The role of the First Lady (1994) | THINK TANK

The role of the First Lady (1994) | THINK TANK


Ben Wattenberg: Hillary Rodham Clinton. Is she the most powerful woman in Washington
today, and if so, is that something new? Joining us to sort through the conflict and
the consensus are historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of the forthcoming book “No Ordinary
Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The American Home Front During World War II”;
Gil Troy, assistant professor of history at McGill University and author of the forthcoming
“Co-Presidency: The Emergence of Presidential Couples Since World War II”; Suzanne Garment,
a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of “Scandal: The Culture
of Mistrust in American Politics”; and Stephen Hess, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution
and author of “Organizing the Presidency.” The topic before this house: the role of the
first lady. This week on “Think Tank.” The founding fathers fiercely debated how
the president should be addressed. The Senate offered “His Highness, the President
of the United States and Protector of Liberty.” But the House of Representatives, God bless
them, demanded and got the simple and more democratic “Mr. President.” But should the president’s wife have a formal
title? None appears in the Constitution. The term “first” did not become common
until the late 1800s. Martha Washington was hailed as “Lady Washington.” Abigail Adams, an ardent partisan defender
of her husband, was derided as “Mrs. President.” Harriet Lane, niece of President James Buchanan,
not Pat Buchanan, served as his first lady and was called “America’s Democratic Queen.” Many first ladies have wielded considerable
power. Edith Wilson acted as de facto president after
her husband’s stroke, prompting many to complain about the “petticoat presidency.” And Eleanor Roosevelt: Eleanor Roosevelt was
a legendary and independent political force. Jacqueline periodically acted as her husband’s
surrogate at campaign and ceremonial functions, but in the beginning, she told her staff not
to use the title “first lady,” saying it sounded too much like the name of a saddle
horse. More recently, Nancy Reagan was credited and
criticized for exercising behind-the-scenes veto power with a heavy hand. Now, Hillary Rodham Clinton is the first first
lady in a new feminist era with impressive professional achievements and credentials
of her own. From the start, she was put in charge of the
Clinton administration’s most ambitious and controversial program, health care reform. However, her public prominence has attracted
both intense admiration and passionate criticism. Panel, let us begin with one fast question,
going around the room, beginning with Doris Kearns Goodwin. Doris and I were colleagues for a brief period
on the Lyndon Johnson White House staff. Of course, you were only six at the time. Doris Kearns Goodwin: (Laughs) Wish that that
were so. Ben Wattenberg: Our opening question: What
is the proper role of the first lady in the 1990s? Doris Kearns Goodwin: Well, the most extraordinary
thing, I think, is that history suggests that the proper role is what the first lady defines
it to be. It may be different in the 1990s, but up until
today, each first lady has been allowed to become what she wanted. Look at the difference between Eleanor Roosevelt,
the most publicized woman of her time; the next woman that comes, Bess Truman, can hide
out in the White House, nobody gets mad. Jackie Kennedy comes along. She’s got hats, she’s got coats, she’s
running around in style. The next woman that follows her wears a cloth
coat. So, so far, we’ve been incredibly tolerant,
allowing the first lady to decide what she wants to be. That may be changing right now. Ben Wattenberg: Let me go to Steve Hess. Now, Steve Hess was on the White House staff
of Dwight Eisenhower. He was only 13 at the time (laughter). It was a bar mitzvah present, as I recall. But in any event, how would you put it, Steve? What is the proper role of the first lady? Stephen Hess: Well, similarly to what Doris
said, but of course we see we have to start not at the beginning, but at the end. And the present first couple have created
an exceptionally interesting high-wire act. The idea of a truly almost co-presidency is
very high risk. If they pull it off, I think other subsequent
presidents and their spouses may do the same thing. But as a rule of political public administration,
it is a dangerous proposition to give a great deal of responsibility to a person you can’t
