tv The Presidency First Ladies CSPAN March 20, 2021 1:00pm-1:41pm EDT
italy. she has received fellowships and grants from the national endowment for the humanities the franklin and eleanor roosevelt institute, the hoover presidential library and the lbj foundation. before joining the faculty at the city university of new york. she taught in palermo and rome. betty is the author of a number of books including first ladies the ever-changing role which will be talking about tonight lady bird and linden the hidden story of a marriage that made a president the roosevelt women and inside the white house. she currently resides in new york city and sometimes although not now in venice italy. welcome betty. thank you very much. good to be here colleen terrific. well, i know our audience is really looking forward to this conversation. so we're gonna have a brief back and forth and then we'll go to plenty of questions from our audience. at the beginning of your book
you discussed the role of the early first ladies and how they set important precedents. can you elaborate on those early first? ladies women such as martha washington abigail adams and dolly madison and how they influenced the role. yes, as we know there was nothing in the constitution about what the wife of the president should do. so those decisions made at the very beginning were extremely important and i think the most important one probably was they decision. i don't think any of those three women you named had anything to do with that, but the decision was made that the president's home would also be his office. so when george washington was inaugurated here in new york city within walking distance really of where i'm sitting martha was not there. she was still in virginia, but she came up a couple weeks later, and she didn't come into a quiet reception. of course then in 1789 to get across from new jersey you had to take a ferry.
he didn't george washington did not bring his wife across on just a plain boat. he said the presidential barge and she arrived to a 13 gun salute like a celebrity. and the very next within days she was giving a reception at the home for people who were invited so she became a very public figure at the very beginning and people paid attention. i mean when you compare this to other countries now, it's really remarkable, but people paid attention to what she wore what kind of dessert she deserved at her receptions and it got too much for one reader of the local newspaper who said that he hope they would stop it. he said if we don't stop all this attention, we'll be reading items like this. about the fur they didn't call our first lady then it was mrs. president or mrs. presidentus or the president's wife. we will be reading her serenity who was much indisposed last week by a pain in the third joint of the fourth finger of
her left hand. we are happy to announce is in recovery after catching a cold when she went out in a siberian fur lately delivered to her by the russian ambassador as a present from the princess. when i was writing this book, i read an item in the first about the first lady, you know, we talk about her clothes and did she have a little bruise on her face and what might be happening so i think the his prediction has pretty much come true. we paid a lot of attention to the the president's wife from the very beginning. and of course those women you named had to cooperate with that in that feeling. i mean if they if martha washington had refused to entertains that i don't feel well, i think i'll just stay out of sight our whole history would have been different when the capital moved from new york to philadelphia again. it was rented quarters and again the office of the president was his home and people were coming
in so she was bound to be drawn in to the to what was going on in the country. so she was a very public figure from the beginning. i'm moving forward in american history in the middle four decades of the 19th century. sometimes presidents wise wives did not serve in a public role or in that capacity. can you talk more about why they made those decisions not to serve in that public role and who they named in their place to serve as the chief hostess. yes for about 40 years. i think you can say after andrew jackson was elected in 1828. first ladies really stayed pretty much out of sight except for some exceptions that we'll talk about and part of the reason was that the country was really changing, you know until then the presidents had all come from the east coast their wives had a certain social level with the new states coming in from the west what they called the west. i mean that was ohio in indiana
for them. that was the west and these women were left prepared to face in washington because now the capital is of course after 1800 the white house is the center of the first lady's operation and they were less confident about what to wear what to serve what to say and rachel jackson the wife of andrew jackson. i mean she had such a rough time of it. you can't blame the others for saying i'm not going to have any more of that. of course. she was never first lady. she died between the election and the inauguration and her husband said that the nasty things they said about her were the reason she died. i mean they made fun of her her illiteracy her grammar. they made a lot of fun what she looked like that. she was too fat. what was it a fat and 40 but not fair. so and another comment was she shows how far the skin can be stretched. so it was it was terrible.
