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When first ladies meet: An awkward post-election White House tradition

Adapted from “First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies,” (HarperCollins, copyright 2016)

Mamie Eisenhower hated moving out of the White House. She loved the perks and the power, surely. But with her husband having served overseas through World War II, what she really relished was the companionship. Never had she spent so much time with Ike as she did during their eight years at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

It was no surprise, then, that the outgoing first lady resented her successor.

Mamie’s husband was being replaced by a Democrat, and her own role was being assumed by a woman she sneeringly referred to as “the college girl.” Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy’s beauty, her modern touch, and her youthful, cutting-edge style would soon eclipse Mrs. Eisenhower’s frumpy shirtwaist dresses, pearl chokers and short bangs.

In November 1960, the press clamored to find out when the incoming first lady would get her private tour of the White House. Jackie was pregnant — and due in a matter of days. But Mamie seemed to be biding her time. On Nov. 22, the Kennedys’ vivacious social secretary, Letitia Baldrige, told reporters, “The invitation has not been extended yet, but we hope it will be.”

It’s a transition that happens once or twice a decade. While the public is riveted by what Lady Bird Johnson called “the great quadrennial American pageant” — the handover of power in the ceremonial swearing-in at the west front of the Capitol — a quieter tradition takes place weeks earlier: A face-to-face meeting between the first ladies, as one shows off the home she is about to hand off to the other.

Through these personal tours, they sometimes develop lasting friendships. “I’m not sure we would call the relationship among first ladies a sisterhood,” says Rosalynn Carter. “We all know we have a lot in common, though.”

But the stress that any of us endure during a big move can be heightened by political tensions, generational divides and the glare of the spotlight. “No matter who follows you, you know they didn’t deserve to be there,” Betty Ford once said.

The visit can be complicated even when the two families are seemingly on the same team. Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush had such a frosty relationship during her tenure that the vice president’s wife had barely set foot in the White House family quarters over those eight years. The official tour that Barbara received in 1989 was, by most accounts, brief and unsatisfying — a mere nine days before the Bushes were to move in.

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Anita McBride, former chief of staff to Laura Bush, explains how some of America's most popular first ladies created a home for themselves at the country's most famous address. (Video: The Washington Post)

It’s hard to imagine a meeting more uncomfortable than that of Mrs. Kennedy and Mrs. Eisenhower, though. When Jackie’s formal invitation to the White House finally arrived, the date was set for Dec. 9 — as she was still recovering from her Caesarean section just two weeks earlier. Her Secret Service agent Clint Hill called White House Chief Usher J.B. West to ask for a wheelchair and a staffer to push it, according to the memoirs of both men.

“Oh, dear,” Mamie replied when West delivered the request. “I wanted to take her around alone.” She suggested that a wheelchair simply be placed nearby, to be offered only if Jackie specifically asked for it.

Exhausted and pale, Jackie arrived alone at noon. West led her through the imposing Diplomatic Reception Room and into an elevator to the second-floor residence, where Mamie was standing regally in the hallway.

“Mrs. Kennedy,” West said, introducing the new first lady. Mamie extended a cool hand but never stepped forward, forcing Jackie to walk slowly to her.

“I turned and left them, and waited in my office for a call for the wheelchair,” West remembered. “A call that never came.”

After some time, two buzzers rang in the Usher’s Office, the signal that Mamie and Jackie were coming down in the elevator. The tour had lasted an hour and 10 minutes, as Mamie showed Jackie through 30 rooms. As Jackie quietly made her way to her car, “I saw pain darken her face,” West said.

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Ever the politician, she told reporters how kind Mamie had been to have a wheelchair at the ready but that she had chosen to walk.

Two months later, when Jackie was comfortably installed as the new first lady, she asked West: “Did you know that my doctor ordered a wheelchair the day I first went around the White House?”

West told her that Mamie had asked him to have it placed behind a closet door next to the elevator in case she needed it. But Mamie had never mentioned it to her guest. Jackie could only laugh, admitting, “I was too scared of Mrs. Eisenhower to ask.”

Lady Bird Johnson was well acquainted with her successor, Pat Nixon. Their husbands served on Capitol Hill together, and the women loyally attended the Senate ladies luncheons. In late 1968, when Lady Bird gave Pat and her daughter Tricia a tour, she opened the closet doors in each of the bedrooms. And she apologized for the stains left by their dogs, telling Pat that she had not bothered to change the once-white carpet, assuming they would want to choose a new one themselves.

The house had become threadbare from the Johnsons’ five years of incessant entertaining and the influx of seven million tourists after John F. Kennedy’s death. Lady Bird had been reluctant to change any of Jackie Kennedy’s décor, knowing it might spark a public-relations nightmare.

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Once she became first lady, Pat learned this the hard way. During the last month of the Johnson administration, the Committee on the Preservation of the White House had decided to swap a wooden mantel from the Lincoln Bedroom with a historic late-18th-century marble replacement. There was an outcry when the switch — approved on Lady Bird’s watch but instituted under Pat — finally occurred in 1969. Word got out that the old mantel had borne the inscription: “In this room lived John Fitzgerald Kennedy with his wife, Jacqueline, during the 2 years, 10 months and 2 days he was President of the United States.”