fire. And in terms of staff, it is a very tricky
business to be sitting around the table and one of your coequal staff is also the spouse
of the president of the United States. So if they can pull it off, then that could
very importantly change the concept of the presidency. Ben Wattenberg: Gil Troy, Steve Hess mentioned
your magic word, which is “co-presidency.” What do you think the role of the modern first
lady or the spouse of the president — because there is no official term “first lady.” What do you think her role ought to be? Gil Troy: Certainly there is no proper role. There are no rights; there are no wrongs. Ben Wattenberg: Excuse me. I should point out in this chronology, Gil
Troy was born during the administration of Ronald Reagan. (Laughter) Gil Troy: I have to say that watching the
relationship between the presidential couple and the American people is kind of like watching
a bad date unfold. It seems that the presidential couple at one
hand doesn’t know whether to be substantive or more focusing on style, and the American
people don’t know what they want. Do they want the first lady — and if you
read the first lady’s correspondence, as I have read of Eleanor Roosevelt’s, of Mamie
Eisenhower’s, of Bess Truman’s, even at that time, people were saying, “We want
you to help us out. We want you to take on more of a leadership
role.” And at the same time, when first ladies do
take more of a role, everybody says, “Whoa, you’re overstepping your bounds. You’re Lady Macbeth.” So it’s very contradictory, and no one is
quite sure what to do. Ben Wattenberg: Suzanne? Suzanne Garment: I think the proper role of
the first lady is to do whatever it is that strengthens the presidency and thus enables
us to be properly led and governed. What it takes varies enormously over time,
and the situation is made especially difficult by our national fear of nepotism and its consequences. Ben Wattenberg: Is Hillary Clinton different? People going around saying some men can’t
stand her because she is a powerful woman and they’ve never dealt with powerful women,
and she is the first postfeminist. Is she different? Doris Kearns Goodwin: Well, you know, I think
what’s different about her is that she does have the women’s movement behind her. What’s not different is that Eleanor Roosevelt
exercised a lot of the same power that we seem to think Hillary is exercising first. She testified before a congressional committee,
she held regular press conferences, she had a syndicated column, she had radio broadcasts. We’ve sort of forgotten that. Because Eleanor was so unusual, so far ahead
of her time, there are no — Ben Wattenberg: You sound as if you’ve written
a book about this. (Laughter) Doris Kearns Goodwin: Oh, I know. I can’t forget. Still, I think what’s different about Hillary
is that she has both the strength and the weaknesses of representing the modern women. So when people get frightened of her, it’s
not just her. They’re frightened of what all of us are
becoming. When they love her, it’s because she’s
representing a new possibility for women. Ben Wattenberg: Well, let me ask the two women
on the panel, who each happened to be married to very distinguished husbands in their own
right. Suzanne Garment: You first. (Laughter) Ben Wattenberg: But Suzie and Doris are not
on this program because they are “wife of.” They are distinguished academics. Isn’t this a strange situation, that the
feminist cause is saying, “isn’t this great that Hillary Clinton has this power,”
when in fact she is the anathema of what they were talking about, which is “wife of”? Suzanne Garment: I don’t think many feminists
today would say “wife of” is necessarily pejorative. A lot of people were born on third base, and
this is one of those cases. So I’m not sure that it would be considered
as much of a contradiction as perhaps it should be. Doris Kearns Goodwin: I mean, clearly, for
the feminist movement, having a woman elected in her own right and being the president would
be better than having this power devolved to a first lady. On the other hand, Hillary has made of a position
that really has only potential power in it. She’s created the power that she has right
now. And I think that’s what the feminists are
applauding, not just that she’s the wife and she’s sitting there as Mrs. Clinton. Gil Troy: So how come feminists didn’t applaud
Nancy Reagan? I mean, Nancy Reagan was a powerful woman
who took advantage of opportunities, and I always try to annoy my students by treating
her as a feminist icon. Doris Kearns Goodwin: I think the difference