they said of course there are other comments about her rumors about how her first marriage had not properly resolved in a divorce just really nasty things. so she died and then she followed by several women who just say. oh, i think my ankle hurts too much. i'll just send my daughter down to meet people at this reception. so they really do stay pretty invisible. and of course the young people who build in the young women who filled in could get excused. i mean gas if a 21 year old makes a mistake about seating at an official dinner or what food is served. it's not so you can say what she's young. what do you expect? so it was it was a way out. it was a defense really? now there are three notable exceptions in this time period sarah polk, mary todd lincoln and julia grant. he tells us about those three first ladies. yes, they interested me a lot because they did stand out while most people cannot name a single.
president's wife around them those three everybody pretty much knows and i just well i have to say that the reason i got interested in doing this book an editor and suggested. i write a book about first ladies and i said i wasn't interested in writing about women who became famous just because of the men they married and she said well, i wanted something more substantial and i started reading short bios of the first ladies and i could see that a pattern emerged immediately almost all of them married down that is they married men from economic positions their families were less well off economically many of the women were better educated than their husbands. so while i could see why the men would marry up why ambitious men would marry up i wanted to see why the women married down and one of the things that comes through in these these three cases by the way are that these women had a certain confidence that i think came partly from the realization that they had a
certain class. they had a certain they were in some ways superior to the men they marry they certainly sarah polk had a very good education. she was in washington quite a while before her husband became president. she had made good contacts there and she didn't mind letting people know that she had opinions and she was going to state them mary lincoln of course was in the white house at a tragic time the civil war she had families fighting on one side her husband presiding over the other side. it was very very difficult for her, but she she came to washington. i'll show them. you know, she spent a lot on clothes. she really thought that she could be a social figure it didn't turn out so well, but we we certainly know about her and of course julia grant also comes from a family area to her husband's family and had a certain confidence even though people. sometimes criticized or looks she didn't care. she it was a confidence and of
course the grant had a very attractive family so people latched on to their kids, you know, they wanted to know what they were doing and how they were doing. so those three first ladies do stand out as exceptions. in the 20th century, there was the development of the office of the first lady and gradually first ladies started to hire staff and take on a more public role. so when did this shift occur? and what were some of the changes that took place? well, i would i would date it to theodore roosevelt 1901 certainly other things had been leading up to it the development of mass media had put more attention on president's wives lucy hayes in the 1870s was the first first lady to travel across country and she got a lot of attention for you know, people turned out at the train station to see her and support but in 191 when theodore roosevelt moved in on the death of mckinley the assassination of
president mckinley, they really turned the presidency to what i think most historians call the modern presidency with lots of attention from the media taking a very strong position and matters of the world making the attention on washington said of the state capitals. it was really a big change and theodore roosevelt's wife edith can be pointed to as as instrumental in that she hired a secretary. well they had often had secretaries, but they were just sort of social. up on a niece or a daughter or a relative or a friend who helped them write letters edith hired a secretary what she did what we would call press secretary work because edith was smart enough to say if she didn't want the exact if she didn't want the public to know she wore the same dress twice. she would tell us secretary to say it was green one night and blew the next night. you see so she begins managing the press previous first ladies had had more or less wanted to
keep their kids out of sight. sometimes they'd even moved out of the white house the clevelands moved out of the white house for a while to get more privacy for their kids, but the roosevelt's sort of said, we're here look at us and of course the the rambunctious children with their i mean they got so much attention and of course we must remember that it was during that the roosevelt administration that the west wing was built. so if you look at pictures of the white house upstairs born 1900 for example in the in the period of mckinley you wonder how on that second floor they could have the family living and also the office of the president, you know, there were telephones around there were jumbled desks. it was impossible for the roosevelt family to move in there and live with among the telephones. so it was during that period that the west wing was built and then the second floor the white house what we now think of as the residential quarters where you have to be invited up you don't get shown that on the
