First Ladies Library Blog

Welcome to the National First Ladies Library blog. This replaces the “asked/answered” page and all information from it has been transferred to the blog. Here will be an ongoing public forum on the work of the NFLL and its collections, discussion on new and emerging scholarship and popular publications, news stories, and any other information or discoveries related to directly to the subject of First Ladies. The public is invited to engage here with questions on the subject.

Research, reading and writing on the subject of American First Ladies opens windows into so many fascinating aspects of not just national and international history and culture but contemporary issues as well.

Enjoy our blog and feel free to post your comments.

The White House Staff of First Ladies

Eleanor Roosevelt with staff members Malvina Thompson and Edith Helm. (FDRL)

Eleanor Roosevelt with staff members Malvina Thompson and Edith Helm. (FDRL)

This article is adapted from a public inquiry response about a Canadian email claiming that Michelle Obama has maintained a larger staff than any of her successors.
Mary Catherine Hellen Adams. (New England Historical Society)

Mary Catherine Hellen Adams. (New England Historical Society)

Documentation suggests that during the presidencies from 1789 until 1877, family members who were hired as federal clerks to serve the President also responded to incoming correspondence to First Ladies from those unknown to the presidential wives. Housekeepers and ushers aided in carrying out formal dinners, invitations for those related to foreign nations being coordinated with the Secretary of State. Press inquiries were rare, but were usually processed by the federal clerks working for the President.

Often, friends or relatives making lengthy visits during the winter social season assisted First Ladies in planning and executing social events. For example, Polly Lear, the wife George Washington’s private secretary Tobias Lear, worked with Martha Washington. Louisa Adams’  niece (and later daughter-in-law) Mary Catherine Hellen worked as her social aide. Julia Tyler’s sister Margaret Gardiner aided her during the 1844-1845 social season.
George Cortelyou aided Frances Cleveland and Ida McKinley. (Commerce Dept)

George Cortelyou aided Frances Cleveland and Ida McKinley. (Commerce Dept)

By the latter 19th century, the Personal or Private Secretary of the President or a clerk began to answer public mail for First Ladies, as seen in the examples of Orville Babcock doing so or Julia Grant, Stanley Brown for Lucretia Garfield, George Cortelyou for Frances Cleveland and Ida McKinley. Mail clerk Ira Smith also answered mail for Mrs. McKinley.

Since the turn of the 20th century, First Ladies have relied on a growing number of regular clerical staff that is assigned to work in the Executive Offices to carry out the growing responsibilities of true expanding public role.
Belle Hagner (right), at a White House social event. (WHHA)

Belle Hagner (right), at a White House social event. (WHHA)

As First Ladies took a more direct role in planning social events, they relied upon and worked more closely with the chief usher, housekeeper, cooks, florists, and others on the permanent domestic staff.

Mary Spiers and Alice Blech. (WHHA)

Mary Spiers and Alice Blech. (WHHA)

Edith Roosevelt was the first to have a Social Secretary who was a salaried federal employee – Isabelle Hagner.

Nellie Taft was given the same congressional appropriation within the executive branch government and had a series of three different women fulfilling that job including Alice Bech and Mary Spiers.
Ellen Wilson and Edith Wilson both rehired Belle Hagner. Florence Harding hired Laura Harlan and Grace Coolidge’s Social Secretary was Polly Randolph.
Laura Harlan looks at audience as Florence Harding addresses them. (carlanthonyonline.com)

Laura Harlan looks at audience as Florence Harding addresses them. (carlanthonyonline.com)

In 1929, Lou Hoover became the first to have multiple secretaries – a total of four by the time she left the White House. One or two of these “private secretaries” were paid a salary by the Hoovers.

Eleanor Roosevelt had two staff members Social Secretary and Personal Secretary, as did Bess Truman.
Mamie Eisenhower dictates to secretary Mary Jane McCaffree. (Life)

Mamie Eisenhower dictates to secretary Mary Jane McCaffree. (Life)

Mamie Eisenhower had only one Social Secretary but by this time, her responsibilities were far greater than planning social functions.

She acted also as correspondence and press secretary, and had a staff of typists and clerks working for her.
Jackie Kennedy with Pamela Turnure, prior to a press event. (JFKL)

Jackie Kennedy with Pamela Turnure, prior to a press event. (JFKL)

Jacqueline Kennedy hired the first Press Secretary, Pamela Turnure. In the press office was also an assistant.

There was also a head of correspondence.Letitia Baldrige was given the ostensible title of “Social Secretary” but was already functioning as a de facto Chief of Staff. Mrs. Kennedy also hired the first White House Curator, who worked under her direction, as did the Housekeeper and Chief Usher.
There were many clerks answering her mail.
Betty Ford at a staff party. (GRFL)

Betty Ford at a staff party. (GRFL)

Lady Bird Johnson’s Press Secretary Liz Carpenter was functioning as Chief of Staff. In addition to Social Secretary there was also added to the First Lady’s staff the position of Project Director.
Under Pat Nixon, the position of Advance woman was added. Under Betty Ford, the position of speechwriter was added.
Mrs. Reagan with the first of several of her Social Secretaries and Chiefs of Staff, Mabel Brandon and Peter McCoy. (RRPL)

Mrs. Reagan with the first of several of her Social Secretaries and Chiefs of Staff, Mabel Brandon and Peter McCoy. (RRPL)

Rosalynn Carter was the first to have a single designated figure serve as Chief of Staff.

Barbara Bush employed the first African-American press secretary and Michelle Obama hired the first male Social Secretary.
Under the department heads of East Wing directors (Press Secretary, Social Secretary, Personal Aide, Project Director, Correspondence, Speechwriting, Advance) there are often deputies and assistants who carry the title.
Hillary Clinton meeting with her staff. (WJCPL)

Hillary Clinton meeting with her staff. (WJCPL)

Under a more general “staff” designation there are typists, and researchers working for First Ladies.

On many occasions, it may be hard to trace what specific federal positions work for a First Lady because often they are hired through the West Wing or a Cabinet department and are requisitioned due to their expertise, either for the full term of the administration or part of the time, depending on the endeavor.

For example, at the time of the weddings of LBJ’s daughters, Press Secretary Liz Carpenter requisitioned the temporary services of one of the President’s press aides, Tom Johnson.

Michelle Obama with members of her staff in 2010. (WH)

Michelle Obama with members of her staff in 2010. (WH)

Or, during her initial drug abuse education program planning, Nancy Reagan had the president’s advisor on illicit drug use work with her staff.

The claim about Mrs. Obama having the biggest staff in history may be due to the greater transparency of the Obama Administration in delineating the names, titles and salaries of those who have or are working for her.

While this has always been a matter of public information, the Obama Administration is the first to publicly disclose it.

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Eleanor Roosevelt at the 1940 Democratic Convention. (FDRL)

Eleanor Roosevelt at the 1940 Democratic Convention. (FDRL)

She was taking an incredibly rare moment of rest at her Val-Kill retreat in Hyde Park, New York on the Hudson, simply relaxing as she listened to the radio and knitting.

Eleanor Roosevelt learning how to dive, in the pool at her Val-Kill home in Hyde Park. (carlanthonyonline.com)

Eleanor Roosevelt learning how to dive, in the pool at her Val-Kill home in Hyde Park. (carlanthonyonline.com)

Resting for Eleanor Roosevelt in July of 1940 also meant that she was dictating rapid-fire responses to her secretary Malvina “Tommy” Thompson and stenographer Dorothy Dow, keeping on top of the hundreds of letters she received each week. She was also finally taking diving lessons in her pool.

Nearby, an ill friend who needed help found that none other than the First Lady of the United States was barging into her home, cleaning the rooms and cooking the woman’s lunch and dinner.

Days earlier, there had also been a summer afternoon tea she hosted for a few friends who dropped by – some eight hundred of them.

The radio was tuned to a live broadcast of the National Democratic Convention in its opening day, being held in Chicago.

Eleanor Roosevelt knitting at Hyde Park. (FDRL)

Eleanor Roosevelt knitting at Hyde Park. (FDRL)

If Eleanor Roosevelt was known as the First Lady who had a habit of shattering precedents, now it was the turn of her husband, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Elected in the midst of the Great Depression in 1932, and then to a traditional second term in 1936, he was now mortifying political traditionalists by seeking a third presidential term.

“Washington Wouldn’t, Lincoln Couldn’t, Roosevelt Shouldn’t!” declared one of the plethora of anti-third term buttons hitting the marketplace that year.

Eleanor Roosevelt with Henry Wallace, 1940. (Getty)

Eleanor Roosevelt with Henry Wallace, 1940. (Getty)

As she listened in, Mrs. Roosevelt got her first inkling of serious trouble. The majority of delegates were protesting the President’s choice of a running mate, a new vice presidential candidate Henry Wallace.

With his socialist sympathies, the new potential nominee was a radical departure from James Garner, the conservative Texas Democrat who had served with FDR during his first two terms.

The delegate revolt could not only create chaos where the Roosevelts and the Democratic National Committee chairman had planned for a smooth re-nomination but it could split and throw the party into disarray at a particularly delicate time in American life.

Mrs. Roosevelt in her Office of Civilian Defense office, (LC)

Mrs. Roosevelt in her Office of Civilian Defense office, (LC)

As Hitler began exercising his reign of tyranny and the rise of the Third Reich began to shadow the stability of Europe, the United States was slowly converting to a pre-war economy as a means of extending the economic recovery that FDR’s “New Deal” government programs had begun in the effort to reverse the depression.

Ostensibly, the wartime buildup was in support of the closest American ally, Great Britain, the primary target of Germany, but the First Lady had also led up the Civilian Defense Corps, an effort to begin getting the American people prepared for the changes that the world war would bring.

As she knitted away, the phone rang. It was the President. Eleanor Roosevelt’s  rest would prove not only rare but brief. The delegates needed unification. He wanted her to do the unifying.

Eleanor Roosevelt knitting on a plane. (Getty)

Eleanor Roosevelt knitting on a plane. (Getty)

Soon a second call came in, this one directly from the convention floor, It was her friend, the Labor Secretary Frances Perkins practically begging her to save the day.

In a flash, Mrs. Roosevelt jumped up to dress, dashed out of the house, into a waiting car. She was  joined by her son Franklin, Jr.

She also, apparently, brought the banged-up but trusty typewriter that the ever-reliable Tommy usually pecked out letters and memos on. Without Tommy, Mrs. Roosevelt was capable of doing her own typing, however. They boarded a small private plane, and were soon headed for Chicago.

Mrs. Roosevelt typing away. (FDRL)

Mrs. Roosevelt typing away. (FDRL)

It was, apparently, during the flight that Mrs. Roosevelt formed a general idea of what needed to be said, and a single page of loose notes were typed out.

