LGBTQ

Laura Bush Was Pro-Choice -- and Dozens of Other Things You Never Knew About America's First Ladies

The media have long treated first ladies as caricatures instead of people. What will that mean for Michelle Obama?

Among the many times I had the chance to interview Hillary Rodham Clinton as first lady, on and off the record, one remark she made still lingers with me:

"Who I really am seems less important than what different groups want me to represent."

It really echoed for me the week before Barack Obama's election, as I sat in the White House Yellow Oval Room, a ray of the waning Indian Summer sun slanted across the lap of the outgoing first lady, who had gathered a group of historians, journalists and preservationists around her. She was reflective, the house strangely still. To the historical imagination it was like a palace before a revolution -- in this case, a peaceful election as much a shift of the mind as in policy.

The Obama election has given even the opposition a sense that the nation as a whole had learned to see a Hawaiian-born son of a white woman and an African man who came from Illinois not by any one of those labels, but as a unique, individual, human being. If history holds up, however, the irony is that most folks might not cut his wife, Michelle, that slack.

To me, Laura Bush has always been articulate about her real beliefs, but then again, I actually followed her words and weighed her deeds carefully. It's my business. I do think her Cheshire Cat smile misled many in the media and public to caricature her as a "Stepford wife."

She is a word person who chooses what she says carefully, a habit that made her quotably bland -- no matter how honest her sentiment. This day, she did not restrain her words. She spoke of a genuine regret as she reflected on her incumbency.

It was not really until the second term was under way that it hit her -- a first lady has the power to directly affect the real life of real people. It was an evolving realization but it seemed to convince her when she read a letter from a woman whose life was saved while watching a public service commercial Laura Bush had made about the warning signs of a heart attack for women -- and realized she was having one right then. She got to a hospital before she died.

The public record, however, shows that Laura Bush's campaign for disseminating information about heart disease in women was a small part of her work.

It has included: her prompting increased public museum and library funding; a long-term and diversified advocacy for Afghanistan women; persistent international protest of Burma's human-rights violations and her aid to Burmese refugees; shaping Reading First, which utilizes proven instruction methods to ensure proficiency by the fourth grade; holding regional conferences on training for state and local efforts for at-risk youth; introducing the first breast-cancer prevention effort in Saudi Arabia -- where screenings increased fivefold after her effort; mobilizing the private sector to match federal efforts combating malaria in Africa ...  the list is extensive.

All this, along with offering nuanced responses to issues ranging from stem-cell research to same-sex marriage. In her first days as first lady, she joined Pat Nixon, Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush and Clinton as the seventh consecutive first lady to state that she is pro-choice.

Does anybody know this? I doubt it. By Inauguration Day 2001, the caricature of Laura Bush as a prim librarian had been solidified -- a result of the George W. Bush campaign's "anti-Hillary" strategy and the national media toeing the line.

Even then, the fact that Laura Bush read the complete works of Truman Capote serially in order to plumb the mind of the author -- not a common trait among West Texas housewives -- was largely ignored by reporters covering her. Then, following Sept. 11, it was the media -- not the White House -- that crowned her "comforter in chief," who was asked how to explain it all to frightened children.

The same day Barack Obama was elected, news broke that Laura Bush had gone public with her conflict with Vice President Dick Cheney on a pending landmark ocean-preservation act -- although understandably the main story was Obama's election. Still, after the post-election glow and the holidays, there was a Jan. 7 announcement that the president sided with her and enacted it.

The enactment made the green news, but as for the first lady's role in it? Barely a blink in the blogs. It didn't fit the conventional narrative.

Lest you assume this was some liberal bias based on whom she was wed, consider the first lady who tried to be president. Throughout the 2008 campaign, no comprehensive review analyzing Clinton's substantive achievements and policy influence as first lady appeared. Perhaps it was spinners fearing renewed cries of "who elected her," but the media conducted no independent research and instead relied on its old narrative: she failed at health care reform, went "traditional" with international goodwill trips, was victimized by the Monica Lewinsky scandal and ran for the Senate.

So much good that she did initiate -- both overtly and covertly -- was left uncovered. Coverage would have also provided a glimpse into the real functioning of a first lady's evolution during her tenure. Clinton helped craft the Adoption and Safe Families Act, and bipartisan work with even Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, prompted Congress to pass it in 1997. She also pushed a bill protecting unadopted children "aging out" of the system without a safety net in 1998.