is that Hillary Clinton has been at least out front about what she’s doing in the
administration. She made it clear from the start that she
was taking on certain responsibilities, which gives her a little more accountability. The fear for Nancy Reagan, I think on the
part of some people, was that all of her power was behind the scenes. The astrologers were floating into Washington. You didn’t know where her power was being
exercised. Gil Troy: Although Hillary Clinton also changed
her tune. In the middle of the campaign, when people
felt that she was coming on too strong, all of a sudden they had this “Manhattan Project,”
where they put her under wraps and she put away her scarves. And all of a sudden, she was, you know, the
mom, and she was baking chocolate chip cookies. Stephen Hess: I think that’s an important
point, because if we are going to have a co-presidency, then the American people in a sense have to
vote on it. It has to be up front when you’re running
for office. I mean, I feel sort of put upon because at
that point, I was saying, hey, why all of this attention to the families, and so forth;
we’re voting for the president. Well, that wasn’t true, as it turned out. So I think the press has a perfect responsibility
to focus on others if indeed they’re going to assume that role ultimately. Ben Wattenberg: Steve, you can probably give
a better fix on this than anyone. Hillary Clinton, as I understand it, is the
first first lady to have an office in the West Wing of the White House. If you can give us a little architectural
history about what that means and her own staff, the East Wing, the West Wing, all that
stuff. I think it’s important. Stephen Hess: Yeah. It’s a big proximity to power game that’s
played around the White House. The West Wing is where the president has his
office, and the closer to the president, the better off you are as an assistant. The East Wing, the other side of the residence,
is where they usually put the social office and the first lady. So the movement from the East Wing to the
West Wing, in Washington terms, is very, very significant. Ben Wattenberg: And she has a staff there,
a staff of substantive people dealing with personnel and dealing with — Stephen Hess: Well, she is a public official. There is nothing undercover about the situation
now. The question is: Will this be the situation
in the future? Because of course the odds are very great,
given where presidents come from, the upper middle class, that their spouses will also
be what the Bureau of Labor Statistics calls from the managerial professional class. Now, what happens when the spouse is a professional
like that? They could take a Marilyn Quayle or Dennis
Thatcher role and just decide that for that period of four or eight years, they will assume
the traditional role. Ben Wattenberg: Well, but Marilyn Quayle was
“second lady.” (Laughter) Stephen Hess: Well, but she has — Ben Wattenberg: And Barbara Bush was first
lady, and she was characterized — Suzanne Garment: Well, she wielded a lot of
power, but not in a terribly public way. I mean, she was very visible as a figure. I believe she also wielded a lot of political
power in private. But that White House worked very well in that
regard. She was not generally known as a Madame Defarge
or the keeper of the list. Ben Wattenberg: She was not known as the Madame
Defarge. Suzanne Garment: But she was. Ben Wattenberg: But she was. Suzanne Garment: No, no. That’s too nice a lady. (Laughter) Gil Troy: Putting these things in broader
perspective, what we’re really seeing is the expansion of presidential power. I mean, a lot of what’s going on in the
last 40 years it’s not just what Eleanor Roosevelt did, but it’s also what Franklin
Roosevelt did and what the progressive movement did in terms of as the government becomes
more involved in daily life, people have more demands, not only on the president, but on
his wife. There is in a sense a kind of first mommy/first
daddy phenomenon going on, where people turn to the first lady as first nurturer. Help us out if we have troubles. If we’re invalid, if we’re widows, if
we’re frustrated with our children, we turn to the first ladies. We write letters to the first ladies saying,
“You can help us with the government.” And I think that’s because the government
has become more involved in our personal lives. Suzanne Garment: So this puts a first lady
in an untenable position, though. If you’re going to be first nurturer, you
have to have the image of being a very nurturing human being. If you’re going to carry out any official