Before landing, the First Lady was given a chance to fulfill a lifelong dream of taking control of an airplane. Her hand on the

Eleanor Roosevelt had been to a Democratic National Convention before. She had joined Franklin at the one held in New York in 1924, when he placed the name of his friend, New York Governor Al Smith up for the presidential nomination.

FDR, Eleanor and their son  on the wings of the plane they took to the 1932 Democratic Convention. (AP)

FDR, Eleanor and two of their sons before boarding the plane they took to the 1932 Democratic Convention. (AP)

It was FDR’s very first political appearance since he had contracted infantile paralysis and he appeared on crutches.

Eleanor had accompanied him to ensure he was able to carry off the new ritual he had developed that gave the appearance of briefly walking when, in fact, it was a system whereby he swung his lifeless legs, encased in iron braces.

When FDR had broken precedent by flying to Chicago in 1932 to accept his nomination as the Democratic presidential candidate, Mrs. Roosevelt had also been with him.

It may well have inspired her to become the first spouse of a presidential candidate to address a national convention, but also the first incumbent First Lady to do so.

A heated Edith Wilson fanning herself at the 1940 Democratic Convention. (Historical Images)

A heated Edith Wilson fanning herself at the 1940 Democratic Convention. (Historical Images)

However, while Eleanor Roosevelt would become the first incumbent First Lady to address a national convention, she was not the first among First Ladies to do so.

Already seated in her front-row box seat in the Chicago Stadium was one of her predecessors and a friend dating back to World War I, Edith Bolling Galt Wilson.

Mrs. Wilson was a living legend, famous for the whisper that she had in fact served as the nation’s “first woman president” because she managed the presidency following the stroke of her husband Woodrow Wilson while he was the incumbent president

Edith Wilson escorted into the 1928 Democratic Convention. (Historical Images)

Edith Wilson escorted into the 1928 Democratic Convention. (Historical Images)

Following the former president’s death in February of 1924, Edith Wilson began a career as “Mrs. Woodrow Wilson,” traveling the world to represent his legacy, be it at a statue dedication, an international conference upholding his vision of a League of Nations, or an important Democratic Party function.

Mrs. Wilson kept her distance from Mrs. Smith. (Historical Images)

Mrs. Wilson kept her distance from Mrs. Smith. (Historical Images)

Although still in mourning at the time of the 1924 Democratic Convention, Mrs. Wilson went to the one held in Houston, Texas four years later as the guest of wealthy businessman Jesse H. Jones, who

While Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt had been wildly adamant supporters of their friend, Bronx native and New York Governor Al Smith, the aristocratic segregationist Edith Wilson held him and his working-class wife Mary Smith in genteel contempt.

Edith Wilsons makes her "speech." (carlanthonyonline.com)

Edith Wilsons makes her “speech.” (carlanthonyonline)

Conscious of her status as a party symbol, she finally acquiesced to pressure to pose stiffly alongside the would-be First Lady Mrs. Smith in front of an outside chain-link fencing where news photographers finally cornered her. “Poor Mrs. Smith,” mused author Gore Vidal many decades later. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Mrs. Wilson voted for Hoover that year, on class alone.”

She paused, shifting away slightly to leave a decided space between them.

Edith Wilson stayed long into the night at the 1932 Democratic Convention sessions and watched FDR cinch the nomination. (ebay)

Edith Wilson stayed long into the night at the 1932 Democratic Convention sessions and watched FDR cinch the nomination. (ebay)

Generous in praise of his fellow southerner, the late President Wilson, whose administration he’d served, Jesse Jones won the effusive support of his widow in the long-shot effort to draft him instead of Smith.

It was thus with appreciative enthusiasm that, at the opening session of the 1928 convention, Jesse Jones called Mrs. Wilson to the podium to be acknowledged by the delegates – and then gently pushed her towards the microphone, announcing to the convention that she would now address them.

Never having given a public speech and never having wishing to do so, Edith Wilson uttered a few sentences of thanks for their warm welcome, which she registered as a respectful tribute to “dear Mr. Wilson.”

Kisses for Mrs. Wilson at the 1940 Convention. (Historical Image)

Kisses for Mrs. Wilson at the 1940 Convention. (Historical Image)

Thus, however unwittingly, Edith Wilson technically became the first First Lady to address a national convention, albeit with the distinction of former First Lady. Her remarks nor any other voice recordings have thus far been located.

While she never again allowed herself to be brought to the podium, Mrs. Wilson found that she rather liked the fawning she got at conventions where she quite willingly assumed the role of a Queen Mother, as much as a democracy permitted.

Mrs. Wilson arrives at the 1936 convention with Jesse Jones and his wife. (carlanthonyonline.com)

Mrs. Wilson arrives at the 1936 convention with Jesse Jones and his wife. (carlanthonyonline.com)

From that point on, she never missed one.

Ritualistically, on the opening day of the conventions, the chairmen at the podium would beseech the entire auditorium to join him in welcoming “Mrs. Woodrow Wilson” as she insisted on being called.

Seated in a front-row VIP box seat, her face framed in the changing parade of hat fashions of the Thirties and Forties, Edith would elegantly rise and gently wave to the cheering crowds, giggling a bit.

Mrs. Wilson holds court, 1936 convention. (carlanthonyonline.com)

Mrs. Wilson holds court, 1936 convention. (carlanthonyonline.com)

Throughout the course of each convention, she held court daily from her viewing box, accepting gifts of candy, flowers, signing autographs and accepting kisses.

Reporters noted that she always came early and stayed to the bitter end, enduring the insufferable heat, candidate chantings and picketed demonstrations.

Mrs. Wilson always cultivated a relationship with each one of her successors regardless of political affiliation, but her friendship with Mrs. Roosevelt was the longest and most complex.

The two First Ladies share a laugh. (Corbis)

The two First Ladies share a laugh. (Life)

They had been together in Europe immediately after World War I and shared the experience of visiting a hospital ward to visit American doughboys had been permanently disfigured by war. It was a haunting experience neither woman forgot.

Mrs. Wilson often called on Mrs. Roosevelt to help her on projects involving the Wilsonian vision of a League of Nations; sharing the same vision, the latter almost always complied. When Mrs. Roosevelt asked Mrs. Wilson to simply loan her name to National Democratic Women’s Committee fundraising letters, the latter almost never complied.

When it came to gender and racial equality, they were utterly oppositional. In the 1940′s, for example, Mrs. Wilson sent around some witty but rather mean bits of anti-Roosevelt poetry.

The two First Ladies got on well personally, sharing the same sense of the ridiculous. On occasion, they could be even be spied enjoying an earthy laugh together. The patient Mrs. Roosevelt seemed to bring the best out in  the prickly Mrs. Wilson.

Mrs Wilson and Wallace at the 1941 Inaugural. (carlanthonyonline.com)

Now, at the 1940 Democratic Convention, she was not at all welcoming to the Roosevelt choice of Wallace as vice president, staunch in her support of getting her friend Jones (then serving as FDR’s Commerce Secretary) on the ticket as FDR’s running mate.

Edith Wilson stands to acknowledge the convention cheers. (ebay)

Edith Wilson stands to acknowledge the convention cheers. (ebay)

One reporter noted that even the usually sedate former First Lady joined in the foot-stomping protest against the choice of Wallace as the party’s vice presidential choice.

By the time Eleanor Roosevelt finished her speech, however, even Edith Wilson joined in party unity to support the FDR-Wallace ticket.

By the time Inauguration Day came around, the reactionary Democrat had gotten so downright chummy with the leftist one that she requested he escort her to some of the festivities. She would accept nobody of lesser a status.

The new Vice President, of course, complied.

Simply upon entering the arena, Eleanor Roosevelt commanded the entire 1940 Democratic convention's attention. (Corbis)

Simply upon entering the arena, Eleanor Roosevelt commanded the entire 1940 Democratic convention’s attention. (Corbis)

The very first glimpse of the distinctively tall and looming Eleanor purposefully striding into the coliseum and beelining straight up to the podium set off a deafening cheer and stampede of foot-stomping. The Democratic delegates might squawk and scream about who should be Vice President, but everyone loved Mrs. Roosevelt.

Chicago Mayor Edward Kelly was doggedly loyal to the Roosevelts. (Getty)

Chicago Mayor Edward Kelly was doggedly loyal to the Roosevelts. (Getty)

At the foot of the podium, she was greeted there by Chicago mayor Ed Kelly, eagerly waiting to greet her with a few words.

Mayor Kelly was as loyal an apostle of FDR as they came. In fact, to ensure that there wasn’t any trouble in seeing that the Roosevelt choice for vice president got the biggest and loudest demonstration, he ordered the police to block re-entrance into the hall of those delegates known to oppose him.

Always the courteous gent, Kelly was devoted to Mrs. Roosevelt and made his apologies to his special guest that day in his V.I.P. viewing box, local radio show actress Edie Davis.

Chicago radio actress and Democrat Edie Davis at a luncheon. (ebay)

Chicago radio actress and Democrat Edie Davis at a luncheon. (Historical Image)

Always beaming her sunny smile and instantly recognizable by her snow-white hair and suntan, Mrs. Davis also worked for the mayor as a vice-squad matron. She knew what was up in the Windy City.

Despite being married to an archly conservative Republican neurosurgeon, Edie was a rabid Democrat.

For this historic moment, she had brought along her teenage daughter, home on summer vacation from Smith College, where she had completed her first year of study, majoring in drama.

As a Smith College freshman Miss Anne Frances Davis in 1939. (Historical Images)

As a Smith College freshman Miss Anne Frances Davis in 1939. (Historical Images)

The young woman, who had only just turned nineteen years old two weeks earlier, later recalled with some embarrassment her singular lack of curiosity about politics at the time.

Especially close to her mother, however, Miss Ann Frances Davis was noted in a newspaper clipping about Chicago society folks at the convention, as practically sitting on Mrs. Davis’s lap as they anticipated the arrival of the First Lady.

Eleanor Roosevelt, first incumbent First Lady to address a political convention. (carlanthonyonline.com)

Eleanor Roosevelt, first incumbent First Lady to address a political convention. (carlanthonyonline.com)

Without fanfare, on that steamy July eighteenth, the First Lady spoke with conviction to the delegates, in a tone some thought scoldingly but all thought convincingly.

She did not mention Wallace by name but rather focused on why the President must have the right to break with the tradition of delegates choosing a vice president and hold that prerogative himself with the expectation of their unanimous support.

Topped in a flowered hat and wearing a pinned corsage as large as the hat, Mrs. Roosevelt only had her single sheet of paper with typed notes.

