Remembering a Former First Lady
It seems Americans can’t quite make up their minds about the role of first lady and what we want from a spouse of a president.
Former first lady Barbara Bush died Tuesday night after a battle with congestive heart failure. Her death came just two days after her spokesman announced she would seek no further medical care and focus instead on so-called “comfort care.”
If you survey (as many have) Americans on their favorite or most influential first ladies in our history, she usually didn’t make the top 10, although her daughter-in-law, Laura, the wife of President George W. Bush, has been called the most popular first lady in recent times.
The most influential, and in some cases, depending largely on political persuasion, the most respected, is usually Eleanor Roosevelt, who championed equal rights causes and helped create the United Nations Charter on Human Rights.
The first lady is generally considered the hostess of the White House. But she also has a huge platform because of her visibility that allows her to bring awareness to issues that are important to her (and her husband).
Betty Ford’s admission of her own struggles with alcoholism helped eliminate a stigma for the disease and created a dialog that hadn’t really existed before. And Jackie Kennedy’s strength after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 endeared the young widow to a generation.
Of course, some American’s don’t like a presidential spouse who’s not willing to act like a quiet, dutiful little wife who stays in the background and says nothing. As much as the country seemed to respect Nancy Regan for her crusade against drugs, Hillary Clinton, who fought to raise awareness about healthcare issues, often received a much harsher reaction, with a larger number of people complaining that she needed to stay out of the spotlight.
And that’s putting it mildly.
Some people likewise complained at every mention of Michelle Obama, although I suspect that (in many cases) had more to do with the color of her skin than the actions she was taking.
Barbara Bush ‘redefined’ the role of first lady, author says
There are no documents that establish an official role for first ladies. But author Kate Andersen Brower wrote that Barbara Bush redfined the role, not by embracing the cause of literacy but “with the warmth and humility that distinguished her time in the White House.”
Former President George W. Bush called his mother “a fabulous First Lady and a woman unlike any other who brought levity, love, and literacy to millions.”
Barbara Bush appeared to be the gentle yet determined grandmother that is appealing to many families, but also seemed to be the tough, no-nonsense figure who was unwilling to suffer fools gladly, another appealing quality to many of us.
And we can’t forget that it was Barbara Bush, during the 2016 presidential race, who said of Donald Trump that she thought it was “incomprehensible” that anyone would vote for him, particularly women, in light of his “abusive comments” about them.
When it came to family, it was also a clear priority. Of her love of George H.W. Bush, she famously said this: “I married the first man I ever kissed. When I tell my children that, they just about throw up.” Theirs was a marriage that lasted 73 years, the longest of any presidential couple in American history.
One of my favorite quotes attributed to her was this one:
“Never lose sight of the fact that the most important yardstick of your success will be how you treat other people – your family, friends, and coworkers, and even strangers you meet along the way.”
That’s a statement that I think everyone, no matter their political party, should be able to appreciate.