public tour. that developed and the roosevelt's very much are a part of that. eleanor roosevelt is often considered one of the most influential first ladies in american history. how was eleanor's approach to serving his first lady different than her predecessors and how did she shape the role of the modern first lady? well eleanor roosevelt tops all list of first ladies whenever you survey if it's historians and political scientists or if it's readers of good housekeeping everybody puts eleanor roosevelt at the top. of course, we have to remember that she was in there longer than anybody else much longer 12 full 12 years, and she was beginning the fourth when franklin died. but she approached the job. she just enlarged it considerably. i should also say she was in there at a time of great. change and tragedy the great
depression world war ii so she had opportunities that perhaps other first ladies had not had but she did what she had gotten interested in reform movements before remember. she had been a member of the consumers league of the women's trade union league after franklin had polio. she became much more active in the democratic women's division in new york state helped write the platform in 1924, so she had a lot of contacts people who were telling her. this has to be done. let's do this. she was really what we would call activists before but she got a lot of courage. and i think some help from others in other words people prodding her to go in and speak when franklin was not able after polio when he couldn't travel so she could go around to different institutions. you know, she could look at orphanages and jails and and housing and appalachia and she could investigate things and and
do it for him say it was for him now. she was much farther left than franklin on many issues and she spoke out on that for example, auntie lynching law many people wanted an anti-linching law in the 1930s and franklin did not think he could get it through the senate with the committees headed by southern senators, and so he refused to take a stand on it. but eleanor did and when somebody said what can't you make your wife shut up. he said i can't do anything with her even she went to him and said franklin. should i keep quiet on this issue? and he said no you go ahead and speak your mind. i can always say i can't do anything about it. it was very clever on his part because i've heard people say that well, paulie murray for example, the leading activists said that she didn't vote for franklin in 1932, but she voted for him in 1936 not because of him but because of eleanor so he
was clever. he was letting her pull in people who would not follow him necessarily. what did she do? she investigated housing in appalachia and then work to get experimental communities homesteads open. she wrote a column, of course. nobody no first lady ever had a my day column. she testified before congress congressional committees. she was invited more than once and but she testified twice. that was the first time anybody had done that so she really broke the most she showed the possibility in the job. really? i think that's what we can say. she showed what a president's wife could do add to his legacy. it also on her own. when did the practice of a first lady having a public initiative begin? and which of those initiatives have been the most successful and which ones have received some pushback?
well, i think from the beginning president's wives have often taken on some sort of charity or goodwill work, you know visiting an orphanage in washington or later being a sponsor of girl scouts or something like that ellen wilson, for example the first wife of woodrow wilson was very active in getting housing reform in washington dc, but i think you can say that the real the public initiative as you call it started with lady bird johnson. with her beautification project and when the johnsons got into the white house, she didn't start at the first year the year that they served the remaining term of the kennedy. administration in other words the last year the year after president kennedy was assassinated. she did not start it. she said, i don't know if we're going to be here for another four years. i'll wait and see what happened. she didn't even change the drape reason the white house until she was sure they were going to be
there another four years, but then she decided on a project and of course, we know every american knows the project right? it was beautification and it's centered not just on outdoor parks but on getting down billboards removing junkyards from beside highways and so but it was a very effective program and every first lady since then has had that in fact if one of the first things they're asked generally when their husbands run for president, what would you do? what would be your project or as you call it your public initiative and some have been more successful than others. i think ladybird johnson's was one of the most successful nancy reagan came into the white house with a project a foster grandparents pro project. that was not very well received and she didn't get very good. press the first year in general. she was spending too much money people felt on on redoing the white house, and she was just
