Some Advice For The Next First Lady Of The United States
I believe that recent history teaches us that the only person judged more harshly than the President of the United States is the First Lady. Every thing she does, says or wears is news, especially when it happens to be a slow news day. For that reason and others the First Lady has to be as just as conscientious about getting it all right as her husband. When she does not, people have long memories and are no less forgiving of her mistakes than they are of those committed by people we elect.
When Hillary Clinton became First Lady and called herself the “Presidential Partner” the roof flew off the Congress and the political pundits wagged their tongues like never before. Things got worse when President Clinton put her in charge of developing a national health care system for him to support and promote. Hillary broke the Cardinal Rule of First Lady conduct and did so with the help of her husband: Never get directly involved in politics or the political process apart from campaigning for your husband. Learn a lesson from the Queen of England and become a beloved figurehead rising above the political process.
The First Lady should be all about supporting Causes that people care about. It’s alright for them to have a pet Cause, as long as it does not become something that the enemies of their husband or political party can use against both of them. When Lyndon Johnson was President during the worst days of the Vietnam War and the battle for racial equality his wife made the mistake of choosing to take on the beautification of America as her Cause du jour. It just happened to coincident with a program of Urban Renewal which her husband supported.
Ladybird Johnson’s beautification program involved cleaning up un-kept parks and other areas in need of litter removal. People would go in to clean up any messes, perform some simple maintenance and plant some flowers, bushes and trees. Sadly, her program was somehow linked to her husband’s program. For many Lyndon Johnson’s Urban Renewal was more about replacing what many considered to be black slums with new housing units for more affluent buyers and renters. They thought that would immediately displace low income renters, although no one was more for racial equality than Lyndon Johnson. What he really wanted to do was replace broken down buildings owned by slum lords with public housing.
In the end all the misunderstanding about the programs supported by President Johnson and his wife Ladybird led to a popular insult which was often repeated and printed on bumper stickers by the tens of thousands: “Beautify America. Send Ladybird to Europe!” The only First Lady catch phrase and campaign that has been more mocked and maligned than Ladybird Johnson’s “Beautify America” idea was Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” anti-drug program. I am sure she meant well and that the handlers which came up with the idea figured that it would be perfect in a time of rampant drug abuse; but with many of the movers and shakers in Washington, D.C. and Hollywood using drugs in those daze, the timing could not have been worse.
When most older people think of the perfect First Lady, they nostalgically recall the days of Camelot with President Kennedy and Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy. Although she may have rode on the wave of popularity that swept John F. Kennedy into the White House, Jackie quickly came into her own as a leader in fashion and style. She inspired women throughout the world and became one of the most beloved First Ladies in history. Why? Because she did what she knew instead of trying to take on a Cause that she was not really familiar with.
Laura Bush and Michelle Obama both made excellent choices when it came to Causes they decided to support. Having been a teacher and as a parent, Laura Bush took on the issues of proper parenting and overall literacy. Michelle Obama chose to adopt improving the nation’s school lunch program by making it more healthy as an issue. Both Laura Bush and Michelle Obama still managed to garner some criticism for trying to fix problems that many believed did not need fixing.
Despite being occasionally called on the carpet by politicians, the press and various pundits, neither of these First Ladies are likely to suffer the kind of long term embarrassment that Ladybird Johnson or Nancy Reagan have faced. The next First Lady should take a long, hard look at the choices made by her predecessors and the long term consequences those decisions have had on their legacies before choosing her own pet issue.
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