FIRST LADIES: PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIANS ON THE LIVES OF 45 ICONIC AMERICAN WOMEN
By Susan Swain and C-SPAN
Public Affairs Press, $28, 462 pages
When the visionary journalist Brian Lamb launched the cable broadcast network C-SPAN in 1979, its primary purpose was, and still is, to provide gavel-to-gavel coverage of the august United States Congress. But its second purpose, perhaps more beneficial, has been to promote the American book, particularly books of history and biography devoted to that mud-wrestling free-for-all that is American politics.
It is no exaggeration to say that C-SPAN’s programs of author talks, interviews and discussions that examine the major personalities who have shaped that story have become the dominant venue for American nonfiction literature. As a grace note, C-SPAN’s editors have been publishing collections of these programs generally organized around a theme such as the American character or the Supreme Court.
This ninth such collection, timely released in March during the Women’s History Month observances, is an appropriate and valuable examination of the lives and roles played by the 45 women most closely identified with the U.S. presidency.
In this time when the role of all women in our society is undergoing a long-overdue sea change, the collection is especially valuable as an illustration of how these women adapted to, and contributed to, the presidents whose lives they shared. By necessity, these profiles are not the definitive biographies of the women themselves. Rather, they are introductions and should prompt young readers to delve more deeply into their lives.
One cannot blame Susan Swain, C-SPAN’s compiling author and longtime program moderator, for the unevenness of the profiles. The principal voices here are those of specialists called presidential historians and, as might be expected, not all of them have equal skill or insight when they hold forth about 45 such varied personalities.
There is, sorry to say, a tendency to fluff up some of these women into stronger, more dynamic, characters as role models than they deserve. In some cases, the first ladies are either scanted or overly praised because of some prism of modern morality filtering our view of other times. Are all these women “icons,” as billed in the book’s title? The plain truth is that not all of our presidential partners wanted the job of first lady; some indeed hated it and wanted nothing more than to be back home living their normal lives.
That’s as it should be. By definition, an icon is not just the portrayal of a subject of veneration but a window through which the viewer can communicate directly. An icon should not be a mirror where we see only our own reflection. So why shouldn’t we have first ladies who were not role models for modern women but were, in some cases, impediments to their chief executive partners?
Still, most of the profiles are good introductions given the limitations of space afforded. Roosevelt historian Douglas Brinkley and Allida Black, editor of the Eleanor Roosevelt papers at George Washington University, provide a good snapshot of the only first lady to truly be co-president. Eleanor’s contributions as the savvier political operative and the strong moral compass for her husband’s 12-year presidency are given their proper treatment here.
Lou Henry Hoover also gets a long-overdue introduction as a strong and contributing first lady. Also interesting are the contrasting personas of the only two first ladies married to the same president. Ellen Axson Wilson (“life in the White House has no attractions for me”) was the antithesis of Edith Bolling Wilson, who married Woodrow Wilson after Ellen died in 1914 and who took over de facto control of the presidency when he was debilitated by strokes during the last two years in office.
Our first first lady, Martha Washington, gets scanted somewhat, one suspects, because she devoted her life to shoring up husband George’s beloved plantation home at Mount Vernon, and that by the necessity of the times involved enforcing the slavery of the human beings employed there. By contrast, Abigail Adams gets proto-feminist kudos (“remember the ladies and be kinder to them than your ancestors”) with a gloss over the fact that her New England snobbery hampered her husband’s efforts (with Benjamin Franklin) to win French support during the Revolutionary War. The fact that she shamelessly bought up the promissory notes given war veterans in lieu of pay for pennies on the dollar and then lobbied her husband for full redemption from Congress would surely prompt public outcry today.
Some of the historians contributing to these profiles had a hard time coming up with praiseworthy assessments of their subjects, but again, where’s the surprise? After all, these first ladies were human beings, not icons.
• James Srodes is the author of “On Dupont Circle: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the Progressives Who Shaped Our World” (Counterpoint).