Nancy Reagan is her husband's staunchest defender in the Iran storm, saying she is angry he was "deceived." And she is portrayed as rallying support behind the scenes, talking to friends and advisers and playing a key role in helping determine how her husband and the White House respond to the controversy that has swept them up.
Whatever Mrs. Reagan's real part in the current drama, she is not the first first lady to find herself in a difficult position while troubles rock her husband's administration. Eliza McCardle Johnson, Julia Grant, Florence Harding, Bess Truman, Lady Bird Johnson and Pat Nixon all faced scandals and crises. Here are their stories, with some surprising echoes of today's Washington.
Andrew Johnson became the first U.S. president to have articles of impeachment brought against him. In dismissing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton without Senate approval in August 1867, he acted in direct violation of the Tenure of Office Act passed five months earlier, and it was all the Radical Republicans -- holding a majority in both houses -- needed. On March 13, 1868, impeachment proceedings were begun by the House, with charges of usurpation of the law, among others.
The humble first family from the Tennessee mountains found its greatest strength, in the 2 1/2 months that followed, on the tiny shoulders of the tubercular first lady, Eliza McCardle Johnson. As hostility against the president mounted, the anxious family circle of sons, daughters and grandchildren drew closer, with the tranquil first lady as the central figure of faith in her husband's eventual vindication. Though unable to serve as hostess, she nevertheless instructed her daughter Martha to maintain a normal, almost cheerful, public image, with an uninterrupted social schedule.
She followed the impeachment proceedings through newspaper accounts, keeping her door ajar so she would be aware of exactly who was conferring with the president.
Personally, the first lady "was absolutely convinced" of her husband's desire to do what was right, "even though he might be mistaken."
When on May 16 Johnson was acquitted by a single vote, William Crook, a White House messenger, ran to the mansion from the Capitol with the news and entered the feeble woman's room, where she was sewing calmly. Crook blurted out the good news, and recalled the first lady's emotional reaction. "... the frail little lady -- who looked frailer than ever -- rose from her chair and in both her emaciated hands took my right hand. Tears were in her eyes, but her voice was firm and she did not tremble once as she said: 'Crook, I knew he'd be acquitted. I knew it.' "
President and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant had a wide circle of wealthy friends, who, as time proved, were rather ruthless in their Gilded Age instincts to make fortunes. Two of these men, Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, personally involved the Grants in the first scandal of the administration, only six months after Grant's 1869 inauguration. The two men had tried to corner the gold market with their close friend, the president's brother-in-law Abel Corbin, as their insider.
Fisk, Gould and Corbin earlier had paraded about, sharing a box with the first lady at the Fifth Avenue Theater in New York and entertaining the first family at the seashore in the summer. When the gold panic struck in September, Grant received an urgent letter from Corbin asking the president not to interfere in the crisis.
Informed of the conspiracy, Grant asked the first lady to write a note to Virginia Corbin, his sister. In the letter the first lady bluntly warned her that Corbin would be ruined if he was involved. Though Grant released a flood of gold via the Treasury, thereby breaking the cornered market, the scandal placed the Grants in question. Corbin quickly warned Gould to get out of the deal, though Julia's letter was not brought up. Traders moved to sell their "phantom gold," and thousands were ruined. The usually loquacious Julia was humiliated by the scandal, known on Wall Street as "Black Friday," but a congressional investigation exonerated the Grants.
Grant intimate Adam Badeau, in analyzing Julia Grant's advice that dubious officials should be fired, wrote that the president "would not overthrow a man whom he trusted though there were occasions when it would have been better for him had she succeeded."
But when it was revealed that one of their closest and oldest friends, Orville Babcock, private secretary to the president and later commissioner of public buildings, was indicted for graft in the Whiskey Ring scandal (an attempt to get money through internal revenue collectors from distillers), the first lady defended him.
Babcock had supervised Julia's East Room redecoration and the relandscaping of the south grounds, besides having taken a secret treaty mission to Santa Domingo, on Grant's orders, which had been opposed by the State Department and remained unknown to its secretary. During a trip to St. Louis, the Grants, guided by Babcock, were garishly entertained by one of the conspirators.
When Babcock's trial in St. Louis started, Julia urged her husband to send an aide, thereby signifying the administration's belief that Babcock was innocent. Babcock declined. But as the trial proceeded, the first lady changed her mind and said she was glad Babcock had refused. Though he was acquitted, the first lady argued with the president's offer to give Babcock his job back. "It was I," Julia Grant later made clear, "who protested against this same man's return to duty near the president."