The single page of typed notes Eleanor Roosevelt glanced at as she extemporaneously  delivered her speech. (FDRL)

The single page of typed notes Eleanor Roosevelt glanced at as she extemporaneously delivered her speech. (FDRL)

From this, as the transcript below illustrates, the First Lady spoke with extemporaneously eloquence:

Delegates to the convention, visitors, friends: It is a great pleasure for me to be here and to have an opportunity to say a word to you.

First of all, I think I want to say a word to our National Chairman, James A. Farley. For many years I have worked under Jim Farley and with Jim Farley, and I think nobody could appreciate more what he has done for the party, what he has given in work and loyalty. And I want to give him here my thanks and devotion.

And now, I think that I should say to you that I cannot possibly bring you a message from the President because he will give you his own message. But, as I am here, I want you to know that no one could not be conscious of the confidence which you have expressed in him.

Mrs. Roosevelt quiets the cheers to begin her speech. (Corbis)

Mrs. Roosevelt quiets the cheers to begin her speech. (Corbis)

You cannot treat it as you would treat an ordinary nomination in an ordinary time. We people in the United States have got to realize today that we face a grave and serious situation.

Therefore, this year the candidate who is the President of the United States cannot make a campaign in the usual sense of the word. He must be on his job.

So each and every one of you who give him this responsibility, in giving it to him assume for yourselves a very grave responsibility because you will make the campaign. You will have to rise above considerations which are narrow and partisan.

You must know that this is the time when all good men and women give every bit of service and strength to their country that they have to give. This is the time when it is the United States that we fight for, the domestic policies that we have established as a party that we must believe in, that we must carry forward, and in the world we have a position of great responsibility.

We cannot tell from day to day what may come. This is no ordinary time. No time for weighing anything except what we can do best for the country as a whole, and that responsibility rests on each and every one of us as individuals.

No man who is a candidate or who is President can carry this situation alone. This is only carried by a united people who love their country and who will live for it to the fullest of their ability, with the highest ideals, with a determination that their party shall be absolutley devoted to the good of the nation as a whole and to doing what this country can to bring the world to a safer and happier condition.

Whether it was the shock of a First Lady speaking at a convention or the power of her words, the entire convention fell into awed silence. The solemnity of imminent world war and its full impact seemed to have struck them all. There were no more floor fights or screaming or protests.

Finishing her speech in victory, Eleanor Roosevelt threw up her entire right arm with gusto.(FDRL)

Finishing her speech in victory, Eleanor Roosevelt threw up her entire right arm with gusto.(FDRL)

As one newspaper headline put it, “Mrs. Roosevelt Stills the Tumult of 50,000.”

Finally, after the silence, the convention hall erupted in deafening cheers and whistles. The First Lady couldn’t repress her famous toothy grin. Not unlike her “Uncle Ted,” the late President Theodore Roosevelt, she threw up her right arm in triumphant acknowledgement.

Then, she simply turned around and walked out, nodding her head and shaking hands in acknowledgement of those lining her exit path to glimpse her. Her waiting care drove her back to the airport. She flew home directly, to summertime at Hyde Park.

Within eighteen hours of having been interrupted by the call from her husband, Mrs. Roosevelt was back in the country, knitting away.

Edith Wilson and Eleanor Roosevelt proceed to the U.S. Capitol to hear President FDR declare war on December 7, 1941. (carlanthonyonline.com)

Edith Wilson and Eleanor Roosevelt proceed to the U.S. Capitol to hear President FDR declare war on December 7, 1941. (carlanthonyonline.com)

For Mrs. Wilson, the words of her successor that day must have echoed a sad, distant memory of another time, before another war. Despite her late husband’s 1916 re-election to a  second term on the slogan, “He Kept Us Out of War,” she was more aware than most of the inevitability he would have to lead the United States into the bloody conflict known then as “The Great War.”

Just seventeen months after the hot summer of the Chicago convention, at the start of the 1941 Christmas season, Edith Wilson would be seated in unity beside Eleanor Roosevelt, as they together listened to and fully absorbed the implication of the President’s declaration of war against the empire of Japan. From that point on, “The Great War” would be known as World War I, giving grave context to the new one, World War II.

The power of a First Lady’s symbolism at the Chicago convention long lingered in the memory of one witness to it that day.

A late 1940s Hollywood headshot of Miss Davis. (RRPL)

A late 1940s Hollywood headshot of Miss Davis. (RRPL)

Edie Davis’s daughter would pursue a professional acting career briefly on Broadway, then headed west to Hollywood. There, Miss Davis worked diligently at her craft for nearly a decade, building a credible record of a dozen films. Never able to break typecasting, she would then marry the Screen Actor’s Union president, managing to raise two children while taking television and commercial jobs. When he ran for governor and won, she adjusted her life to that of a political spouse.

Nancy Reagan acknowledges cheers after her 1984 convention remarks. (carlanthonyonline.com)

Nancy Reagan acknowledges cheers after her 1984 convention remarks. (carlanthonyonline.com)

By the time he won the presidency in 1980, she became a First Lady as influential as Eleanor Roosevelt, not through policy but personal influence.

And, in 1984, when her husband was nominated for a second term at the National Republican Convention, Nancy Reagan would address the delegates and the nation, just as did Eleanor Roosevelt.

A year later, shown a yellowed clipping that noted her presence at the 1940 Convention and asked if she remembered watching her predecessor’s historical speech, the eyes of the woman formally known as Ann Frances Davis widened excitedly as she piped up.

“How could anyone forget Mrs. Roosevelt?! There was nobody like her. Nobody.

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Rosalynn Carter at the 1980 Democratic National Convention. (Pinterest)

Rosalynn Carter at the 1980 Democratic National Convention. (Pinterest)

Never before had a First Lady assumed such a presidential role as did Rosalynn Carter in the months leading up to the August 1980 Democratic National Convention that saw the nomination of her husband, incumbent President Jimmy Carter, for a second term.

n 1980 Rosalynn Carter assumed all of the responsibilities of the incumbent President running for revelation. (Getty)

n 1980 Rosalynn Carter assumed all of the responsibilities of the incumbent President running for revelation. (Getty)

The problem was that the President was “in the Rose Garden,” a euphemism for the fact that ongoing national crises were keeping him in Situation Room meetings and conferences that were too important to miss.

At that point, Iranian militants had stormed the American Embassy in Tehran and taken the US citizens there as hostages. On top of this, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan.

An the greater political challenge was the candidacy of U.S. Senator Edward “Teddy” Kennedy against her husband for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Rosalynn Carter went to register her husband's name as a presidential candidate in the New Hampshire primary. (Getty)

Rosalynn Carter went to register her husband’s name as a presidential candidate in the New Hampshire primary. (Getty)

So, the First Lady did not merely go to register his name as a candidate in the New Hampshire primary but delivered complex policy speeches. She went to campaign in Iowa for its caucuses and faced farmers angry over President Carter’s grain embargo.

Mrs. Carter took all hard policy questions during the 1980 campaign as if she were the presidential candidate.(Getty)

Mrs. Carter took all hard policy questions during the 1980 campaign as if she were the presidential candidate.(Getty)

Twice a week, she spent on the campaign trail, developing a standard stump speech but always writing a new lead that reflected her daily phone contact with the White House to keep abreast of changing international developments that she could include in her public remarks.

Relieved at the win in Iowa, Rosalynn Carter assumed Teddy Kennedy would soon drop out. But he refused to.

As the ultimate surrogate of the President, it was the First Lady who now took him on directly on the campaign trail, countering his claims and charges against Carter.

Twenty years after addressing a Harlem rally in Spanish on behalf of her husband's candidacy, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis returned there with her brother-in-law Teddy Kennedy on behalf of his race in the 1980 New York primary. (Getty)

Twenty years after addressing a Harlem rally in Spanish on behalf of her husband’s candidacy, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis returned there with her brother-in-law Teddy Kennedy on behalf of his race in the 1980 New York primary. (Getty)

She was elated when Carter won Illinois, despite the last-minute shift in allegiance by Chicago major Jane Byrne who came out for Kennedy.

The New York primary proved to be a hurdle.

As he campaigned through the Empire State, Teddy Kennedy called on his famous sister-in-law, the former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and she headlined fundraisers in the New York City boroughs, targeting Greek and Puerto Rican constituencies.

It proved to have a positive effect, and Kennedy won New York.

Despite Jackie’s efforts to coax him into withdrawing after the victory against what she foresaw as an impossible challenge which she detected he did not really have the heart to pursue, Teddy Kennedy kept on hitting hard against Carter and onto the late spring primaries.

Mrs. Carter campaigning during the New York primary at the St. Patrick's Day parade with Mayor Ed Koch. (UPI)

Mrs. Carter campaigning during the New York primary at the St. Patrick’s Day parade with Mayor Ed Koch. (UPI)

On the campaign trail, Mrs. Carter forged ahead – through allergic reactions, a hotel fire, a mouth sore from constant speeches and press conferences.

She was admittedly “tense and nervous” during a day trip that included campaign stops in Tennessee, Texas and Michigan, all the while knowing that the President was managing a secret rescue mission attempt of the hostages.

In addition to her tight schedule as First Lady, Rosalynn Carter spent two days each week campaigning during the primaries. (Getty)

Rosalynn Carter spent two days each week campaigning during the  1980 primaries. (Getty)

When she returned to the White House, the President told her she would not be able to campaign the next day. The mission failed with an air crash, killing eight. As if things could not get worse,  there came a flood of Cuban refugees.

Rosalynn Carter was still concerned about the fact that Teddy Kennedy would not drop is challenge, a situation that deepened when he petitioned for a change in the National Democratic Convention rules, hoping to have it turned into an “open” one where delegates were released from the pledge commitments they made during the state primaries.

The Reagan convention. (ABC)

The Reagan convention. (ABC)

Taking a much-needed break at Sapelo Island in Georgia with her husband, Mrs. Carter began the week of Monday, July 15 watching the Republican National Convention and its nomination of Ronald Reagan as the presidential candidate.

On occasion, she recalled, she had to leave the room when attacks on her husband and his policies became too strident. Still, she felt an odd comfort that he would be the general election challenger to Jimmy, for she didn’t agree with any of his espoused policies and couldn’t see how he might be elected.

Other members of the First Family attended at the 1980 Democratic National Convention, including the president's mother and son, Lillian and Jeff, but his brother Billy Carter did not appear. (Getty)

Other members of the First Family attended at the 1980 Democratic National Convention, including the president’s mother and son, Lillian and Jeff, but his brother Billy Carter did not appear. (Getty)

On the third day of the Republican Convention, came word of her brother-in-law Billy Carter having been discovered to be an unregistered lobbyist for the nation of Libya. While the Carters were intending to now focus more intently on the convention, they had to stop and, at the request of attorneys, begins searching their own records for any potential contact with Billy Carter on the matter of Libya.