spending too much money and her her ratings were not very good. so she switched to the end just say no to drugs program and her her popularity her ratings went up like that. so i think that was a lesson to the is who followed that was good to have something that people latched onto so of course, most people can name both what the others were. the reception who's had the worst reception. well, i mentioned nancy reagan's reception to foster. grandparents was not so good. i think the reception to melania trump's be best has not been so good, but i should also say that first ladies have made different. um choices on how they put their projects forward for example, most of them lady bird johnson had a staff a first lady staff of about two dozen people. very competent and she didn't when i asked her office how many
people worked for her during her first lady years. they would have to give me an approximation because people were coming and going but also she had some full-time people, but she would borrow from agencies there were people who worked on the beautification project who were paid by the department of the interior. so it was a very competent. staff that worked very hard on the project and as you look at the one since then i mean for the first ladies after ladybird for pat nixon, it was volunteerism rosen carter, of course, it was mental health. you can go down the list some of them continued the projects after they left the white house and some of course dropped them but in general those who did them. well, i think they not only added to the legacy of their husbands, but they made good names for themselves. we have a lot of questions from the audience because first ladies is one of our favorite topics here on history happy hour. so we're gonna go to some of
those questions. the first question is from laura and she's asking from blue lake, california. and she asks which first lady in your opinion was the most ahead of her time. well, i'd have to say eleanor roosevelt wouldn't i mean for the reasons i just she just experimented with so many things the the investigations the traveling abroad the taking a stand opposed to her husband the writing if i already said i would think she was most ahead of her time and we've really not matched that sense. from eugenia in arizona. she asks has any first lady actually really relished the job. oh, dear a lot of them hated it. who hated that? that's the first thing comes to mind.
jane pearson operator husband would lose and even eleanor roosevelt didn't didn't want it at all. i mean she was extremely unhappy to move into the white house. so who was happiest about it who relished it? i can't think of a single one who really said many, you know, many of them say when they leave what they miss they missed the they miss the perks of the white house and the opportunity to meet people and to be part of what's going on in the world. and so many of them talk about missing what when they leave but i can't well. oh, yes, i guess the one i would grant julia grant like to being first lady. there's a granted and i was going to say helen taft, you know, helen taft everybody says she got her husband to the white house because he was in line for an appointment to the supreme court under theodore roosevelt and helen taft got wind of that and she went over and met the
president and talk to him and after she did the president talk to her husband and said i can see why an appointment to the supreme court is not what you want at this time. and then of course taft went ahead and won the presidency and the story is that helen rushed down from her seat in the in the capital where he was being inaugurated and gotten the car because before then the assistant always rode back to the white house with the new president and she made sure she was sitting beside her husband and rode back and then when they they got there they walked in and this is perhaps apocryphal but she said, okay i made you president now, let's see what you'll do with it. so, yes, unfortunately, you know, she had a stroke a couple months later and so much of the joy that she would have found in the white house. unfortunately. she did not find but yes now that i think about it i can come up with them some happy ones
from judy in washington dc. she has a very good question. when did the term first lady start? the term first lady we still argue about the first. evidence i saw of its use was in 1861 when somebody wrote about the wife of the president of the confederacy, verena davis. she's at the writer said she is the first lady of our land, you know just in descriptions other people have said it was probably used in letters, but it emerges in the literature after lucy hayes. i mentioned she took the trip across the country the first one to travel cross country. and so she's becoming a national figure and first lady comes into use in the 1930s it got capitalized. and now we're back to not capitalizing and of course my theory is that very soon is going to go out of style entirely and we won't use it, you know as soon as we have a male in the job.