or quasi-official duties, you have to be pretty tough. And the two are in tension, and I think we’re
seeing them in tension right now. Stephen Hess: But couldn’t you have your
professional first spouse assume their professional life? It depends on what they do. Bill Bradley’s wife is a professor of German
and comparative literature. She could have been that. Doris Kearns Goodwin: I think we should allow
them to do that, but on the other hand, there’s no reason to be angry at Hillary for assuming
her professional life as a policymaker. That’s what she was; that’s what she is. I mean, I don’t think it necessarily means
that all first ladies are going to become Hillary Clinton. Stephen Hess: That’s right, but Hillary
had a choice, though. I just want to say, Hillary had a choice. Before she was a lawyer. She probably couldn’t have gone to private
practice, but she could have been a professor of law very easily, but she — Doris Kearns Goodwin: But it seems like policy
is her passion. That’s what she wants to do. Ben Wattenberg: But, Doris, when then Hillary
Clinton, who has been appointed by her husband as the czarina of health care, which is one-seventh
of our economy, without a confirmation process, gets in some political trouble — Whitewater,
cow futures, whatever it is — people, you know, normally — I mean, Bernie Nussbaum
got in some problems, and he was out of here, you know, gone. Doesn’t she then have to have the accountability? And how can you have the accountability? You say, “I divorce you”? Walk around her three times and say, “You’re
out of here”? Doris Kearns Goodwin: No. The accountability will come in that what
Hillary’s or a person like Hillary’s power depends on is her reputation. If her reputation is hurt by some sort of
scandal or by some sort of misdeeds, then her reputation will be hurt, and she will
not have the same power. So her power will be diminished anyway, even
if the husband can’t divorce her. She’ll be banished. You’ll see, you won’t see her as much. In fact, in tough times, we haven’t seen
Hillary as much, and she comes forward when things are better. So there is a — look, the White House isn’t
concerned, right? They have lots of power. They can be fired, yes, that’s a difference. But still, I think reputation is the most
important asset a person has in a Washington community. And we do have accountability. If she gets hurt, it’ll be destroyed. Suzanne Garment: It’s interesting that we
are so hesitant to accept that kind of informal means of control. And I was mentioning nepotism before, and
I think that it’s a very deep-seated fear in our politics. Someone who has reached power through blood
relationship with a public or marriage relationship with a public official hasn’t competed in
the same race. We may be better at it, but we can’t get
there. So it’s a kind of slap in the face to an
egalitarian notion of how you proceed in public life. So I think no matter how effective that sort
of control is, it may not be accepted as such. Doris Kearns Goodwin: I think you’re right. There’s going to always be people out there
wanting to see the person fail because of this meritocracy business, in a certain sense. Stephen Hess: So that the farther we get away
from the traditional role, the more a person loses the protective coating that both the
public and the press put around them. We would see that, in a sense, with Rosalynn
Carter a little bit if she went to a cabinet meeting, more so with Nancy Reagan, and now
virtually completely with Hillary Clinton. Ben Wattenberg: Let me try to tie this up
for a minute. Doris, I remember hearing stories and I think
actually seeing memos sent to Lyndon Johnson that came back with his scrawl saying, “Ask
Bird.” In other words, somebody said, “Can we do
this?” and gave him those three nice boxes, “Yes,” “No,” or “See me,” and
it came back, “Ask Bird.” But nobody went around and said, “Oh, she’s
running the White House.” Doris Kearns Goodwin: That’s right. So are we arguing about merely how public
is this going to be in the future, or is there some — because of the whole feminism thing,
is there going to be a change? Suzanne Garment: Well, what Doris said about
this is, I think, very important, that Mrs. Clinton’s role is seen by many as the emblem
of an entire style that may become dominant in public life and private life. So the debate over her role is in part a debate
over what style, and I used that term advisedly. Someone like Elizabeth Dole would exercise
