Throughout U.S. history, we’ve always had Mr. President and the First Lady (when the President was married) — never Madam President and the First Gentleman. (Although hopefully, come next January, that will have changed. But then would it be Madam President and the First Gentleman … or Madam President and the First Gentleman Former President or …? These are the things that keep me up at night.)
The first First Lady I remember is Jacqueline Kennedy, an icon of elegance, gilding the White House with a kind of exquisiteness never seen before. Everything about Mrs. Kennedy captured the world’s attention and affection. No wonder JFK was compelled to introduce himself on an official visit to France as, “the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris.”
And then, of course, Lady Bird Johnson. Not exactly Jackie. But this was no longer Camelot. My favorite thing about Mrs. Johnson was her love for the environment and for nature. And her first name. (No, not Lady Bird. Claudia).
Pat Nixon. A lovely-looking woman, although to me she always looked as if she were about to shatter. Maybe because her husband started out appearing to have an inferiority complex (have you ever seen the debate between him and JFK?) and ended up appearing a couple of amendments short of the Constitution, if you know what I mean.
First Lady Betty Ford dared to show her frailties in public. From alcohol addiction to breast cancer, Mrs. Ford let us in on the challenges she faced and, as a result, made herself incredibly human.
If Jackie Kennedy was American royalty, Rosalynn Carter was (and is) the salt of the American earth. A woman of faith who lives by her beliefs, Mrs. Carter was the kind of First Lady who reminded us that the meaning of life isn’t about who has the most toys. It’s about making things better for those who need our help.
Nancy Reagan‘s passing a few days ago impacted our national consciousness more than we might have imagined. Her era in the White House was one of grace and glamour — a reflection of the First Couple’s Hollywood past. Whether you shared her politics or not, you have to admire Mrs. Reagan’s fierce loyalty in advising, protecting and loving her husband. Perhaps she will be best remembered for being Ronald Reagan’s voice and his loving caregiver throughout his “long goodbye.”
Barbara and Laura Bush. Each brought a gentility to the White House and a sense of being a strong partner to their respective Georges.
Hillary Clinton, of course, imbued her First Ladyship with a special kind of intelligence, ambition and passion — qualities that later led her to the Senate, to Secretary of State, to her own run for president. And to her chance to break the ultimate glass ceiling.
Finally, Michelle Obama. Smart, strong, accessible (within the parameters set by the Secret Service, of course), a tremendous supporter of military families and of children’s health, and responsible for bringing an incredible breath of fresh air and energy to the White House. Kind of makes me wish for a third Obama term (you don’t have to agree with me, just stay with me here).
Thanks to all these First Ladies, the role has been filled in a variety of ways, each woman bringing her own lasting contributions. The job of First Lady has been refined, polished and perfected. It’s time for the next step.
Madam President, if you please.
ⓒ 2016 Claudia Grossman