Lady Bird Johnson and Hillary Clinton

Evolution, not revolution, at Hillary’s White House.

She hasn’t even changed her mailing address to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and already she’s on the cover of Newsweek, suffering the inevitable comparisons to Eleanor Roosevelt, being ceremoniously hailed by political observers like John McLaughlin as the second most powerful person in Washington.

Hillary’s White House staff might do well to remember that political figures, like frozen pizzas and Reeboks, are products — packaged and marketed for public consumption. As any marketer will tell you, the kiss of death for any product is to over-promise. The goal is to meet, if not exceed, the customer’s expectations. Deliver less value than the customer expects, and you’ll quickly find yourself in trouble.

The expectations for this politically- savvy- competent- capable- intelligent- baby-boomer- career- woman- wife- mother- advocate- feminist are extraordinarily high. Fortunately for Hillary, she gets to be First Lady for four years regardless of her performance. It’s fair to say, however, that if she lives up to expectations, she will go down in history as the most influential First Lady ever to command the East Wing of the White House.

But before anyone starts designing Hillary Clinton postage stamps and silver dollars, a little historical perspective might be worthwhile.

Hillary Clinton will not be the first First Lady to influence key presidential appointments. She will not be the first to sit in on Cabinet meetings. She will not be the first to speak out on policy issues. She will not be the youngest, or the smartest, or the first First Lady to be compared to Lady Macbeth. Nor will she be the first to chair a presidential commission, support a woman’s right to abortion, be identified as a feminist, or act as an advocate for the poor, the down-trodden, or the culturally disadvantaged.

How quickly we’ve forgotten, but among recent First Ladies, Pat Nixon, Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter, and Barbara Bush were all supporters at one time or another of the Equal Rights Amendment. Betty Ford was such an active and enthusiastic supporter of ERA that picketers protested her involvement in front of the White House. Earlier in the 1960s, Lady Bird Johnson, who was also the national chair of the Head Start program, was credited with trying to get a clause inserted into the Civil Rights Act ensuring equality for women.

First Ladies Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Bush were all pro-choice (though Barbara Bush toned down her support after George’s pro-life conversion). Even Nancy Reagan’s position on abortion changed and assumed a more pro-choice perspective. “No more coat hangers,” she had said.

Are Bill and Hillary Clinton our first “Presidential Partners?” Hardly. No president and First Lady worked more closely together than Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter. As a member of what Jody Powell called a “team,” Rosalynn rewrote Jimmy’s speeches, advised him on policy issues, and even completed his sentences for him. And, yes, it was Rosalynn Carter who caused such a controversy when she sat in on Cabinet meetings.

Then there’s Nancy Reagan. She wielded more influence and power over all aspects of the presidency than any other First Lady in recent memory. From helping to get Don Regan, Al Haig, Lyn Nofziger, and James Watt (and others) fired, to setting the president’s schedule and shaping his media image, Nancy Reagan was, as one news commentator put it, “a respected and feared political operative.” The president even conceded that it was Nancy who got him to soften his “Evil Empire” rhetoric about Communism and to become “the peace president.” At one point, this wife of one our most conservative presidents appeared on the cover of Ms. magazine and was defended by the former president of NOW for her political activism.

While Hillary Clinton has stated her intention to make children’s issues her focus as First Lady, every recent First Lady has been identified with her own special project: for Jackie Kennedy it was the arts, for Lady Bird Johnson, beautifying America, for Pat Nixon, volunteerism, for Betty Ford, the ERA, for Rosalynn Carter, mental illness, for Nancy Reagan, drug abuse, and for Barbara Bush, literacy.

For those with longer memories, Eleanor Roosevelt’s impact as an “activist” First Lady will always be the standard by which other First Ladies are judged. Go back even further and find Edith Wilson, who single-handedly ran the executive branch while her husband, Woodrow, recovered from a stroke. During that period, Mrs. Wilson interviewed and recommended candidates for Cabinet positions, negotiated with Congressional leaders on the president’s behalf concerning the controversial League of Nations treaty, and ultimately was praised in the media as “a capable ‘President’.”

Rather than representing a totally new kind of First Lady, Hillary Clinton can more accurately be called the “new, improved” version.

Unlike recent First Ladies, her participation as a policy adviser and political operative is not being hidden from the public. No more coy First Lady talk about “leaving the politics to my husband.” Both Bill and Hillary Clinton have made a point of publicly highlighting her involvement. Also unlike recent First Ladies, Hillary Clinton comes to Washington with her own well-established credentials both as an attorney and political activist.

Part of the excitement about her, no doubt, is nothing more than the jubilation of people who have not had someone in the White House representing their interests and values for the last twelve years. Add to that group all the egocentric baby-boomers who now control the nation’s bank accounts and the media, and it is understandable why yuppie Hillary is automatically accorded star status.

But what stands out most about Hillary Clinton is her versatility. She’s like one of those amazing gadgets that can do just about anything you want it to, from slicing carrots to washing the car. She is an activist, a successful attorney, a feminist, a loyal wife, a nurturing mother, an intelligent woman who understands both politics and policy. She’s the perfect First Lady “package.”

Just as the role of women in American society — and the choices open to them — have evolved, so has the role of First Lady. Hillary Clinton is the direct beneficiary and quintessential embodiment of those changes. As other First Ladies have paved the way for Hillary, she is also likely to create new options for women in America’s political future. Perhaps one of those options is a “Mrs. President” – without the quotes.

Published by

Frank Marafiote

Frank started the Hillary Clinton Quarterly in 1992 and has been "keeping up with Hillary" for more than 25 years. Recently retired, he worked in advertising and communications and also taught marketing courses several times a year for a local university.

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