much the same power, but probably in a different style. So the debate is over what style of relations
between men and women. Ben Wattenberg: Well, is your theme, the co-presidency,
is that salutary? Do you like the idea of a co-presidency? Gil Troy: I think well, whether it’s good
or bad, it is. In other words, I think one of the things
we’re missing is the institutional demands on the first lady. I don’t think that Mrs. Bradley would have
the luxury of teaching college English anymore. I don’t think that a homemaker would have
the luxury of just staying at home with the kids. I mean, if you look at the demands on these
women to do all the social functions, to do all the diplomatic functions, to have an image
— I mean, Nancy Reagan had to have an image, and when the image was too much that she was
focusing on buying china, she had to go and change that image and get involved in the
fight against drugs. Barbara Bush — Stephen Hess: But slow down a second. Assuming that Lynn Martin gets elected. Her husband is a federal judge. Ben Wattenberg: Former congresswoman from
Illinois. Stephen Hess: Yeah, former secretary of labor. One of those mentioned not up front, but mentioned. Ben Wattenberg: Dynamite woman. Stephen Hess: In the Republican Party. Her husband is a federal district judge in
Chicago. Would he have to give up his judgeship under
your expanded role of — Gil Troy: I think, well, first of all, we
live in a sexist society, and as a result, that means that there are going to be certain
demands on women that there aren’t going to be on men. And I think there would be a lot of talk about
following the Dennis Thatcher model and having him check out. And he might. And the fact is, if his credentials are impressive
enough, he might be able to run himself. But there are so many demands on the couple
as a couple. There are so many political demands, so many
social demands, so many diplomatic demands, that I frankly don’t think he would have
the luxury. And if I was his boss, I wouldn’t want him
because he’d be too busy. Suzanne Garment: That brings up the role of
idiosyncrasy and individual temperament. There are some people who can do these things
rather gracefully and some people who get other people’s hackles up. Mrs. Clinton is, for better or for worse,
something of a polarizing figure. So in meeting these often-conflicting demands,
she doesn’t get a lot of slack cut for her. Doris Kearns Goodwin: Although she did at
the beginning. You know, it seems to me that one of the difficulties
that Hillary Clinton is having now is that when she was first lady in those first months,
the press went nuts over the idea that this was so powerful, she was so extraordinary,
that it was almost like they were waiting to pull her down. Stephen Hess: Well, the press always gets
it right by averaging. They go too far one way, too far the other
way. (Laughter) Gil Troy: There’s also — there’s a political
need for more people to help out the presidency. In other words, when Jimmy Carter first starts
running and he’s doing his, you know, very intense, one-on-one campaign in Iowa, he needs
Rosalynn Carter in Florida. And I think the presidents need those emissaries
to the world of television, to the world of press, to the world of entertainment to kind
of make them more famous, to give them a higher profile. Doris Kearns Goodwin: You know, he’s brought
up an interesting point. Because one difference today from the past
is the media exposure of the private life of our public figures so that we become more
interested, whatever the first lady does. She’s already been in People magazine, and
everybody knows about the kid and the father and the mother in a way that wasn’t true
before. I mean, there was one time when President
Pierce spoke about the death of his son at his inaugural, it was considered an incredible
breach of dignity because you didn’t talk about your private life — even though his
little kid had just died before he became president and his wife wasn’t even going
to speak to anyone because she was so upset. So that’s different today. I mean, today I think it’s gone the opposite
direction. Stephen Hess: There’s nothing we can do
about that. Doris Kearns Goodwin: You don’t think there’s
anything we can do about it? Are we going to have just no private lives
anymore? Stephen Hess: I think it will just have to
be understood, to the degree that you ask for the power from the people, you give up
that comparable amount of your privacy. Ben Wattenberg: You have all been around this
operation. Every president that I have observed at some
