What the first lady’s job is worth

This piece is part of an On Leadership round table exploring the role of first lady.

One reviewer of a new  book on Pat Nixon recently described the job of first lady as worth about as much as the vice president's — less than a “bucket of warm spit,” as John Nance Garner once famously said. From the list of 42 women who held the title, the reviewer came up with only two (Hillary Rodham Clinton and Eleanor Roosevelt) who managed to elude political and sexist constraints to achieve anything worth mentioning. The other 40, if they made any mark at all, stuck to “safe, domestic” causes like literacy and fitness, then faded out of sight.

Leaving aside the question of whether advocating literacy amounts to “warm spit,” we should remind ourselves that a first lady's most significant influence remains hidden from us, like the submerged part of an iceberg. In private time spent together, who knows what the president of the United States discusses with his spouse? We have only hints of the true impact of what Betty Ford called “pillow talk.”

Lady Bird Johnson explained “I infiltrate,” describing how Lyndon Johnson took a position she advocated only a day after he had vigorously opposed it. Eleanor Roosevelt knew Franklin listened, but after describing how he too had switched to take her position on an important matter, she admitted, “I was so astonished that I almost dropped the teapot.”

Even when White House reporters describe a first lady as powerful — as happened when Nancy Reagan was credited with raising the job to that of “Associate Presidency”— these women feel the need to deny their sway. Here's the effect of sexism: not that a wife feels she shouldn’t influence a president, but that she feels she shouldn’t admit publicly to doing so.

Just look at Rosalynn Carter's record. Criticized for sitting in on the occasional cabinet meeting and for scheduling weekly working lunches with the president, she really got into trouble when she traveled to Latin America and spoke with national leaders about substantive matters. She told me she made no more such trips because “Jimmy could go himself.” But shouldn’t we suspect that the outcry about an “unelected” person representing the United States had some effect? That criticism did not deter her from reporting to the president about the trip, but it helps explain why most first ladies choose to keep mum about what they do.

Only now are we learning, in a new book about the interviews Jacqueline Kennedy had with Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. nearly 50 years ago, that she was far more than a fashionista with a whispery voice. Along with her observations of people and issues, she told Schlesinger that President Kennedy had commended her for submitting a negative evaluation of an American diplomat. Then he passed it on to his Secretary of State.

The humanizing influence of a wife — especially if she's a charmer like Dolley Madison, married to a sourpuss like James Madison — can be extremely valuable. Visitors to the first president's household reported that they found George Washington a bit cool but that Martha was warm and generous. Who knows the value of hospitable treatment when the White House reaches out to legislators through breakfasts and receptions that include spouses? Lady Bird Johnson, in escorting hundreds of congressional spouses through the upstairs family quarters, reported that many of them had lived in Washington for decades but never gotten above the first floor of the White House. No wonder she courted them all, and just when her husband was rounding up support for his tax and civil rights bills.

Helping one’s spouse win the Oval Office is the first big job a president's wife does. In 1960, when pregnant Jackie Kennedy withdrew from public appearances, Lady Bird Johnson went to work, scheduling teas and receptions so Texans could meet other Kennedy women. When the tight election returns came in, Robert Kennedy observed: “Lady Bird won Texas for us.” Her Lady Bird Special train in 1964 broke all precedent for a spouse campaigning on her own. And with her soft drawl, she weakened opposition to her husband throughout the South. One campaign worker observed: “The others can have Madison Avenue. I'll take Lady Bird.”

But, of course, it's what she does in the White House that remains a first lady's most enduring legacy. When Betty Ford shocked Americans by telling the truth about her breast cancer surgery, thousands of women went for checkups. When Rosalynn Carter made it okay to talk about mental health problems, more than dialogue changed. And each spring, as the parks in Washington, D.C., burst into color, you'll hear taxi drivers explain to tourists, “Lady Bird Johnson is responsible for that.” It may not be up there on a level with Medicare and the Voting Rights Act, but it's worth a lot more than warm spit. 

Betty Boyd Caroli is the author of The Roosevelt Women: A Portrait in Five Generations and is currently writing a biography of Lady Bird Johnson.

More on this topic:

PHOTOS | Powerful women in Washington

The pyschological effect of a good spouse

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