This wasn't just the culmination of her pre-White House expertise and advocacy in child protection law, but evidence of how well she learned the ropes of first-ladyship; what she called a "focused issue" passed faster than a "broad agenda." Had "Hillcare" not failed earlier, the sweeping adoption changes might not have happened.

"You see so much, you meet so many types of people. You can't help but grow," Nancy Reagan once told me.

Researching the lives and work of first ladies -- and the substantive and consequential impact of it all -- can be awfully frustrating at times like now. Scanning Michelle Obama's post-election coverage makes it seem that the importance of being first lady is about sleeveless dresses and puppy breeds. It isn't.

And even though she doesn't foxhunt and winter in Palm Beach, Fla., there seems to be little point trying to clarify the media narrative that she's the second incarnation of Jacqueline de modele.

And yet -- considering the freshness that the new administration brings, I'm hoping some of it may be applied to the perceptions, expectations and understanding of what a first lady is and does, and how she impacts the presidency -- and have Michelle Obama benefit from that. It's going to require depth from the media, assertiveness from the East Wing and a reality check from the public.

Ever since Laura Bush showed Michelle Obama the family quarters, the centennial of that tradition, I've had a steady avalanche of media inquiries on the subject.

As historian of the National First Ladies Library and author of biographies and overviews of the role, its been disheartening for me to realize how eagerly the media disregard history. The foreign press seemed the most inquisitive about this American phenomenon of investing so much fascination with the wives who happened to be married to the presidents, but the U.S. media was essentially seeking a quote to confirm the narrative about Michelle Obama that was already solidifying.

Reporters have tended to fall back on a false counterpoint as old as Abigail Adams and Dolley Madison: "traditionalist" or "activist" (sorry, make that Kennedy and Clinton -- the media consider anything before Eleanor Roosevelt irrelevant).

The reality is that even the most public traditionalist ends up a stealth activist (Nancy Reagan was the first to urge her husband's dialogue with the Soviets; Mamie Eisenhower isolated Ike from Joe McCarthy by barring the senator from an annual Senate dinner at the time of his red-baiting hearings; Nellie Taft -- remembered for starting the cherry blossom trees -- was the first to initiate policy, health and safety standards in the federal workplace).

Conversely, the publicly acknowledged activist is often a covert traditionalist (Clinton redecorated the Blue Room; Roosevelt served tea from a silver service; Carter sponsored a poetry festival).

In response to the inquiries, my instinct was to offer facts: Born in 1964, Michelle Obama is a baby boomer like Laura Bush and Clinton, the so-designated generation born between 1945 and 1964. She will be 45 when she becomes first lady, the same age Clinton was when her tenure began. She's the third native Chicagoan, after Betty Ford and Clinton, and fourth to earn a graduate degree, after Nixon, Clinton and Laura Bush.

She has two daughters -- like Laura Bush, Lady Bird Johnson and Nixon -- closer in age to Amy Carter and Chelsea Clinton than the Kennedy children when they moved into the White House. She is the second lawyer -- Clinton was the first, and the second to continue working after her children were born -- yes, you guessed it, Clinton was the first.

My litany of facts got a lot of silence in reaction. One reporter finally said it: She still saw Obama as the "anti-Laura" or the "black Jackie" -- but not the "new Hillary."

Of course, she's none of these. She's Michelle Obama, and her singularity is, in fact, what makes her more like Jackie ... or Hillary ... or even Lucretia Garfield --  an individual who has given up any profession except that of wife and is often then implored by the media, White House aides and complete strangers with no idea of who she is as a real person, what she "should" or "has to" say and do (and wear), despite being under no legal obligation to do anything.

And what makes all the first ladies like all of us is a larger reality that the new administration signifies: none of us are merely the sum of any one, or even a combination, of all of our factual labels.

What does this mean for the 40th wife of a U.S. president to serve as first lady? First off, for those who think her self-described priority as "mom in chief" is shorthand for "I won't do anything substantive" -- think again.

Consider this reality: she has spent all her energy in the last year focused on campaigning without trying to think too far beyond election day and what she would accomplish. In less than three months, she's had to learn the configuration of rooms of her new home and figure out how she, her husband, daughters and mother will use them, what to put in storage, what to take, what to keep in their Chicago house, do national interviews, get through the holiday season, choose a new school for her daughters and help them transition into it.

