothes say she is an individual, she’s intelligent and not fooling around.”

Her wardrobe differs greatly from the “very European and Anglo Saxon” outfits worn by Cindy McCain and Laura Bush, Chu says.

Michelle Obama is “showing a different side of the global, ethnic community.”

Chu, a member of the international team that yearly picks the fashion colours that will be popular, says the clear red dress Michelle Obama
wore to the White House after the election was an excellent colour for her.

Other good colours, Chu says, include black, white and purple, which she obviously has a fondness for, having worn it many times in public.

That “regal iris” evokes the royal purple of monarchy and is associated with strength and power, Chu says. Wearing black also evokes a “black is beautiful” undercurrent, she says.

Barack Obama’s preference for white shirts and dark suits sends a message that he’s “honest and straightforward.”

She expects white dress shirts to get a popular surge. Historian Gil Troy, of McGill University, agrees, saying everything about the new First Family will be scrutinized and copied by an adoring public.

“We’ve seen this thing before, with the Kennedys,” says the author of Mr. and Mrs. President, from the Trumans to the Clintons. “But the frenzy this time is going to be that much more intense.”

The press, which shares a “vibe” with the intellectual, urban Obama, is giving him a bit of a free ride right now, says Troy, feeding the public’s appetite for information about his favourite snacks (Planter’s Trail Mix), preferred drink (Black Forest Berry Honest Tea) and favourite book (Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls).

“This product placement is a boon for consumer manufacturers of all kinds.”

The Obamas, Troy says, are clever at making decisions, such as what car to buy, and “turning it into political points.” Saying this couple “is very coached,” he points out Michelle Obama has replaced early complaints about her “stinky, snoring husband” with the traditional supporting role. “Michelle didn’t play well. She was being passive aggressive,” Troy says of the early days of the campaign.

The couple has to give off an air of authenticity, Troy says. Any signs “that it is too faux, too calculating and on the make will cause a backlash.”

Their White House style will fit in with the new era of austerity, predicts Troy, but will still have sparkle and energy.

As he puts it, “They give great celebrity.”

Copyright 2008 Toronto Star Newspapers, Ltd.

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Devoted, smart and forcefully clear about her role, Michelle Obama could be the most successful first lady in decades

As Washington preps for a transition team, there is one person of whom there is no doubt. Throughout the raucous American election season, Michelle Obama – Barack’s professed “best friend” and “partner” in his journey – has been both completely present, a tireless fighter and campaigner, and yet, at the same time extremely, forcefully clear about the role she wants to play in this administration.

If her campaigning strategy is any indication, we may be in store for one of the most successful first ladies in decades, one who uses this terrible and amazing office to the fullest extent of its abilities, without losing herself in its twisted mores.

She learned her lesson early – after the blow up over her purported anti-Americanism – a twisting of the words that she had never been more “proud” to be an American – Michelle Obama toed the party line. She kept her public face perfect, from her fashion choices (smartly, and quietly, wearing low-dollar off-the-rack frocks for big ticket events, like her appearance on the View and on late night television), to her carefully worded cheerleading for her husband – announcing she would not comment on his choice of vice-president, for example, in a pointed nod to more activist first ladies before her, saying she was actually pleased it wasn’t her place, nor her desire, to be a part of such thing.

As she wrote for the Times today (a piece that originally ran in some form before the outcome of Tuesday’s vote was decided, in US News &World Report), “mom” is the title she holds most dear. In that message to Americans and the rest of the world, this ultra-educated (Princeton, Harvard) careerist, super mom laid the ground work for what her tenure as first lady will look like. She will be the guardian, first and foremost, of her own family. (These are the youngest kids in that stately mansion in decades – Chelsea was a bit older, Amy Carter was eight, but the comparison people will surely make most will be the Kennedy kids).

But woe to those who interpret that to mean she will go quietly into that good night, tucking the kids into bed as Barack handles the matters of state. No. If these early statements are a good indication, she will extrapolate her family guardian role into one that positions her to be a champion for mothers and families across America – and perhaps, at some point, around the world. She’s already made an outreach to military families, noting their struggles, and in so doing she helps smooth over any anxieties military families might have about this anti-war president understanding their needs.

But such a multi-faceted message that seems, at face value, so simple, exposes just how difficult this job really is. Having not yet picked out the drapes for the private quarters, or – much more importantly – decided which school her children will attend upon arrival in Washington (a dicey, potentially politically explosive decision in and of itself given the Clinton’s bashing for sending Chelsea to the tony Sidwell Friends school rather than a DC public school), Michelle Obama is already being criticised – for the dress she wore on election night – and wooed: Vogue, reportedly wants her for the cover. The role of the first lady is an uncomfortable one.

In the post-feminist era, a first lady has come to be expected to be all things to all people – smart and well educated, but also satisfied with her ceremonial position and encouraged not to speak up. Laura Bush pulled the role back to one that was far quieter than her predecessor, Hillary Clinton, even as she gave gravitas to her once-wild husband. But while feminists might have cheered Hillary’s role as adviser, there was always something terribly uncomfortable about her unelected position, a sense of dissatisfaction and condescension that swirled around her from the marriage itself, to her snappish retort that she wouldn’t be a “Tammy Wynette” that was simply standing by her man, or a woman who baked cookies all day.

Back in July Gil Troy, author of, most recently Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents told me: “The problem of the first lady is that there are all these unspoken assumptions and unmarked landmines, and if you start feeling too empowered as a modern voice and deviate from the script, you risk landing on political-cultural landmines.”

You have to go all the way back to Lady Bird Johnson to find a first lady that was happy in her position, who used the office to advance environmentalism for the first time in America, who braved a whistle-stop tour of the roiling, racist southern states alone when her husband feared to. And yet even Lady Bird had to tolerate the infidelities of her husband.

Michelle Obama is the perfect modern hybrid. Smart, beautiful, fiercely devoted to her children and her husband, her very presence adds to the sense of class and dignity this campaign – and this administration – has projected from the outset. And the one quality we hear about her again and again? She’s real. It’s a quality that’s perhaps the most difficult to maintain in this job, and the one that will keep her most sane.

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