we certainly can't call it the office of the first lady. so i predicting we'll say something like east wind the east wing did this or the east wing did that, you know, we're first or first spouse or first partner. that's what countries don't do it. i mean, why do we need it? and certainly we don't need a title for the spouse of the vice president certainly second lady i really so this segue is really great into our next question from george and new york city and he asked how do you think the role or perception will evolve for the eventual first gentlemen, will it be the same or will there be different responsibilities? well, it will change a bit i suppose because we won't be able to say that the spouse of the president is a model for all american women or anything like that. you know, that was one of the complaints against rachel jackson that she didn't deserve to stand at the head of female
society. so in terms of role for women, certainly that'll change and of course what the first lady does in presiding over the east wing a lot of it is is just institutionalized. i mean she sees to the she oversees she appoints the people who see to the physical plan who with the publicity sending out. graphs of the family arranging of course diplomatic dinners and seeing what drinks are served as we just heard so much of it would go on is it could be handled very well by staff betty ford said when she took over as first lady rather suddenly on the resignation of president nixon. she said oh you have to do is show up. i mean everything else is done. so certainly a man could do most of that and you think about the going out and speaking for the president which we tend to expect the spouse to do certainly a man could do that as well as a woman. i think it's the title. that'll have to go and i i don't
you think first spouse. the first spouse or first partner. i mean you can also have a relationship. that would be not a heterosexual relationship. so yeah, but why can't you just say the president and and then give the name of the person who's the spouse, you know do remember names? a lot of changes potentially christopher asks, what do you think the most consequential first lady was in history besides eleanor roosevelt. so who would you go to after eleanor roosevelt? oh, well consequential as is a loaded word. isn't it in terms? you know, i did the book on ladybird and lyndon johnson, and i really think he would not have been president without her. her. she had so many. skills in terms of bringing people into the folding. he was one he could make a few enemies. she was very good to keep everybody happy. she was extremely important in
in managing his moods and so influential consequential in that regard getting her husband elected president, and i mentioned of course helen taft was certainly consequential in getting her husband elected president who made the biggest changes to the country we go back to eleanor roosevelt. consequential i mean they all you know even abigail adams back in in those very early days had consequences in terms of the political parties asserting themselves, and she took stands so consequential i'd really need to know consequential with whom you know, well the next question may help you out from sharing and she asks betty from your historical research which first lady seemed to influence her husband the most. influence you mean in terms of changing his mind? yeah or influencing maybe what types of policies or proposals
that he pursued. well, certainly helen taft had strong opinions, you know, we give a lot of credit to edith wilson the second wife of woodrow wilson. she's often called, you know. president test because she took over after he had the stroke, but i don't think she i don't think she had that much influence on his views at all. she was very apolitical for one thing. she said she wouldn't even have known who was running in the election of 1912 when he was elected. so she's given up much more credit. i think than she deserves. most people i think would pick her out eleanor. influencing as i said, she's more balanced of to franklin's ideas. in other words. she he certainly listened to her people often said that he would ask her for her opinion when he was on the other side. she would state it and then a day or two later.
they would hear him saying something that sounded much like her then like he had sounded previously so influential. yes, and as i mentioned lady bird johnson i'll have to think of others. the next question is from rhonda and it has to do with some of these public initiatives that we talked about. she wants to know is there an allocated budget for first ladies for their projects? how do they you know, how do they actually get things done that they want to promote or do well first lady has a has a budget and i remember rosalyn carter fought for a bigger budget than she got because it's always it's always a little what's the word there's some competition between the east wing and the west wing about what the east wing is paying its press secretary and it's social secretary in those people and many of the first ladies have insisted that they're people be
paid. well that they be paid on the same level as the west wing so as i said, the budget is established by the by the administration and some of them go outside it i mentioned ladybird borrowed people some of them use a much smaller budget. can see melania trump has a very small staff and and likes it that way evidently so it they do have a budget the first one to actually be listed as a government employee that i know of the first member of a first lady staff to be listed as government employee was maybe eisenhower's secretary the 1950s so you can see how quickly it grew. i mean before then it was just sort of even eleanor roosevelt people worked for her. she had secretaries and all but it wasn't listed as an official government employee. our question from geraldine from connecticut. were you surprised about anything in your research for this book?