She's had to hire a permanent staff who have a sense of who she really is and how she functions, yet also possess a level of professional experience to meet the sort of enormous global expectations put on first ladies -- especially this one, who generates so much interest and expectation -- answer mail, get new clothes and conjure and approve the symbolic events for the inauguration and decide which were important for her to attend.

That leaves little peace of mind to consider the inevitable pressures within the new administration to support or aid this program or that legislation; what will be a healthy schedule for her own self; which new, eager best friends to trust; and what fundamental qualities she will not permit to change within herself -- all the while self-conscious of the fact that there are people like yours truly who are recording, investigating and analyzing it. That's hardly enough time to breathe, let alone roll out an agenda that will be recorded for history.

We do have basic clues. She has stated some general areas of concern. During the campaign, she found herself especially moved by the sacrifices made by military families who have a parent serving on active duty -- and troubled by how some of their most basic needs aren't met. That issue alone could lead to some potential funding increase, which she may involve herself in behind the scenes while not seeking any direct public credit. It could certainly lead to her creating some sort of formal network of support organizations in the private sector.

Considering her own professional experiences in drumming up corporate underwriting and serving as a liaison between constituencies such as local area residents and the University of Chicago Medical Center, it could prove rewarding to Obama personally -- beyond the desire to help the families in a serious and tangible way. In her realizing how to address the uninsured and underinsured, whom often have to rely on emergency rooms to get basic health care, there's also the suggestion that, at the very least, she could be helpful in talking through practical aspects of health care reform.

Less tangible is how she will craft a concrete system for addressing the problems of women seeking to balance their work (public) and family (private) responsibilities -- another area of concern she's talked about. Some have suggested it might mean an expansion of the Family and Medical Leave Act, although perhaps it would mean an increase in tax credits for child care or other federal enhancements for families. That could be a minefield ripe for the opposition.

Apart from programs that could lead to some form of policy, is the larger question of how she perceives her responsibility to the vast and complex constituency of the American people. Certainly Michelle Obama has a palpable sense of working-class life.

As a child, she had weekly chores requiring her to clean the bathroom and do the dishes, living with her parents and brother in a one-bedroom apartment, her personal living space being a cordoned-off part of the living room, another part set aside for her brother. Her father rose through the ranks from general janitorial work to a supervisory job in the city water works. There's already an early example of her empathy. As part of her work-study program as an undergrad at Princeton, she helped to create a tutoring program for the children of the manual laborers who worked there.

Although she hasn't shared any specific examples of direct bigotry she's faced, her sense of displacement as an African American from the larger, white Princeton student body is well known. It would be obvious and natural for Michelle Obama to provide sponsorship for issues uniquely faced by African American women and provide solidarity and support by accepting even honorary alliances with organizations dedicated to that constituency.

There's even a strong and largely unknown legacy of first ladies here. To name but three overt examples: Lady Bird Johnson faced protests and pickets in the Deep South as she heralded the Civil Rights Act of 1964 there; Eleanor Roosevelt publicly defied her husband in supporting anti-lynching laws and desegregation of the armed forces; Lou Hoover enraged racist lawmakers and newspapers by inviting Chicago congressional wife Jessie DePriest as her guest.

Of course, even were she not to undertake a specific project aimed toward African Americans, Obama will have a powerful emotional impact on black Americans by having an impact on non-black Americans. Subtly, the novelty of her as a first lady will become as routine as did seeing Kennedy in a veil go to Catholic Mass or Ida McKinley lifted from a wheelchair and lean on others to walk -- labels of race, religion, disability and other "otherness" become secondary when the individuality of a person is permitted to flourish.

The internal is more important than the external, and some of those personal qualities that have long guided her will be felt in Obama's East Wing -- most especially her intense focus. Since childhood, she had a discipline to strive for academic excellence, earning her entrance into a gifted class in grammar school where she skipped second grade, and a magnet high school where she was student council treasurer, a National Honor Society member, and made honor roll every year.

She proved wrong a high school counselor who said she wouldn't make it into Princeton, and a Princeton advisor who said she wouldn't make it into Harvard Law School. A point her mother has made: Michelle Obama will not remain silent if she feels strongly about an issue and hasn't since she was a child.