Despite the closeness of the Carter family, it was considered unwise for the president’s brother to appear at the convention held from August 11 to 14, again in New York where Carter had won his first presidential nomination four years earlier.

On the first two days of the Democratic National Convention, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter holed away in preparation at Camp David.

The issue of Kennedy’s push for an open convention had still not yet been resolved. So the First Lady, along with her husband, spent the entire forty-eight hours, intended to de-compress and prepare, with the endless lists of names and phone numbers of individual delegates who had declared for Carter during the primaries. They called and spoke to each one, seeking assurance that they would remain loyal to their commitment. It gave Mrs. Carter a sense of relief.

Joan Kennedy comforts her husband Teddy after his convention speech. (Getty)

Joan Kennedy comforts her husband Teddy after his convention speech. (Getty)

Rosalynn Carter arrived at the convention for its third day, when Kennedy’s open convention  challenge was finally denied. The First Lady began to feel that her days at the convention were “successful and relatively happy days.”

Teddy Kennedy delivered what was technically a concession speech, but in declaring that “the dream never dies,” he stirred up great visions of a future nation among the delegates in Madison Square Garden, as well as the television viewing audience, evoking memories of his two assassinated brothers, President John F. Kennedy and Senator Robert F. Kennedy.

Despite the resentment that Rosalynn Carter naturally felt to the impediment Senator Kennedy had created to a smoother primary campaign leading up to the convention, she declared that his speech was “stirring and emotional.” Still, it was also observed at the time that he may have better represented the past Democratic Party. As Mrs. Carter reflected, “his call for massive government spending programs roused a spirit that appealed to the more liberal delegates.”

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis attended a Kennedy fundraiser breakfast at the 21 Club but then went to work, unwilling to serve as a symbol of an earlier era. (Getty)

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis attended a Kennedy fundraiser breakfast at the 21 Club but then went to work, unwilling to serve as a symbol of an earlier era. (Getty)

Even his sister-in-law Jackie Kennedy Onassis felt that he was never fated for the presidency, but to be a leader in the Senate.

Although she attended a fundraiser breakfast  to relieve the Kennedy campaign of it deb, ton the morning of the first day of the convention, she did not wish to be used as an icon of a bygone era and turned down requests to appear in the convention hall as a way of bolstering Teddy Kennedy’s fight for an open convention. Instead, she went to work.

Rosalynn Carter was satirized on Saturday Night Live as the de facto President, (Pinterest)

Rosalynn Carter was satirized on Saturday Night Live as the de facto President, (Pinterest)

Although her highly visible political role that year had earned Mrs. Carter the dubious distinction of being depicted in a Saturday Night Live skit that cast her as taking over the Oval Office, she was neither sought nor was given any moment of glory at the convention.

Even though she had conducted the primary campaign as the substitute for the candidate himself, in addition to maintaining her own schedule as First Lady, there was no suggestion by the convention or campaign managers, media consultants, the White House staff or even the President himself, that Rosalynn Carter had earned the right to address the convention.

She would be the last incumbent First Lady never to address a national presidential convention.

Senator Kennedy and First Lady Carter together on the podium. (Getty)

Senator Kennedy and First Lady Carter together on the podium. (Getty)

Rosalynn Carter only finally made an appearance before the delegates at the podium on the last night of the convention, joining her husband and the Vice President Walter Mondale and Joan Mondale, following President Carter’s acceptance speech.  There was a call for Teddy Kennedy to also come up on the platform to join them in a sign of party unity.

Instead, one by one, different Democratic leaders largely unrecognizable to the public ascended to join the increasingly crowded podium. “I soon realized we were biding our time,” Mrs. Carter recalled.

The initial handshake between Carter and Kennedy. (AP)

The initial handshake between Carter and Kennedy. (AP)

Meanwhile, instead of analysis on Carter’s speech, the national media coverage focused on Kennedy’s reluctance to appear with Carter. When he finally did appear, he received enormous applause.

At one point, Kennedy and the First Lady together waved to the crowds, seemingly in unison but the Senator did not open his hand. After he initially shook hands with President Carter, however, Kennedy “stood awkwardly to one side.”

On the podium, Mrs. Carter kept her eye on Kennedy. (Getty)

On the podium, Mrs. Carter kept her eye on Kennedy. (Getty)

“At that moment,” Rosalynn Carter recalled, “I felt truly sorry for him. He had waged a vigorous campaign and been defeated by an incumbent President at the lowest ebb of his popularity. It must have been a terrible blow to him, and it was obviously very difficult to take.”

In line with the old saying that “no good deed goes unpunished in Washington,” the First Lady acted on her charitable impulse and it, she said, “got us into more trouble.”

Observing the second handshake between Kennedy and her husband that she prompted, Rosalynn Carter's gesture was cast by the media as her husband having to insist Kennedy show his support. (AP)

Observing the second handshake between Kennedy and her husband that she prompted, Rosalynn Carter’s gesture was cast by the media as her husband having to insist Kennedy show his support. (AP)

She walked over to the President and told him to engage Kennedy.

Carter then walked several steps through the thickly crowded stage to again shake his former rival’s hand. Just at that moment, House Speaker Tip O’Neill placed his hand under Kennedy’s arm, giving the impression that he was pulling the two men together.

Mrs. Carter carefully watched the brief and seemingly unimportant little gesture that she had prompted.

As it appeared to television news reporters, however, Carter was thought to be “chasing him around on the platform,” as if he were pathetically begging for Kennedy’s support.”

It had been long and hard and unpleasant,, and in the end we had been scarred,” Rosalynn Carter said as the 1980 Democratic National Convention  came to an end, “though how much we were yet to know.”

The failed balloon drop. (CSpan)

The failed balloon drop. (CSpan)

While waving, Mrs. Carter found it ominous that the balloons did not drop. (Pinterest)

While waving, Mrs. Carter noticed the balloon failure. (Pinterest)

There had been one ominous moment that Rosalynn Carter noticed while on stage.

Thousands of balloons held in nets above the convention floor failed to release in the intended moment of victory, coming almost too late in the process. When the balloons did drop, it was merely a trickle, the rest held at bay on the ceiling.

Less than three months later, Jimmy Carter was defeated in his bid for re-election. Two and a half months later, they moved out of the White House and returned to their small hometown of Plains, Georgia.

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Jacqueline Kennedy at the 1956 Democratic Convention. (Life)

Jacqueline Kennedy at the 1956 Democratic Convention. (Life)

“You have to have been a Republican,” quipped Jacqueline Kennedy at the 1956 Democratic Convention in Chicago, “to know how good it feels to be a Democrat.”

The Kennedy wedding. (Pinterest)

The Kennedy wedding. (Pinterest)

While she was not entirely unfamiliar with the general policy differences between the Democratic and Republican party, having covered the 1952 presidential campaign while she was a newspaper columnist, it was not until she married U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy in September of 1953 that Jacqueline Bouvier began to grasp the nuances of the political game.

It was only as the wife of the new Democratic Senator that the writer who had been raised as a Republican realized that the reason then-Congressman Jack Kennedy had not furthered their romance to the point of engagement before his election to the Senate was to play on his appeal as a bachelor to the thousands of young, single women voters in his state of Massachusetts – and their ambitious, older mothers.

And it was not until the lengthiest period of time alone together, on their honeymoon, that she realized his ambition to become President was a serious one, driving his career.

Kennedy speaks with his wife Jackie and sister Eunice at the convention. (Pinterest)

Kennedy speaks with his wife Jackie and sister Eunice at the convention. (Pinterest)

Another lesson was to come two years and ten months after her wedding when, in the final months of her first pregnancy, Mrs. Kennedy flew to Chicago with her husband to attend the 1956 Democratic National Convention.

Staying with her sister-in-law Eunice Shriver in her apartment while her husband stayed in a hotel room near the convention hall, Mrs. Kennedy showed enthusiastic support for the nomination of Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson, waving a picket with his name and conferring when she could with her husband who was angling to be chosen as Stevenson’s running mate.

Jackie Kennedy avidly waving a Stevenson picket at the 1956 convention. (AP)

Jackie Kennedy avidly waving a Stevenson picket at the 1956 convention. (AP)

Surrounded by her sisters-in-law Eunice Shriver, Jean Kennedy Smith and Ethel Kennedy, Jackie was crushed when her husband was not chosen as the vice-presidential candidate but became admittedly disillusioned about when she discovered that the primary objective of making her husband a national name familiar to most of the country as potential presidential material had been achieved.

In light of the overwhelming odds of defeating the popular incumbent Republican President Dwight Eisenhower and, thus, Stevenson’s likely defeat, the fact that JFK was not chosen ended up being a relief to him, his father and political advisers.

CHeshire. (ebay)

Cheshire. (ebay)

Apart from experiencing a sudden cynicism about politics, as well as the stress of the crowded, hot convention, Mrs. Kennedy found herself being stalked by gossip columnist Maxine Cheshire, with an unrelenting persistence in the convention hall.

Refusing to leave her alone after she refused to speak with her, Cheshire chased Mrs. Kennedy, who then fled on foot out of the hall and into the parking garage. It was after such an experience that, within a week, Jacqueline Kennedy lost her child, a daughter delivered prematurely as a stillborn.

The morning after her husband was nominated at the 1960 convention, Jackie Kennedy displayed a newspaper with the headline announcing the news. (Pinterest)

The morning after her husband was nominated at the 1960 convention, Jackie Kennedy displayed a newspaper with the headline announcing the news. (Pinterest)

Although she had campaigned on her own and with her husband all through 1958 in his Senate re-election bid, and then 1959 and the first months of 1960 during JFK’s candidacy for his party’s presidential nomination, Jackie Kennedy did not go with him to the 1960 Democratic National Convention in 1960, held in Los Angeles.

From the front porch of her in-law's home in Hyannis, Massachusetts, Jackie Kennedy waves to crowds the day after her husband won the nomination at the 1960 Democratic Convention in Los Angeles. (Tumblr)

From the front porch of her in-law’s home in Hyannis, Massachusetts, Jackie Kennedy waves to crowds the day after her husband won the nomination at the 1960 Democratic Convention in Los Angeles. (Tumblr)

Although she was only four months pregnant at that point, given the loss of her child immediately following the stress of attending the 1956 convention, Mrs. Kennedy abided by the admonishing of her pediatrician to remain at home in Hyannis, Massachusetts and minimize her excitement.