oh, yes, there were surprises all the time in what can i think of as an example? you're reading along and you find something that probably can't go into the book but you it surprises you. what can i say? what's the most surprising thing? i was surprised that how influential. ladybird was you know in her case she left a very full record. she left a diary that her printed diaries something like 800 pages white house diary. she was the first one by the way to do that. i shouldn't say that. she was the first modern first lady to do that helen taft had written a book about the white house and even julia grant back in the in the 1870s had written a book about being first lady, but it was not published for a hundred years. so after lady bird johnson every
first lady except pat nixon who had her daughter do the job for her every first lady has published a book on leaving the white house. we'll we don't know about the current first lady if she will or not, but that's been the rule that they've all written the about leaving the white house. the time there next question is from darren from florida. please comment on edith wilson's role after president wilson had a stroke. yes, that's what i was referring to earlier that people think that she you know petticoat government. that was the phrase that she was running the government and he was incapacitated. i mean she didn't let anyone in to see him or only of the very few trusted staff members into sea. but if you look at the things that did not get done, you know, there was a major strike there were problems with deporting people from the united states who didn't agree with certain policies.
she really functioned as more like a a barrier to people who wanted to get near him. so if she'd been really a door. it should really take an over government. she would have acted in some of those cases where she did not so i think it's a it's been exaggerated. we have a number of questions from greg and excuse me maureen from new jersey and many others who want to know your thoughts on jackie kennedy who is obviously a favorite in this program because of her role in founding the white house historical association. yes. she did do that and that was very important and she also made important changes to the white house, you know, her famous stories about when she first visited the white house and made me eisenhower showed her around and she thought it looked she had some not very nice things to say about how it was decorated and how it was furnished. so that was very important her. she was very young thirty four
years old, right? so one of the youngest first ladies and of course at a very tragic time, but her her rating for in general was low. i have to say it's been great. it's been rising as the years go by she's becoming more popular. she didn't have much time. she had two small children. she traveled a lot on her own. she was absent a lot from the white house people held that against her and some people held against her they kind of renovation that she did on the white house what she called restoration one. come one criticism was that it was too friendship by you know, and but she didn't really have much money to work with, you know, it's often said that pat nixon brought in more authentic furniture to the white house than jackie kennedy did but she had more time to do it and she had more funds to do it. so she certainly jackie kennedy
was certainly an important style figure. i mean magazines around the world were named for her. she was world famous. her name became a common name for people to give their kids. so she's one of our most interesting first ladies, that's true, but she tragically had a very short time. our last question this evening. we're going to put you on the spot betty if you could host a dinner party for any three first ladies living or deceased who would you invite and why? oh, well, that's i can't i can't name any. i think we have five living first ladies, right? you know betty ford said the job diminishes, but it never ends. so if you say we have five living first ladies, i wouldn't want to name any of them because it wouldn't be fair. i probably wouldn't name any of the ones that i've written about a lot lady bird johnson the roosevelt's because i think i kind of know them a little bit. but i would go for the ones that
i don't know that i really couldn't get to when i was grace cooley for example in the 1920s. is one of the most fascinating and we don't really know she had the reputation the white house for being a little bit frivolous. she had the tragic developer's son. so of course that was that was not a frivolous time, but in general she's pictured with raccoons and dogs and wearing fashionable clothes, and she doesn't seem to have an opinion on anything and she says she was never consulted on anything that mattered. but after she left the white house, she lived another. years and she wrote poetry she got involved in causes and i think there was a lot more to her than we ever knew and i would just like to ask her what she was thinking about when she was holding those raccoons and posing for all those silly pictures when she could have been doing more. there's another person like that. she wasn't first lady very long lucration guard field in the 18
1881. my husband was assassinated very soon. so but she had a she was a very bright young woman went to the same college. she and her husband started out in the same college in ohio. they happened to speak on the same program and he and everybody else said she was by far the better speaker. but then as he ascends in politics, she becomes more and more the silent figure. and she lived a long time after he died and we don't hear anything more from her. i just like to ask her why she that why she sarah polk is another one as i mentioned before a person with a lot of influence and we don't really have a lot of information on her. so i guess i would like to talk to the ones. i don't feel i know as well. that's terrific. thank you so much betty for such an engaging conversation. like i said on one of history happy hours favorite topics,