One headline blared, PAT NIXON REMOVES JACKIE’S HANDIWORK. The lesson: First ladies must tread carefully when altering any aspect of Camelot.

Betty Ford became first lady without warning. Richard Nixon had resigned in disgrace in 1974, so his vice president, Gerald Ford, and his family took up residence with no fanfare. They were ousted only two and a half years later.

Though the Fords and Carters became close many years later, Betty Ford was furious when her husband lost the 1976 race to the former Georgia governor. Like so many presidential spouses before and after her, Mrs. Ford bore the grudge for the entire family.

Before the inauguration, the Carters were ensconced for a time at Blair House — across the street from the White House — prior to moving in. Rosalynn Carter’s tour of the executive mansion with Betty Ford was planned and then canceled, twice. Only later would Rosalynn realize that Betty was, in fact, dealing with addiction at the time and was quite fragile. Following the second cancellation, a flurry of calls came from Jimmy Carter himself, insisting that the tour would commence and that, if it did not, it would become a news story.

That did the trick. Rosalynn put on a brown-and-blue wool dress, which she had bought for the occasion and received what she later described as a “brief, but cordial” walk-through from Betty.

David Hume Kennerly was the White House photographer at the time and a close friend of the Fords. He remembers waiting for the Carters to arrive and hearing Mrs. Ford whisper to her husband as they stood at the door of the White House, “I really don’t want to do this.” President Ford responded: “You’ve got to do it. We have to be good sports here.”

Kennerly could understand Betty’s reaction: “Most people don’t like getting their ass kicked. You don’t get real warm and fuzzy about the people who did it to you.”

Rosalynn Carter, in turn, felt the sting of her husband’s 1980 loss to Ronald Reagan. She simply refused to accept the lopsided verdict (Carter received just 41 percent of the popular vote). Years afterward, she admitted, “I was in such denial. It was impossible for me to believe that anybody could have looked at the facts and voted for Reagan.”

Matters didn’t improve when Rosalynn caught wind of rumors that Nancy Reagan wanted the Carters to move out a few weeks early and live in Blair House so that she could begin redecorating. Nancy would deny making any such statement.

When it finally came time for the formal tour, Rosalynn dutifully walked Nancy through the second and third floors, describing her efforts to showcase American paintings. But the outgoing first lady abruptly cut things short without showing Nancy the presidential bedroom and study. The mood was reinforced by the temperature: Jimmy Carter, because of the ongoing energy crisis, insisted on keeping the living quarters a cool 65 degrees during the day and 55 at night.

“The chill in her manner,” Nancy later wrote, “matched the chill in the room.”

The outcome of the 2000 election — decided by the Supreme Court, after ballots from the pivotal state of Florida were miscounted — was not determined until Dec. 12, more than a month after Election Day. It left Laura Bush with little time to prepare for her family’s relocation.

She already knew the lay of the land, having been a frequent guest of her in-laws, and she was on a first-name basis with the butlers who work in the family’s living quarters. She packed light, knowing she would be free to scavenge through the White House’s vast historic furniture collection, meticulously catalogued and housed in a climate-controlled warehouse outside of Washington.

Laura went on her walkabout with Hillary Clinton a week before Christmas 2000. Accompanied by her daughter Chelsea, then 20, the outgoing first lady reminisced about eight years of Clinton parties as they roamed the ground-floor rooms. She also took Laura to the third-floor music room, complete with speakers and the president’s saxophone collection. Once they got to the ceremonial State Floor, Hillary opened the door so they could walk through the Red, Green and Blue Rooms — and they were stunned to find a group of tourists gawking back at them. The “People’s House,” indeed.

Hillary confided to Laura that she regretted taking an office in the West Wing — a move that proved especially awkward after the failure of her 1993 health-care initiative — and she advised her successor not to let the responsibilities of her new role cloud her decision-making: Hillary recounted how she’d regretted turning down an invitation for her and Chelsea to attend the ballet in New York City with Jackie Kennedy, who would pass away a few months later.

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As they stood in the first lady’s dressing room, Hillary told Laura, “Your mother-in-law stood right here and told me that from this window you can see straight down into the Rose Garden and also over to the Oval Office.”

Eight years later, when Michelle Obama came for her first tour of the White House, Laura showed her the exact same spot.

Michelle was a high-powered executive, while Laura had spent her days in the workforce as a librarian. But they had certain sensibilities in common — neither had sought the public spotlight or a role in politics. “I think the whole concept [of first lady] was alien to her,” an Obama insider later confided about Michelle.

Laura was eager to tell Michelle, one on one, that a mother could carve out a real life in the White House for her young children. Indeed, the first stop on the tour that she planned were the bedrooms she thought would be most suitable for Sasha and Malia, then ages 7 and 10.

Ever the brisk professional, Michelle arrived at the White House with an assistant in tow — much as she might have done during official meetings in her days as a vice president for University of Chicago Hospitals. But Laura politely waved the aide away.

“This is really for Michelle and I,” Laura said. “A private visit.”