This works in tandem with a faith in mental discipline that came from her parents, a belief that societal limitations were more perception than reality that need not impede her success in whatever direction she wished to pursue. It wasn't just talk. It was a philosophy made poignantly real every day as she watched her father, despite being slowly debilitated by multiple sclerosis, persist in his routine to prepare and get to work on time.

While the media has focused on her earning a minor in African American studies, her major was sociology -- an excellent study for a first lady of a nation that has been diverse from its beginning. She also learned two refinements that seemed almost routine for first ladies in earlier decades -- speaking French and playing the piano -- matched with the most necessary one of modern times -- a skill for moving audiences. Michelle Obama is an easy, confident public speaker, a trait she apparently had at the family table but honed at Harvard Law.

In most of her speeches, she finds a thread that makes her accessible to the common man, some personal recollection that shows her to be less Lady Bountiful and more one of the people. When she spoke of knowing the burden of enormous debt, for example, the circumstances of how it accumulated (Ivy League college and law school) seemed less relevant than the convincing expression of the overwhelming anxiety it often created in her.

Giving a sense of shared burden with the general public is central for a successful first lady -- especially in harsh economic times. During the Great Depression, Lou Hoover served imported out-of-season foods; her successor, Eleanor Roosevelt, served lunches that cost 2 cents to make -- and circulated the recipes to newspapers. Perhaps one way the fixation on Obama's clothes might have an impact on people beyond the fashionistas is looking good without spending lots.

In agreeing to her husband's presidential run, she squarely accepted the reality that a lot of information about her private life would be sacrificed. She seems to have little trouble relating the mundane realities of her own life, but in a self-deprecatory way.

Bess Truman knew this: In a rare public comment, she made her point when asked what makes an ideal first lady, "Public speaking and a sense of humor." Some griped that Michelle Obama's campaign cracks about her husband's shortcomings dimmed his glow, but it was the kind of teasing that signals a secure and open love; if renewed, that easy sort of humor could serve as a politically important venue for reminding the country that, however extraordinary, Barack Obama is, after all, a human being -- especially as he begins coping with crisis after crisis, And it may help him. The times don't call for a president with delusional hubris.

To what degree she may draw on deeper, private experiences -- such as a parent living with a disability -- is unclear, but she has certainly been frank in disclosing the emotional impact of parenting and housekeeping with a largely absent spouse. While this may effectively illustrate an appealing humility, more importantly it may serve as hope, guidance or comfort to others similarly struggling.

When Betty Ford publicly disclosed having breast cancer, her candor immediately saved lives as thousands of women, immediately faced with the fear they too might have it, went to find out if they did.

Finding that balance will unfold as her incumbency ensues, but Michelle Obama has already illustrated her empathy with working mothers by making frequent reference to her daughters. In fact, given the president's recent "open letter" to them in Parade magazine as a message to all American children, the Obamas have shown a certain comfort level with the reality that their girls telegraph political messages.

It's unlikely he would have written it if she had not agreed to it. It harkens an earlier time, when LBJ had his daughter Luci campaign among college students, or Richard Nixon referred to his daughter Tricia in his "Checkers" speech, and Carter debated Reagan by mentioning that Amy discussed the nuclear threat with him.

Beyond the projects she might undertake, the policy she might champion or help craft, and the symbolism she and her children might represent, however, there is one vague and intangible venue that might prove to be where Michelle Obama has the greatest impact.

It's the arena in which the public has always insisted on access to, and which first ladies have always denied -- just how much power do they have over their husbands.

Already, Michelle Obama has emphasized she's not a policy advisor to her husband. It was a question that made mighty Eleanor Roosevelt demur that she was merely one among many her husband used for his purposes. It brought a silent smile to Hillary Rodham Clinton's face. It led Martha Washington to burn her letters and, a century-and-a-half later, Bess Truman to do the same.

When Harry tried to stop her and "think of history," Bess thrust the rest of the paper into the fireplace and quipped, "I am."

Carl Sferrazza Anthony is historian of the National First Ladies Library and the author of several books, including the two-volume history, First Ladies, a history of the role's evolution and political power. He also has written biographies of Jacqueline Kennedy, Florence Harding and Nellie Taft.
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