Every night of the convention, she spoke by phone with her husband, following the machinations that would lead to his winning the nomination.

The morning after Kennedy won the nomination but before he returned from the convention, Jackie Kennedy held her own in a press conference on the front porch of her in-laws house, engaging reporters in a witty banter reflecting not just her excitement but also caution in what she said for the record.

Here is some of that press conference:

Held just nine months after President Kennedy’s assassination, the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey would nominate his successor Lyndon B. Johnson for own his full term.

Jackie Kennedy greets the 1964 Democratic vice-presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey at a convention reception. (Pinterest)

Jackie Kennedy greets the 1964 Democratic vice-presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey at a convention reception. (Pinterest)

At this point, Jackie Kennedy was a powerful political symbol and the strong emotional support still felt for her late husband was considered a potent factor at the convention, especially in light of the Johnson campaign’s concern that her brother-in-law Robert F. Kennedy might subvert LBJ’s nomination.

Accustomed to having his persuasive tactics work in his favor, LBJ did all he could to get his successor’s widow into making a public appearance in the convention hall, and thereby signal her tacit endorsement of his candidacy. Jacqueline Kennedy, however, resisted with as much force and refused to do so.

What further proved to be a brief scare for the LBJ campaign was the suggestion, not proven until after the fact, that Jackie Kennedy had helped Robert Kennedy draft his speech to the convention and provided an especially moving quote from Shakespeare about the “garish sun,” a reference that many considered a negative metaphor for LBJ.

Nevertheless, Mrs. Kennedy did stop in at Atlantic City for a brief, few hours, on her way back from a vacation at the Adriatic Ocean, then on her way to her stepfather’s Newport summer estate.

Averell Harriman, Lady Bird Johnson and Robert F. Kennedy joined the widowed Mrs, John F. Kennedy at a reception for delegates to the 1964 Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. (Pinterest)

Averell Harriman, Lady Bird Johnson and Robert F. Kennedy joined the widowed Mrs, John F. Kennedy at a reception for delegates to the 1964 Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. (Pinterest)

It was a special reception held to thank those Democrats who had supported her late husband four years earlier and she was drawn there with the reassuring presence of senior party leader Averell Harriman and her brother-in-law Bobby.  However, Jackie Kennedy also stood alongside Lady Bird Johnson, with whom she always maintained a warm friendship. The visual impact of the two First Ladies went a long way in mitigating any suggestion of an intra-party schism.

With the 1968 Democratic Convention taking place just weeks after the assassination of her brother-in-law Bobby Kennedy and the 1972 one occurring while she was spending the summer with her second husband Aristotle Onassis, it would not be until 1976 that Jackie Kennedy Onassis would again attend one of her party’s presidential nominating conventions.

Jackie Kennedy Onassis greets Hubert Humphrey again, this time at the 1976 new York Democratic National Convention. (AP)

Jackie Kennedy Onassis greets Hubert Humphrey again, this time at the 1976 new York Democratic National Convention, attorney Peter Tufo stands between them. (AP)

Mrs. Onassis had an especial motive for appearing at the event. She came not as the widow of the late, popular president from an earlier time, but as the working editor of publishing house. She was then working with an author on a biography of Chicago mayor Daley, who had refused to grant an interview and came intending to convince him to do so.

When she appeared in a viewing box, however, the delegates and officials could not help but see her only in the context of her having been First Lady and, to her mortification, the band even briefly played the theme song Camelot, from the Broadway musical about a mythic kingdom which she had compared to her husband’s brief presidency.

Mrs. Onassis repeatedly acknowledged the convention cheers for her, and greeted party leaders who came to call on her in her seat, alongside her sister Lee Radziwill, nephew Tony Radziwill and her sister’s date, lawyer Peter Tufo.

With her sister and nephew, former First Lady Jackie Kennedy Onassis joins the convention cheering at the 1976 National Democratic Convention. (Getty)

With her sister and nephew, former First Lady Jackie Kennedy Onassis joins the convention cheering at the 1976 National Democratic Convention. (Getty)

Although she appeared at a Democratic Party fundraiser breakfast at the 21 Club and a cocktail party in Brooklyn during the 1980 Democratic Convention during which her brother-in-law Senator Edward Kennedy was attempting to have the rules changed for an open convention in his challenge to incumbent President Carter, Mrs. Onassis didn’t attend any sessions of the convention.

It was not until a dozen years later, when the party’s convention was again held in New York City that Jackie Kennedy Onassis appeared at a Democratic Convention.

Jackie Kennedy Onassis in New York, July 1992 during the Democratic National Convention held there. (Tumblr)

Jackie Kennedy Onassis in New York, July 1992 during the Democratic National Convention held there. (Tumblr)

In 1992, on the last night of the week when Bill Clinton was nominated, she slipped in surreptitiously to hear the nominee deliver his acceptance speech, seated with her companion Maurice Templseman, and two adult children.

In fact, she and her son John had been among the earliest supporters of Clinton’s bid for their party’s nomination, contributing to his campaign a year before the election began.

During the convention week, Jackie had invited Hillary Clinton to her apartment for lunch and came away impressed with the academic and professional credentials with the candidate’s spouse.

Hillary Clinton and Jacqueline Onassis. (Pinterest)

Hillary Clinton and Jacqueline Onassis. (Pinterest)

When she learned that she was receiving VIP seats to watch Clinton’s acceptance speech, she seemed floor, telling a colleague about it as if she were just the private citizen she always insisted she had become by then – but which the public could never perceive her as being. Still, there was one small victory for her at the 1992 Democratic National Convention.

She slipped in and out of Madison Square Garden so quietly, that no known photographs were taken that showed her in the auditorium.

 

 

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Mamie Eisenhower was an immediate pro at the finesse of being a political spouse at the 1952 Republican Convention in Chicago. (Life)

Mamie Eisenhower was an immediate pro at the finesse of being a political spouse at the 1952 Republican Convention in Chicago. (Life)

Few women have found themselves thrust into a world about which they knew nothing as did Mamie Eisenhower when she arrived on July 7, 1952 in Chicago for the National Republican Convention as the wife of the five-star general and hero of World War II and left as the spouse of the presidential nominee.

Discretion, discipline and diligence were all virtues Mamie Eisenhower learned from a military life. (original source unknown)

Discretion, discipline and diligence were all virtues Mamie Eisenhower learned from a military life. (original source unknown)

She was not entirely caught off-guard at her potential new status, for it had been several months since her husband Dwight D. Eisenhower had acquiesced to the draft-Eisenhower movement among Republicans dissatisfied with the leading choice of Senator Bob Taft of Ohio.

Taft was just 75 votes short of the necessary number of delegates to win the nomination but Eisenhower’s convention manager Henry Cabot Lodge began to maneuver passage of an amendment that allowed excluded Ike supporters the change to be seated and have they votes counted.

With Kansas Senator Frank Carlson as her “mentor in political nuance,” Mamie Eisenhower got a crash course in arcane convention rule changes, efforts to block delegates from shifting their allegiances and the brokering of deals that were going on among state delegate leaders.

While she may not have yet absorbed the intricacies of the process, Mamie Eisenhower had a strong perception for authenticity and fraudulence. In later years, she winked that, in politics, the latter was in abundance.

Mamie shook her fist while vowing she would campaign wherever Ike would. (Life)

Mamie shook her fist while vowing she would campaign wherever Ike would. (Life)

She thought it both pathetic and a sign of poor political judgement, for example, that Taft made a desperate, last-minute grasp for support by offering to make minor candidate General Douglas MacArthur his vice presidential choice, especially given that MacArthur delivered so weak a speech that his popular appeal rapidly vanished.

Even her hats earned votes. (life)

Even her hats earned votes. (life)

By the second day, as the Eisenhower movement gained steam, she found herself the center of attention at a crowded Republican women’s reception for 3,000 guests and fully functioning as a political pro.

Although Martha Taft was also there, it was Mamie Eisenhower who had an openness and natural warmth that drew so many women to meet her that a receiving line spontaneously formed. There she stood, cheerily shook hands and making small talk with everyone that approached her, even permitting some curious women to examine her feathered hat. She just as often bought them from Woolworth’s she told one reporter with an elbow to her rib, but this particular one was an original Paris chapeau. And the feathers were fake she readily confessed.

Mamie Eisenhower listened to a speech. Some thought she might cry because of the content. In truth, she had a bad toothache.(Life)

Mamie Eisenhower listened to a speech. Some thought she might cry because of the content. In truth, she had a bad toothache.(Life)

Earlier that day, it looked to observers that she had come close to crying during a heartfelt speech that Ike made to a reunion of the 82nd Airborne that had fought in World War II. Or so reporters presumed that was the reason.

While admittedly sentimental, Mrs. Eisenhower had the wherewithal to keep secret that she had a bad toothache that was rapidly worsening to include a blinding headache. Through it all, she never showed her hand.

And the person everyone perceived as the very embodiment of fortitude was, in fact, coming to her for support in his weakest moment.

Throughout the second and third day of the convention proceedings, General Eisenhower would vanish from public display, provoking speculation he was involved in back room deals. In truth he was slipping into his Blackstone Hotel suite to check in with Mamie and “reporting to her briefly on the proceedings.”

In their hotel suite, Ike and Mamie and his brother Milton pose as if watching TV - even though the set isn't turned on. Ike and Mamie were the first White House TV couple. (TJ O'Halloran/Life)

In their hotel suite, Ike and Mamie and his brother Milton pose as if watching TV – even though the set isn’t turned on. Ike and Mamie were the first White House TV couple. (TJ O’Halloran/Life)

It was in their hotel suite, along with his four brothers who served as practical advisers to him, that Eisenhower watched himself be nominated for the presidency on live television, just after lunchtime on July 11.

Overwhelmed by the honor –  and the potential responsibility, the General was moved to tears, one of the few occasions on record of him doing so. He sought the strength of the one person who could always steady him.

Mamie Eisenhower lay resting in their darkened hotel bedroom when Ike came in. She turned on the side table light and saw his tears. She placed her hand over his.

“By golly Mamie,” he sighed, “this is a terrible big thing we’ve got ourselves into.”

Unknown to many, on the rare occasions that General Eisenhower displayed emotional vulnerability, he could count on Mamie's strength as a foundation. (Getty)

Unknown to many, on the rare occasions that General Eisenhower displayed emotional vulnerability, he could count on Mamie’s strength as a bedrock. (Alamy)

As always, she was able to forge resolve for them both by dismissing the odds as simply a matter of the mind. “Oh, we’ve been through big things before!” she reassured him. “”This one won’t get us down.”