point or another says, I need a zone of privacy. This is just absolute — I mean, Camp David
and all that — blah, blah, blah. And then the next day, you get the photo opportunity
schedule from the White House Office of the President. I’m not talking about the current incumbent,
but believe me, I’m sure she’ll be there, the daughter will be there, the son will be
there, her Secret Service code name is such and such, her favorite hobby is tennis, blah,
blah, blah. I mean, don’t those presidents of ours want
it both ways? Doris Kearns Goodwin: Oh, of course they do. Stephen Hess: Absolutely. Doris Kearns Goodwin: I’ll tell you, that’s
another interesting piece about this first ladyship because one of the important functions
in the past that I think first ladies performed for their husbands was to allow them to relax. I mean, the famous comment that Jackie Kennedy
said, “When Jack comes home at the end of the night, he doesn’t want to talk about
Cambodia and Laos with me; he wants to talk about the kids and have candlelight dinners
and so forth.” And that was one of the difficulties that
Eleanor Roosevelt had. Poor Franklin would be in there trying to
have his cocktail hour, and she’d come in talking about migrant workers and blacks,
and he couldn’t relax as a result. So I’m not sure it’s very relaxing between
Hillary and Bill Clinton at this point in time. And that’s a normal function. Lady Bird, as you know, when Johnson would
go off on these crazy jags about the press and, you know, paranoid sometimes, she would
stick her hand on his knee and just say, “Now, Lyndon, don’t believe those FBI reports. You know they’re not true.” And that settling device is very important,
but to the extent that a woman becomes a professional, it’s hard to be the relaxer. Gil Troy: Mamie Eisenhower was in the Oval
Office three times in eight years because she didn’t want to get involved. Doris Kearns Goodwin: No kidding? Gil Troy: She wanted to keep, you know, that
zone of respect. Doris Kearns Goodwin: But you know, I think
one of the problems is, to the extent that politicians give in to the press’s desire
for interesting, dramatic stories about their personal lives, as I think Clinton and Gore
did in this last campaign, when they gave their convention speeches, they talked so
heartfeltly about their private lives, I worry that to some extent they can become like Oprah
Winfrey after a while. There’s got to be a mystery to leadership. Part of the great leaders of the past — we
didn’t know them all that well. I don’t know that I want to know what kind
of boxers Bill Clinton wears when he gets up in the morning. Ben Wattenberg: I never believed that presidents
could be, quote, “overexposed.” You said, “Oh, don’t overexpose them.” Do you get the feeling that Clinton — I
mean the president — is overexposed? Doris Kearns Goodwin: Oh, absolutely overexposed. Absolutely. Ben Wattenberg: For just that reason. I mean you lose some dignity when every time
you turn on C-SPAN, there he is. You say, oh, him again — even if you’re
interested. Doris Kearns Goodwin: That’s right. Ben Wattenberg: Let’s wind this thing up. Let’s go around the room and let me ask
you each two questions. The way this whole thing has developed — and
we can go this way — is it good for women? Is it good for America? Doris Kearns Goodwin: To the extent that — you
mean the way this whole thing has developed, that there’s more room for a first lady
to have power, exposure, and public stance? I think it is good for women and good for
America, yes. Gil Troy: I think the co-presidency is good
for women in that it brings them in. I think it’s problematic for America in
that it does create this confusion between governance, which is, after all, what the
president is supposed to do, and the more fluffy side of things. Suzanne Garment: I think it may be problematic
on both counts. Stephen Hess: I do, too. I started by saying this is a high-wire act,
and we will have to see what happens when they get to the other end. Ben Wattenberg: And that, Steve Hess, is about
where we began this discussion. Thank you, Stephen Hess, Dr. Suzanne Garment,
Professor Gil Troy, Professor Doris Kearns Goodwin. And thank you. This is a new show, you know, and we would
like to hear from you. So please send your comments to the address
on the screen. Until next week for Think Tank, I’m Ben Wattenberg. Announcer: This has been a production of BJW
Incorporated in association with New River Media, which are solely responsible for its
content.

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