- The Washington Times - Monday, September 25, 2000

Studies of first ladies come and go. Now author Bonnie Angelo looks at the women who influenced U.S. presidents during their formative years their mothers.

"The boys were shaped by the mothers when they were young. Wives got the men after the cookies were baked," she says.

Mothers of modern American presidents had a greater influence on their sons' character than did the fathers, says Ms. Angelo, whose forthcoming book is titled what else? "First Mothers: The Women Who Shaped the Presidents."

Four of the 11 mothers were especially impressive, she says. Ms. Angelo cites Martha Young Truman, Rebekah Baines Johnson, Lillian Gordy Carter and Nelle Wilson Reagan. Although the four came from different backgrounds, they were what she calls daddy's girls.

A former Time magazine correspondent and bureau chief, Ms. Angelo says her aim was not to rewrite history. "This is a journalist's book, born of years of covering presidents and hearing them again and again pay tribute to their mothers and, noticeably, not their fathers," she tells readers in the introductory chapter.

She is not unmindful that the book, probably the first of its kind, is being published during a presidential election year.

Ms. Angelo disagrees with the notion that the presidents covered by her work Franklin Roosevelt through Bill Clinton might have lavished their tributes because they felt guilty about not having spent much time with their mothers while making their way in the world.

"To be honest, in each chapter I discuss the fathers, and you see they don't have the same influence. George Prescott Bush [father of President Bush] was quite distinguished but quite remote."

She will discuss her research at a luncheon meeting of the Women of Washington club Oct. 10 in the Four Seasons Hotel and at 7:30 that evening at Barnes & Noble Booksellers in Bethesda, Md.

The widow of the late Newsday bureau chief Harold R. Levy, Ms. Angelo has lived and worked in Washington, London and New York. Her Bethesda home is full of valuable memorabilia reaching back to the 19th century that she and her husband collected such enticing souvenirs as the badge to get into a "comfort station" at the inauguration of William McKinley in 1897 and an April 22, 1868, "impeachment ticket" for the U.S. Senate just weeks before President Andrew Johnson was acquitted by a single vote by senators.

The maternal impact on presidents first hit home when she asked Robert Kennedy a week before his slaying in 1968 how so many of his family members could stand to campaign for him in California "after all the tragedy and trauma they had been through. He looked at me under those big bushy eyebrows and said, 'Have you met my mother?'"

Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy was "a revelation" and a woman who loved the political life, Ms. Angelo says.

The writer's favorite first mother was Mrs. Truman, "a woman of such independence of mind."

"She was really a frontier woman, the daughter of pioneers in Missouri. She had very strong values. What was right was right and what was wrong was wrong," Ms. Angelo says.

"When Harry Truman was not yet 6, his mother suddenly realized that when he looked at fireworks on July Fourth, he didn't look up at the sky. He couldn't see horses at the end of the pasture, so she saddled up the horse and buggy and took him to Kansas City, about 15 miles away, to an eye specialist to have him put in glasses right away.

"He had a self-education beyond what many people get going to a formal college. I don't think he could have advanced as he did without her putting him on the road to learning."

Other threads, besides a streak of independence, unite these mothers, Ms. Angelo says. "They were different from their times and absolutely committed to education. Here they were, back in the late 19th century most of them, determined to go to college. That was not a normal thing for young ladies to do then. All of them, with the exception of Nelle Reagan because she had to drop out of school to work went on to some kind of higher education," she says.

"In the case of Sara Roosevelt and Rose Kennedy it was European polish. Others like Rebekah Baines Johnson insisted on going to college. Martha Truman went to a female academy in Lexington, Kentucky. Rebekah went to Baylor. Her grandfather had been president of Baylor, and she went to the female branch. When her father lost all his money, she got a job in the campus bookstore to pay for rest of her education."

She terms Mrs. Carter's influence "the most dramatic."

"Lillian Carter went on to nurses training and ministered to black families with no feeling of racism. I argue that Jimmy Carter could never have been nominated, much less elected president, had it not been for his mother. She was the one who instilled in him a sense of tolerance and open-mindedness in race relations. She had a mind of her own and didn't give a whoop what people thought. She would do such things as go into the Peace Corps and ask for a hot country with dark-skinned people. So she got sent to India at age 68.

"He would never have gotten the nomination as a Southern governor if that idea of fairness had not been implanted in him as a young boy. The black community backed him in Georgia … . His father did not have those instincts. He was a man of his times.

"Lillian Carter once invited into their home the son of the black bishop of their area because he had gone to school in the North and she wanted to know what it was like. Her husband, [James] Earl Carter, walked out the back door."

Next in influence she feels was Mrs. Johnson, because "I don't believe Lyndon could have pulled himself out of the slump he was in."

"He was such a bright boy, but when he graduated from high school he said he didn't want any more schooling. He went out to California and knocked around and worked in a highway road gang. Rebekah, such an education advocate, was just distraught," she says.

"So then he finally said, 'I've tried it my way; I'll try it yours if you will help me.' She not the husband got on the phone and called the president of the little college down the road. It was late to enter, but she helped Lyndon get a loan through a bank that had known her father, and [she] sat up all night coaching him so he could pass the entry exam. From then on he was focused. She had taught him debating. One thing led to another."

Mrs. Reagan was the least well-known of the mothers she researched, Ms. Angelo says. She describes her as someone of deep faith bent on self-improvement.

"Edmund Morris got her all wrong. He called her a battle-ax. She was a saint. She would take prisoners into her home when they were on parole to get them back on their feet. That is saintliness in my book."

"Nelle Reagan really trained and encouraged 'Dutch' she called him that then to be an actor. Mother and son would perform together. She would play the banjo, and he would recite. One of the places they played was a local insane asylum. Wouldn't it be incredible if somebody had had a tape recorder back in those days?"

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