When she wasn’t with Ike or out among the crowds, Mamie Eisenhower was hard at work at answering her correspondence. And his.

While many who flooded her hotel suite with letters and notes, and endless bouquets of flowers would have surely understood if she was delayed in responding, the candidate’s wife made it a top priority to at the very least acknowledge immediately the briefest note from the most remote person.

Mamie Eisenhower dictating to her secretary. (Life)

Mamie Eisenhower dictating to her secretary. (Life)

“It’s just respect for those who’ve taken time to not just think of you, but write,” she told her new secretary Mary Jane McCaffree.

And, no rube she – it was more than just polite to answer the mail for the General and herself. It was also good politics. Mamie Eisenhower would insist that she personally signed every single item that went out under her name, thus suggesting that she had at least read the name of the person who had written, since their name and address was on the outgoing response. That sort of personal investment in the voter could not be manufactured.

Contrary to the perception of her as a political spouse who never addressed political issues, Mamie Eisenhower responded to the most serious public concern of the election, the Korean War, with the sort of sensible, straightforward reaction that actually positioned her as highly political asset.

“Of course the Korean War must be settled soon,” she snapped when asked about the American military commitment in the foreign conflict, “but we don’t want peace at any price.”

Mamie Eisenhower with her only child, who served in Korean War combat. (Pinterest)

Mamie Eisenhower with her only child, who served in Korean War combat. (Pinterest)

Asked if she was worried about her son going into Korea having been a “soldier’s wife,” Mamie Eisenhower retorted sharply, “That’s a strange question to ask a mother. Soldier’s wife or not, I’m still very much a mother.” Mrs. Eisenhower’s patriotic yet personal way of taking on the complex matter somehow seemed to mirror the thinking of average Americans rather than the calculatingly crafted type of answer expected of political figures.

Her view on the Korean War resonated because it sprang from genuine concern. Unknown to all but her family circle, an even more emotionally stirring drama than her husband’s nomination for president was taking place behind the scenes.

In her Blackstone Hotel suite, Mamie Eisenhower loved babysitting her granddaughter and grandson. (Life)

In her Blackstone Hotel suite, Mamie Eisenhower loved babysitting her granddaughter and grandson. (Life)

Their only son, John, had been given his combat orders to ship out and fight in the Korean War. John Eisenhower’s being sent to the front lines and potentially captured as a prisoner also now exposed him to being potentially held as a political hostage by the communist Chinese and Koreans. The matter briefly factored into some thinking about delegates who hesitated about supporting Eisenhower.

Not wanting to affect their son’s destiny any more than he had, Ike made no effort to prevent John’s intention of serving. Privately, Eisenhower spoke with him and told him he must do all he could to avoid capture. John Eisenhower made clear that in such a worst case scenario he would use his pistol and shot himself.

Once her husband's name was announced as the vice presidential choice, Pat Nixon was besieged by the media. (Life)

Once her husband’s name was announced as the vice presidential choice, Pat Nixon was besieged by the media. (Life)

Of course, none of the public or press knew this. The media, however, felt it was a legitimate enough of a news story that it intruded on the final moments between the son and his parents, still at the Chicago convention.

At the airport, the emotional farewell was photographed and scrutinized while Mamie Eisenhower steeled herself from giving way to tears.

Pat Nixon joins her husband on the convention floor before they joined the Eisenhowers on the podium. (Life)

Pat Nixon joins her husband on the convention floor before they joined the Eisenhowers on the podium. (Life)

In the Eisenhower hotel suite, however, Mamie still felt a happy sense of her son’s presence. In between the receptions and meetings, she was also babysitting her grandchildren David, Anne and six-month old Susan.

Meanwhile, about two hours after Ike had been nominated, his choice of California’s U.S. Senator Richard Nixon was announced as his vice presidential running mate.

At a nearby sandwich shop, Pat Nixon was having lunch with friends while a television set blared.

Pat Nixon and Mamie Eisenhower were the first spouses who appeared on the public podiums, joining their husbands, the vice-presidential and presidential nominees, at the 1952 National Republican Convention. (AP)

Pat Nixon and Mamie Eisenhower were the first spouses who appeared on the public podiums, joining their husbands, the vice-presidential and presidential nominees, at the 1952 National Republican Convention. (AP)

Suddenly, there came a news flash with the news that Eisenhower had chosen her husband. She dropped the BLT she was eating, and ran back over to the convention hall in her high heels.

Two hours later, his nomination confirmed Nixon was asked to the podium. Mrs. Nixon went from the visitor’s gallery to join her husband on the convention floor and was swept up with him to the podium where Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower were already the center of attention, being cheered and applauded by the delegates.

Startled at how young Mrs. Nixon was, Mamie Eisenhower’s response were blunt yet folksy, “You’re the prettiest thing!”

And then, rather than talk about Taft, MacArthur, or the Korean War, the new Republican nominees wife put up her friendly, apolitical persona again.

And Mamie chatted on endlessly to Pat about her toothache.

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Helen "Nellie" Taft. (LC)

Helen “Nellie” Taft. (LC)

The lithe and nervous figure of the Secretary of War’s wife sailed up the grand marble staircase of the large, Victorian State, War & Navy Building next to the White House and marched right into the inner sanctum of her husband, the Secretary of War William Howard Taft.

Nellie Taft standing beside her husband Will in his office, They were political partners. (carlanthonyonline.com)

Nellie Taft standing beside her husband Will in his office, They were political partners. (carlanthonyonline.com)

He was out at the moment, but as Helen “Nellie” Taft entered the office of Will, as she called him, to find a group of friends gathered around Senator Frank Hitchcock, an ally of her husband, who was shouting out a blow-by-blow description of everything that was going on during this second day of the 1908 Republican National Convention in Chicago.

It was still unconsidered improper for candidates and their spouses to attend the presidential conventions that nominated them, but Taft’s son and brother had gone to the proceedings.

Also there was Nellie Taft’s political and social rival, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt and wife of Ohio Congressman Nicholas Longworth, who was a close friend and political ally of the Tafts.

Alice Roosevelt with Will Taft on their Asian tour. (LC)

Alice Roosevelt with Will Taft on their Asian tour. (LC)

Then one of the most famous women in the world, “Princess Alice” had  provoked the jealousy of Nellie Taft after the young woman became emotionally close to the War Secretary when they went  together on a junket to several Asian nations.

Despite Will’s friendship and support of Alice and her father, President Theodore Roosevelt, Nellie Taft did not share his trust of them. She recognized in “Teddy” as the popular president was known, a skillful manipulator not only of other political figures but of his public persona.

Beneath his avuncular veneer, she recognized an unquenched political ambition in him and a ruthless loyalty to him above all from others. She was not wrong. As Alice Longworth later admitted, “No one will ever know how much I wished, in the black depths of my heart that ‘something would happen’ and Father would be renominated” at the 1908 convention.

Taft was in touch with his representatives at the 1908 convention when he learned - and informed Nellie - that he had been nominated. (LC)

Taft was in touch with his representatives at the 1908 convention when he learned – and informed Nellie – that he had been nominated. (LC)

That was the very scenario that Nellie Taft feared most.

As Senator Hitchcock continued to blurt out what was going on at the Republican convention that day, Mrs. Taft became quest and anxious. When, in his address to the delegates the chairman made passing reference to President Roosevelt, it provoked a thunderous reaction of roaring cheers, foot-stomping, applause and a hypnotic chant of “Four – four – four more years!” for the absent Teddy.

Believing Roosevelt might well “steal” the nomination from her husband, Nellie Taft had even thought she could do something behind the scenes to prevent it if she was in Chicago, writing several days earlier, “I am almost feeling as if I would go to the convention myself.”

The next day, Nellie Taft was back, this time with her children Charlie and Helene, as Will Taft himself manned the telephone connected directly to the convention. At about 5pm, Taft’s name was placed in nomination and a staged demonstration in support of him broke out, as banners waved and delegates broke out into a campaign song in support of him. Suddenly, he turned from the noise of the phone to the sputtering that Nellie was making.

The 1908 Republican convention that nominated Taft. (LC)

The 1908 Republican convention that nominated Taft. (LC)

“I want it to last more than forty-nine minutes,” she seemed to almost believe she could command with her willpower. “I want to get even for the scare that the Roosevelt cheer of forty-nine minutes gave me yesterday!” Unfortunately for her it only lasted twenty-five minutes.

Then came word that a banner with Roosevelt’s face was carried onto the convention stage with a burst of cheering support for the President.

A witness said that Mrs. Taft’s face literally drained of blood. She began yelling her mistrust of Teddy, that he had somehow staged this and was going to double-cross her and Will.

Finally, the horrified War Secretary shot his wife a horrified look, chiding her, “Oh, my dear! My dear!” Her fear proved unfounded for within minutes, her husband won the nomination.

From almost the moment she had first learned that Theodore Roosevelt and his wife Edith merely existed, Helen “Nellie” Taft developed a compulsive competitiveness towards them. She even kept track of whether she gave birth to her first child before Edith Roosevelt did.

Edith Roosevelt and Nellie Taft during an unexpected encounter outside the train station. (carlanthonyonline.com)

Edith Roosevelt and Nellie Taft during an unexpected encounter outside the train station. (carlanthonyonline.com)

Mrs. Taft never hid her determination to see her husband run for and become elected president instead of – or at least before, he had a chance to fulfill his own lifelong desire to be appointed to the Supreme Court.

Theodore Roosevelt was directly drawn into the marital drama in 1905 when he invited the Tafts to a private White House dinner.

He joked that he could see a supernatural silver streak fluttering above Taft’s head but could not make out whether it was the presidency or the chief justiceship. The War Secretary of course piped up that he hoped it indicated the judiciary.

It was Nellie Taft who blurted affirmatively, “Make it the presidency!”

In early 1906, for the third time in just a few years, President Roosevelt alerted Taft that there would be an opening on the Supreme Court and that he was willing to nominate him for the position. And for the third time, it was Nellie Taft who intervened and dead cold stopped her husband from accepting the offer.

Teddy called Nellie for a direct meeting, trying to determine whether Will would truly seek the presidency with enthusiasm.  In this first meeting between the two of them, Roosevelt came away believing Taft would make a willing successor – but also that Nellie had enormous emotional influence over his choices. It seems that during this first meeting, Mrs. Taft came away believing that Roosevelt really wanted to continue in the presidency himself.

Theodore Roosevelt as president. (LC)

Theodore Roosevelt as president. (LC)

Having publicly announced that he would not seek the presidency in 1908, a decision he later regretted, the theory was that by having Taft promote and praise Roosevelt for his presidential policies in a promise to continue them that he, the President, would likely be drafted as the ultimate candidate as a spontaneous choice of the delegates.

