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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

America's Former First Ladies - An Appreciation

Former First Ladies at the
Ronald Reagan Library dedication in 1991
Front row, l-r, Lady Bird Johson, Pat Nixon, Rosalynn
Carter and Betty Ford.  Back row, Nancy Reagan
and Barbara Bush
It's probably one of the most demanding unpaid jobs in the nation's govenment.  It has no job description and no official designation.  And yet, scutiny and performance expectations are extremely high.  What's the job?  First Lady of the United States.

With the passing of Betty Ford, one of America's most exclusive clubs has grown even smaller.  Called "the sorority" by many, this sisterhood of wives of former presidents now includes only Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush.  Known to be an extremely close-knit group over the years, presidential spouses can relate to one another in a unique way.  All have experienced the slings and arrows of round-the-clock press coverage, all have lived in the gilded fishbowl that is the White House, and each has had to chart her own course in the challenging post-presidential years.

Lady Bird Johnson compared her first night back at the LBJ Ranch to the story of Cinderella, where the carriage had turned back into the pumpkin at the stroke of midnight.  Used to a life where one's every need is met and an army of staff members are available to help with any situation, Lady Bird found herself faced with a mountain of luggage and packing boxes, momentos of decades spent as an official wife in Washington.  Every former president and his wife can surely relate.

Lady Bird Johnson

Things have improved somewhat over the years, the life of an ex-president and first lady now comes with Secret Service security and a budget for offices and staff.  However, the expectations have grown, too.  Former first ladies such as Betty Ford and Rosalynn Carter have raised the bar with their non-stop advocacy during what were once considered the quiet retirement years.  While Bess Truman, Mamie Eisenhower and Pat Nixon kept a low profile, Mrs. Carter, Mrs. Ford and even the two Mrs. Bushes have logged countless hours on the lecture circuit for their favorite causes.  Betty Ford, as we are being reminded this week, might have outdone them all, engaging in work that has touched many thousands of people with her personal story of recovery and the namesake substance abuse treatment center she founded in 1982.

Betty Ford and Mamie Eisenhower:
Two very different first ladies,
both in and out of the
White House.

The work that first ladies engage in was once revered.  Responsibility for social life at the White House was used to be seen as a real and valuable part of the presidency.  While some continue to understand the importance of such things, it's also true that many see official entertaining and, correspondingly, the role of first lady as frivolous .  In no small part because of this, first ladies are expected to choose a cause to champion during the White House years, something that will play well in the press and appear to give value for money.  Increasingly, former first ladies are facing the same expectations.  It's interesting to see what each has done in the post-White House years.  Lady Bird Johnson continued her work for beautifucation, served on the Board of Regents for the University of Texas and started a world class wildflower research center that bears her name. 

Betty Ford showcased substance abuse treatment and continued her committment to women's rights.  Mrs. Ford also showed the country that just because she was the wife of an Amercian president didn't mean that she couldn't, or wouldn't, speak her mind, regardless of the ensuing controversy.

Rosalynn Carter has shown a high profile in her work with Habitat for Humanity, as well as international advocacy with her husband through the efforts of the Carter Center. 

Rosalynn Carter speaking at her
friend Betty Ford's funeral,
July 12, 2011
Nancy Reagan has mostly stayed close to home, in large part due to the illness of her late husband, but served as a very public example of the strength and committment required to personally care for a loved one struck down by Alzheimer's Disease.

Barbara Bush continued her work for literacy while, perhaps most famously, Hillary Clinton has served as a United States senator, run for president and has served with distinction as America's Secretary of State, proving that being the wife of a president in no way bars a woman from her own high-level government service. 

Finally, Laura Bush has kept a relatively low profile, making appearance to promote her autobiography and continuing to work for causes related to books and women's rights in Afghanistan.  Time will tell what her ultimate post-presidential impact will be.

Former First Ladies return to the White House
during the Clinton administration.
L-r, Nancy Reagan, Lady Bird Johnson,
Hillary Clinton, Rosalynn Carter,
 Betty Ford and Barbara Bush

In almost every case, America's former first ladies have continued to use their unique position to help improve the lives of other Americans.  If nothing else, their own examples are a testament to public service and the power of example.  These days we may shy away from the idea that we put our leaders and their spouses into a special class, but the fact remains that we view them differently than ourselves.  Nothing proves this more clearly than the accolades and tributes we see given to our former presidents and first ladies on their deaths.  I'm not just talking about the media or members of official Washington, past and present.  Photographs of ordinary citizens, regardless of political affiliation, crowding Southern California's teeming freeways and overpasses, even stopping opposing traffic to bid farewell to Ronald Reagan.  Downtown Austin crowded with throngs of Texans saluting Lady Bird Johnson, a woman who had not been in the White House for over forty years and whose husband had left office under the cloud of Vietnam. 

Thousands lined the streets of Austin, Texas
as Lady Bird Johnson's funeral cortege made
it's way back to the LBJ Ranch in 2007.

Citizens silently watch
as the hearse bearing
Ronald Reagan drives along a
deserted stretch of a California freeway
in 2004.

It's the same in nearly every case, Americans seem to surprise themselves with the deference and appreciation they show their presidential couples in death.  In part it's an appreciation of the service they've given, and in part it's a chance to look back at the times they represent - and the times of our own lives.

Betty Ford

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