A third Grant intimate, Secretary of War William Belknap, found himself in the most damaging of scandals. Belknap's attractive third wife "Puss," the sister of his second wife and a companion of the first lady's, was secretly using her husband's position to sell Indian post traderships -- which had been exactly what her sister, the second wife, had done. Puss Belknap's gowns, emeralds and coral-headed parasols were infamous in Washington, attracting attention and speculation that led to investigation into her husband's department.
When the scandal broke, Julia Grant was stunned as "red-mouthed rumor held high carnival in the capital." The first lady added that while "rumor ran riot," Puss pleaded with Julia to visit her.
Mrs. Grant said she "had been counseled not to go," but received Mrs. Belknap with "tears falling thick and fast" in the White House. The first lady questioned the Cabinet official's wife's reasoning for withholding her transactions from her husband. When the attorney general suddenly came in to meet with Julia, Mrs. Belknap fled. Eventually the secretary of war was impeached, but acquitted, Mrs. Grant tersely recalling she felt "much sympathy."
No first lady was every more directly responsible for the appointment of officials later involved in scandal than Florence Harding. Soon after the 1920 election of her husband Warren, she insisted that he appoint their friend Charlie Forbes director of the veterans' bureau.
Mrs. Harding's project was government care of veterans, and she steadfastly insisted on Forbes over the protests of many political advisers. In the White House, he flirted with her and almost daily visited the private quarters where they discussed politics. Though Prohibition was in effect, the Hardings had no hesitation in breaking the law by serving liquor. Forbes invariably greeted the first lady with, "Hello Duchess, how about a drink for a thirsty hombre?"
When word first got to Florence in the winter of 1922 that Forbes had been selling "surplus" veterans' hospital supplies and approving building contracts to construction firms for enormous kickbacks, she refused to believe it. When the president's sister Carolyn, who had been involved with Forbes, confirmed the fraud and the president ordered an investigation, Mrs. Harding was devastated. She refused to have Forbes name mentioned in her presence, and claimed it was "the one betrayal from which I shall never recover."
She was equally silent about the scandal involving Jess Smith, the unofficial assistant to the attorney general. Mrs. Harding had depended upon Smith's company during the campaign, and wholeheartedly agreed that he must come to Washington as part of the "Ohio Gang," the circle of poker-playing political cronies who filled the Harding administration. While he escorted the first lady on shopping sprees, vacations and to charity luncheons, he was also secretly selling B permits -- which allowed liquor sales on "medical" grounds -- from the Justice Department to bootleggers.
When word of Smith's shenanigans reached the Hardings he was ordered to leave Washington immediately. He never did. In May 1923 he shot himself. The first lady was bewildered by such a drastic measure, but publicly claimed that Smith's diabetes and an earlier appendix operation had preyed on his mind and served as catalyst for the suicide. Never did Mrs. Harding belie the inside knowledge she had on Smith's activities, though she quickly distanced herself from the event and did not attend the funeral, instead sending a blanket of flowers.
Florence Harding remained publicly adamant in her support of Secretary of Interior Albert Fall's claim of innocence during the Teapot Dome trials. Fall had illegally leased naval oil reserves at Teapot Dome, Wyo., and Elk Hills, Calif., to oilmen Harry Sinclair and Edward Doheny, acquiring from them "loans" of tens of thousands of dollars.
After President Harding's death in 1923 the trials began, unraveling the extent of Fall's corruption. When called to account for the money by the Senate investigating committee, Fall asked Harding friend Ned McLean to say that he had loaned it. It was Evalyn Walsh McLean, Ned's wife and Mrs. Harding's closest friend, who finally told Fall point-blank that she didn't want her family involved in perjury.
Mrs. Harding, however, kept in touch with, and defended, Fall while evidence mounted against him. Several times, she was at the point of appearing as a voluntary character witness for him, but as the trials proceeded, her pragmatic side overtook her, and she retreated from continued public support. Dying before the trials concluded, she was spared seeing her friends Fall and Forbes convicted and sentenced to prison terms.
Bess Truman was herself implicated in a 1949 scandal when it became known that Gen. Harry Vaughan, President Truman's chief military aide, had accepted a deep freezer worth $ 375 as a gift for the first lady in 1945, from a Chicago appliance firm interested in federal contracts.