Finally, Nellie Taft had worn down her husband’s resistance to her idea of what was the best political path for him. Her strength of conviction seemed to have similarly convinced President Roosevelt.  “He was full of the presidency and wanted to talk about my chances,” Taft reported to his wife. “He wants to talk to you and me together. He thinks I am the one to take his mantle, and that now I would be nominated.”

A political conference took place among Nellie, Teddy and Will. According to their youngest son Charlie Taft, it was his mother who was “influential in persuading” Teddy to make Will his hand-chosen successor.

It was during a third meeting, however, just between President Roosevelt and Mrs. Taft, however, that he seemed to have earned her permanent mistrust. She reported angrily in a letter to her husband:

Teddy Roosevelt accused Nellie Taft to her face of being more ambitious for the presidency than her husband Will was. (LC)

Teddy Roosevelt accused Nellie Taft to her face of being more ambitious for the presidency than her husband Will was. (LC)

“He seems to think that I am consumed with an inordinate ambition to be President and that he must constantly warn me that you may never get there”

Saying that Taft might not prove popular enough to win the crucial endorsements of other party leaders who might grant this on other candidates, like New York Governor Charles Evan Hughes, Roosevelt said that in such a scenario, he would have to support someone other than her husband. “I felt like saying ‘D– you, support who you want for all I care,’ but suffice it to say I did not.”

Even after her Will had won the nomination and was running in the general campaign, Nellie Taft insisted that her husband begin to limit his praise of Roosevelt in his speeches.

Taft campaigning; Nellie advised him to reduce his praise of Roosevelt. (LC)

Taft campaigning; Nellie advised him to reduce his praise of Roosevelt. (LC)

She didn’t want Will leaving a record of how great Teddy was, less he suggest to voters they’d made an error in choosing Taft.

Not even seeing her husband finally elected President released Nellie Taft from her nagging premonition that Teddy would rise again in order to take back the presidency away from Will.

And when, in fact, former President Roosevelt did challenge incumbent President Taft for the Republican nomination, the First Lady seemed to gloat in reminding her husband that she had seen it coming for years. He finally snapped at her that she almost seemed pleased for her prediction.

Neither Taft or Nellie attended the 1912 Republican Convention, again held in Chicago. It was a subdued day compared to 1908, but it was their wedding anniversary so they had friends in for dinner. The primary relief for Will was that, at the least, he defeated Roosevelt.

Nellie Taft, right, arriving at the Democratic National Convention, with her friend, who was the wife of the National Democratic Committee. (LC)

Nellie Taft, right, arriving at the Democratic National Convention, with her friend, who was the wife of the National Democratic Committee. (LC)

With Roosevelt seemingly out of the way, Nellie Taft now focused her attention on the Democratic opposition and decided to do something no presidential candidate’s spouse or incumbent First Lady had done before or since: she decided to attend the convention of the opposition party.

Four days after Will won the Republican nomination, his wife took the train to Baltimore and joined her friend, the wife of the Democratic National Committee, and sailed into the convention, taking a front-row seat in one of the boxes that abutted the platform, becoming the center of attention in enemy territory.

If part of her strategy was to reduce the likely attacks on her husband, it worked. After encountering her in the hallway, William Jennings Bryan, one of the candidates, admitted to reporters that he couldn’t bring himself to take any swipes at Taft while his wife was listening.

Nellie Taft seated right near the podium of the enemy convention. (carlanthonyonline.com)

Nellie Taft seated right near the podium of the enemy convention. (carlanthonyonline.com)

“It’s very interesting, isn’t it?” Nellie Taft quipped to reporters. “”I don’t suppose I could expect them to endorse the administration of a Republican president, could I?”

Still, Nellie Taft feared that Teddy’s ego would somehow not accept his being rejected by the Republican Party.  True to her intuition, Roosevelt bolted the Republican Party to run as a third-party candidate of the Progressive Party, nominated on August 6. From that point on, her hope was not so much that her husband would win but that Roosevelt would not. And when Election Day came, Nellie Taft had her dark victory with the election of Democratic presidential candidate Woodrow Wilson.

Nellie Taft ((right, with her daughter attending the 1940 Republican National Convention. (carlanthonyonline)

Nellie Taft ((right, with her daughter attending the 1940 Republican National Convention. (carlanthonyonline)

In her later years, as a widow living in Washington, there was further irony for Nellie Taft in the shifting alliances of political families and partisan loyalties.

When the husband of Teddy’s niece, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was running for his 1936 re-election, it was leaked that Mrs. Taft supported him, a Democrat.

And when her son Robert Taft ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1940, Alice Roosevelt Longworth became one of his most ardent supporters.

In support of her son Bob, Nellie Taft travelled to Philadelphia to attend her first Republican National Convention.

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Betty Ford at a 1981 rally for the Equal Rights Amendment wearing the color white, intended to signify her allegiance to the feminist movement. (Getty)

Betty Ford at a 1981 rally for the Equal Rights Amendment wearing the color white, intended to signify her allegiance to the feminist movement. (Getty)

This is the second in a story series of the National First Ladies’ Library Blog about the political roles of First Ladies to be run during the 2016 Republican and Democratic National Conventions. 

“It was the first presidential convention I’d experienced sober,” former First Lady Betty Ford recalled fourteen years after she’d attended the 1980 National Republican Convention.

The Ford living room, Rancho Mirage, (zillow.com)

The Ford living room, Rancho Mirage, (zillow.com)

Our later afternoon interview session seemed to make her want to joke, standing from her signature lime-colored, patterned late Seventies living-room furniture, looking out the floor-to-ceiling glass window towards a beautiful fountain flowing from one corner of an even more beautiful pool, the golden sun of the cooling desert afternoon illuminating her saucy blue eyes.

“And wow – did I see the show biz, that whole side of politics that is just so –, well…you know,” she shrugged, her Midwestern integrity never abandoning her. “Let’s just say it was unhealthy for me.”

The author with Mrs. Ford in 2001.

The author with Mrs. Ford in 2001.

I was working with Mrs. Ford on an article she was doing in anticipation of the twelfth anniversary of the Betty Ford Center, the substance abuse recovery center she co-founded.

Betty Ford speaks to Jackie Kennedy Onassis 1976.

Betty Ford speaks to Jackie Kennedy Onassis 1976.

The hour my plane had touched down in Palm Springs, her predecessor Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis died and the next two days would be devoted to television specials about the late First Lady.

So while we always worked on tracing her addiction and eventually her redemptive work at the center, one could not help but indulge Mrs. Ford’s desire to reference her life as a congressional spouse from 1949 to 1973, rather than her more famous times as a vice-president and presidential one from just 1973 to 1977. In the process, she blended these two defining strands of her identity, that of a political wife and of an alcoholic.

The most dramatic recognition she had of the connection between her past and her alcohol use came to the fore on March 15, 1980.

On March 15, 1980, with his wife Betty at his side, former President Gerald Ford announces that he would jump into the state primaries of the already ensuing Republican presidential primary race and seek the nomination. (Getty)

On March 15, 1980, with his wife Betty at his side, former President Gerald Ford announces that he would jump into the state primaries of the already ensuing Republican presidential primary race and seek the nomination. (Getty)

That day, she walked out with former President Ford onto the broad, beige stone pavement of the entrance to his office suite, part of the complex compromising the new desert retirement home they’d built and only moved into two years earlier, and stood by in silent relief beneath the shade of trees, listening as he announced to gathered reporters that he would not be entering the 1980 Republican presidential primary raceme which was already underway.

A former president at that point for only three years, Jerry Ford maintained a rigorous travel, meeting and speaking schedule around the country but this time with his trips emanating from the west coast.

Mrs. Ford only half-joked that he seemed to be away traveling after his presidency than as a young husband, father and congressman in the 1950s.

Seen here exiting Long Beach Memorial Naval Hospital after completing a month of addiction recovery, Betty Ford's public disclosure of her alcoholism and prescription medication dependency was a watershed moment n political and cultural history. (UCLA)

Seen here exiting Long Beach Memorial Naval Hospital after completing a month of addiction recovery, Betty Ford’s public disclosure of her alcoholism and prescription medication dependency was a watershed moment n political and cultural history. (UCLA)

At that particular moment, however, it was Betty Ford who had risen in the popular culture as few former First Ladies ever had. In 1978, a year after leaving the White House, she had endured a family intervention that steered her into Long Beach Naval Hospital’s alcoholic and drug recovery program.

As she had when she discovered she had breast cancer and had to undergo a mastectomy, Betty Ford decided to publicly share this information and it set in motion global headlines that immediately helped destigmatize the then often-fatal woman’s disease. With the simple act of announcing she was alcoholic, she again broke an old “polite society” taboo, admitting that even one with her historical status was simply a vulnerable human being.

The societal implications were many. The political implications were another matter.

For Betty Ford, her husband’s announcement was good news, all the more so because he had decided to do so on his own. As she later wrote, “I knew I shouldn’t try to force my feelings of not wanting to go back to Washington, of wanting to stay in the desert.”

In 1979, some in the party had already assured Ford that he would find support if he sought the 1980 Republican presidential nomination. He calculated the idea in terms of political risk and decided against it. Neither Jerry or Betty Ford talked about her tender sobriety, however, although he said that “subjectively it was a factor,” knowing he did not want to become a candidate if it would prove harmful to her process.

In June of 1980, former California governor Ronald Reagan was the presumptive nominee and asked Ford if he could come see him in the desert, for a meeting.

Reagan and Ford at the 1968 Republican Convention. Betty Ford had then hoped Nixon would name her husband as running mate and Nancy Reagan urged her husband to encourage a draft movement for his nomination. (Getty)

Reagan and Ford at the 1968 Republican Convention. Betty Ford had then hoped Nixon would name her husband as running mate and Nancy Reagan urged her husband to encourage a draft movement for his nomination. (Getty)

Ford and Reagan had first met one another at the 1968 Republican Convention in Miami that nominated Richard Nixon as the presidential candidate. It was evident even during the Miami convention that both Betty Ford and Nancy Reagan were ambitious to see their husbands raised to the highest national level possible.

Mrs. Ford had strong hope that Nixon would chose Ford as his running mate, premised on his status as House Minority Leader and as long-time working colleague of Nixon. Mrs. Reagan urged her husband to let his name be circulated at the convention as California’s favorite son candidate, in case anything unexpected prevented Nixon from gaining the necessary delegates to cinch the nomination.

The Fords and Reagans became better acquainted but their relationships never developed into a close friendship, not just because of their friendly political rivalry but also fundamental policy differences, the Fords being emblematic of the long social liberalism of the Republican Party on civil rights and women’s equality issues, while the Reagans were heir apparent to the rising conservative wing of the party emerging in the western states under the leadership of Senator Barry Goldwater.