Sen. Clyde Hoey of North Carolina began an investigation, but it was discovered Mrs. Truman's role was limited to a thank-you note. "In the future," she told a friend, "if someone offers me a tray of ice cubes, I'll refuse it."
Least expected to be among the first lady's supporters was Sen. Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin, who told the investigating committee that "there is nothing in the record even remotely suggesting anything improper on the part of Mrs. Truman ... Just a case of proper midwestern courtesy."
When Secretary of Defense James Forrestal committed suicide, amidst a controversy concerning his opposition of President Truman's recognition of Israel, Mrs. Truman was visibly shaken. According to her daughter, it brought back the private agony of her father's suicide.
In both the Vaughan and Forrestal cases, the first lady remained completely silent in public. In private, however, she offered her opinion to the president on what political actions needed to be taken, as she did in the case of the controversial firing of Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
Mrs. Truman felt MacArthur had defied his commander in chief and should be fired immediately. When her own mother confronted her about the decision Bess Truman angrily defended the president. "My husband happens to be commander in chief! And that outranks a general! My husband does what he believes best for the country!"
On Oct. 7, 1964, just weeks before the election, President Lyndon Johnson's longtime aide Walter Jenkins and another man were arrested in the men's room of the Washington YMCA on the charges of disorderly conduct.
Some of LBJ's staff panicked over the scandal, which broke after it was learned a previous incident of similar nature had occurred. Johnson, however, was in New York for the annual Al Smith Dinner. There was a real threat it might do damage to the Johnson campaign.
Lady Bird Johnson calmly but quickly moved into action. She issued a statement to The Washington Post declaring full loyalty to Walter Jenkins. It was her statement, and she issued it without first talking to the president. It read in part: "My heart is aching today for someone who has reached the end point of exhaustion in dedicated service to his country. Walter Jenkins has been carrying incredible hours and burdens since President Kennedy's assassination. He is now receiving the medical attention which he needs. I know our family and all of his friends -- and I hope all others -- pray for his recovery."
Lady Bird Johnson's swiftness disarmed critics, and the scandal faded with little effect on the election. Mrs. Johnson recorded that Jenkins' departure from the White House staff "was a sad good-bye ... But one good thing, we know we'll always be seeing each other down the road."
When First Lady Pat Nixon first heard about the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters, she recalled how her husband's 1946 congressional campaign offices were broken into, and material stolen.
According to "Pat Nixon: The Untold Story," by her daughter Julie Eisenhower, the first lady was troubled by President Nixon's growing dependency upon his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, who had, by 1973, become the "sole conduit" between the chief executive and the rest of his staff.
As the scandal mounted, the president became increasingly withdrawn from his wife, not sharing any of the problems, and as Julie recalled, "We in the family could sense that something was terribly wrong." The first lady, however, felt it was not her place to offer political advice because the president had never involved the family in political decisions. Rather than give way to despair, she assumed a policy of optimism, even though the situation only worsened.
In the White House, Mrs. Nixon watched the televised Watergate hearings, and privately expressed her frustration that other presidents involved in similar misdeeds had been overlooked. The first lady was convinced that Watergate was a partisan battle that needed to be stonewalled. But when the president's tapes were requested, she "saw immediately that unlimited access to the president's private, candid conversations spelled disaster." She believed that one drastic measure needed to be taken -- the tapes should be destroyed while still considered private property -- but she never pressed the president to do so. Pat Nixon unconditionally believed in her husband's judgment.
For her part, Mrs. Nixon maintained a full schedule of public appearances, in and out of the White House. The first lady was guarded in her interaction with reporters, telling a friend, "I won't let an offhand comment become a Watergate story." At one event she asked a group of religious women to "pray for the press," and privately admitted, "My schedule isn't doing a darn thing" to help dispel the black mood of Watergate. She stopped reading newspapers and determined to get outside the White House gates at least once a day for an anonymous walk. According to her press secretary, she donned a scarf and glasses and strolled with one of her daughters and Secret Service agents along F Street, window-shopping near the White House.
For his part, President Nixon wondered how the first lady had been able to withstand the pressures of Watergate. His thoughts apply equally to the other first ladies who had faced the scandals of their husbands' administrations, and survived. "... how," he wrote in his diary, "she could have gone through what she does, I simply don't know."