During his June visit, Reagan boldly asked former President Ford if he would consider running as his vice presidential candidate. Ford turned him down. It was not that their views on larger issues were wildly out of synch, but there was some resentment the Fords held against the Reagans that stemmed back four years.

Nancy Reagan signs a balloon as she and her husband arrive for the 1976 Republican convention. (Politico)

Nancy Reagan signs a balloon as she and her husband arrive for the 1976 Republican convention. (Politico)

The moderate Ford always believed that his being challenged for his party’s presidential nomination in 1976 by the conservative Governor of California Ronald Reagan during the primaries had drained resources that could have been better spent on the general election and was a factor in his losing the White House for the Republican Party.

Ronald and Nancy Reagan attended the July 1976 Republican Convention in Kansas City amid a sea of their ardent delegates but despite this his campaign was unable to find a way within the rules to pull off a coup to win their candidate the nomination. The thunderous applause among the supporters when Nancy Reagan first appeared in the coliseum on Tuesday night was quickly usurped when Betty Ford timed her entrance to override the demonstration of her rival.

Nancy Reagan being cheered at the 1976 convention. (Boston Globe)

Nancy Reagan being cheered at the 1976 convention. (Boston Globe)

By the next time there were competing demonstrations for both women, intended to outshout the other, both women necklaced in leis by Hawaii delegates. When some southwestern state delegates shouted “Viva!” for Mrs. Ford, others shouted “Ole!” for Mrs. Reagan.

The two-day “feud” between the two women quickly became a point of focus for the live-television network coverage. Soon enough came the press leaks of alleged quips each woman had about the other. The differences between Betty Ford and Nancy Reagan as Republican political spouses, however, were very real not because of television or gossip.

In fact, each became a symbol of the splintering party platform and a division in the Republican Party in the late 1970s.

Betty Ford acknowledging a floor demonstration for her. (Boston Globe)

Betty Ford acknowledging a floor demonstration for her. (Boston Globe)

On the one hand was former First Lady Betty Ford who had said she would be understanding if she learned her unmarried daughter was having an affair or any of her children experimented with marijuana, announced that she was alcoholic, and had been the nation’s most culturally powerful symbol of the codified “women’s lib” movement by lobbying governors to permit their state legislatures to permit a vote on the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), a constitutional amendment intended to guarantee entire equality

Nancy Reagan's 1980 book used her personal story to present the presidential candidate's views on social issues - without his having to commit to the specifics of how it might translate into a legislative agenda,

Nancy Reagan’s 1980 book  presented the candidate’s view of social issues  without having to detail how it might translate into a legislative agenda.

In her 1980 campaign biography Nancy, Mrs, Reagan published her own purported personal views as a statement in political alignment with her husband’s conservative wing of the party, making plain her opposition to the ERA, sexual permissiveness, drug use, and a society that was increasingly disclosing personal information.

Throughout the 1976 convention, the general election which Ford lost to Democrat Jimmy Carter or during the next four years, neither Betty Ford or Nancy Reagan mentioned the other by name to the media in making clear their own, different views.

The Reagans and Ford on the closing night of the 1976 convention (nationalinterest.com)

The Reagans and Ford on the closing night of the 1976 convention (nationalinterest.com)

In fact, on the night the President won the nomination and finished his acceptance speech, he called Ronald and Nancy Reagan from their seats in a viewing box to join him and the First Lady on stage, all joining hands after Reagan made a stirring presentation echoing the rise of the conservative Republican movement.

On July 15, 1980 when the former First Lady literally returned to the political arena, arriving with her husband at Detroit’s Renaissance Center Hotel she quickly learned how difficult an experience it would be for her.

The next day, the presumptive nominee and his wife came to visit the Fords in their suite. Reagan brought Ford a birthday gift of a peace pipe.

Reagan presented a peace pipe as a birthday gift to Ford on July 16, 1980 at the Republican convention, as Betty Ford and Nancy Reagan confer in background.(Kennerly/Getty)

Reagan presented a peace pipe as a birthday gift to Ford on July 16, 1980 at the Republican convention, as Betty Ford and Nancy Reagan confer in background.(Kennerly/Getty)

And he again asked the former president to consider running as his vice presidential candidate. Ford politely said he would reconsider it. He had four of his aides meet with four of Reagan’s aides to delineate what specific duties he would assume. It suggested to many commentators something of a co-presidency.

“My new life in recovery was precious to me and I was glad to be done with politics,” Mrs. Ford later wrote, unable to keep herself from cracking, “I had eaten enough creamed chicken and sat through enough speeches to have earned a presidential pardon.”

More seriously, she explained the emotional restraint of, as she later termed it, “the show biz” of politics. “When your husband is serving, you’re an extension of him, you can’t always express the way you feel, and I’d never been good at keeping my mouth shut if I had a strong opinion.”

The Stop ERA activist Phyllis Schafly and Ratify ERA First Lady Betty Ford. (carlanthonyonline.com)

The Stop ERA activist Phyllis Schafly and Ratify ERA First Lady Betty Ford. (carlanthonyonline.com)

Indeed, at the 1980 Republican Convention, the liberal views of the former First Lady did not make for an easy presence there. Among the most fervent leaders forming the conservative coalition that helped Reagan win the presidency was Phyllis Schafly, president and founder of the Eagle Forum, a women’s political organization that had successfully forced an end to the Republican Party’s history of support for the Equal Rights Amendment.

In 1975, Phyllis Schafly had been the First Lady’s archest opponent, picketing the White House to protest the First Lady’s overt advocacy of the ERA.

At the Detroit convention in 1980, Betty Ford longed to join the protest march in support of the Equal Rights Amendment, watching from her hotel window. (equalrightsamendment.org)

At the Detroit convention in 1980, Betty Ford longed to join the protest march in support of the Equal Rights Amendment, watching from her hotel window. (equalrightsamendment.org)

Reagan and Schlafy had once both supported the ERA but recognized that it was unpopular with the important voting demographic of conservative Republican women. It had been in the 1972 Republican platform and was supported by Pat Nixon then.

At the 1976 convention, anti-ERA forces had unsuccessfully fought to have it removed from the platform. At the 1980 convention, however, they would prove successful.

In preparation for a march she would be joining to protest against the Republican Party for dropping the ERA plank from its 1980 platform, Mrs. Ford had especially packed a white dress as all marchers were asked to wear in a sign of solidarity.

There was alarm as word circulated among influential Republicans. “I can’t tell you how many Republicans came to try and talk me out of it. They said it wouldn’t reflect well on the party of I marched. I was mad at the party anyway,” she wrote with a flash of defiance.

It was only after he asked her to forego the protest, yet never told her to, did Mrs. Ford decide, as a favor to him, not to attend. Instead she had to watch the rally march by her hotel suite window, a “dutiful wife and a disappointed feminist” as she put it.

The Fords appearing at the  podium during the week of the 1980 Republican Convention. (AP)

The Fords appearing at the podium during the week of the 1980 Republican Convention. (AP)

The political views of the former First Lady, however, were too well-known among the new leadership of the party. Mrs. Ford soon discovered “there were events to which I wasn’t invited. I survived. I went ahead and made other plans.”

Mrs. Ford never said who had requested that she not be invited to attend several large gatherings honoring the new leading women figures of the Republican Party, but the convention became an important personal turning point as a measurable demonstration of her recovery. “Once, I might have been humiliated at not being on certain guest lists, bit I had already built enough self-confidence so I could face the fact that I wasn’t a favorite of everyone’s. And that was all right. Not everybody is a favorite of mine.”

Betty Ford and her husband joined Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush and their husbands on the podium on the last night of the convention. (Getty)

Betty Ford and her husband joined Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush and their husbands on the podium on the last night of the convention. (Getty)

On the last night of the convention, however, after Ronald Reagan finished delivering his stirring and eloquent nomination acceptance speech and was joined by Nancy Reagan, as well as his vice presidential nominee and his spouse, George and Barbara Bush, he did a good turn by asking former President and Mrs. Ford to come up and join hands with them, and they did so.

What only those ERA advocates realized, however, was that Mrs. Ford’s appearance on the podium before the entire convention was intended to signal  her protest of the party’s rejection of the measure on behalf of which she fought so hard.

Betty Ford signaled her protest of the 1980 convention stance on the ERA by wearing her white dress before the whole convention. (Getty)

Betty Ford signaled her protest of the 1980 convention stance on the ERA by wearing her white dress before the whole convention. (Getty)

She was wearing her white dress. “I wasn’t trying to be mischievous,” she later recalled with a smile. “Perhaps more subversive.”

Betty Ford and Nancy Reagan both attended a fundraiser luncheon for the Children's Institute together at the Beverly Hills Hotel, February 14, 1992.

Betty Ford and Nancy Reagan attend a 1992 fundraiser luncheon at the Beverly Hills Hotel.(Getty)

Over an astounding period of thirty-one years, from 1981 to 2007, Betty Ford and Nancy Reagan came to find themselves together at moments of celebration, always maintaining cordial public interactions, from the dedication of the presidential libraries of Ford, Nixon, Reagan and Bush to charity luncheons and events in the Los Angeles area.

Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Reagan in 1994.

Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Reagan in 1994.

They joined with other First Ladies at a 1994 National Garden gala in Washington, and in 2003, when the group reconvened (minus Lady Bird Johnson) Nancy Reagan left the side of her husband, then in his last stages of Alzheimer’s to be driven from their Los Angeles home to the Palm Springs area to honor Betty Ford at a fundraising dinner marking the both anniversary of the recovery center bearing her name.

Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Reagan at the 1997 Bush library dedication. (AP)

Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Reagan at the 1997 Bush library dedication. (AP)

They also shared somber moments of personal loss. Both Betty Ford and Nancy Reagan came with their husbands to the Yorba Linda California funeral and burial of Pat Nixon in 1993. Ten months later, they returned there for the funeral of former President Nixon.

In June 2004, Betty Ford flew to Washington from California and offered her sympathies to Nancy Reagan at the state funeral of her husband. In 2007, Nancy Reagan returned the gesture, also flying from California to attend President Ford’s funeral.

Betty Ford in blue, Nancy Reagan in red, flanked by Rosalynn Carter, Barbara Bush and Hillary Clinton in 2003. (AP)

Betty Ford in blue, Nancy Reagan in red, flanked by Rosalynn Carter, Barbara Bush and Hillary Clinton in 2003. (AP)

And, in July 2011,  in that tradition of unified honor for the legacy of one among them, Nancy Reagan carefully used a cane to slowly make her way down the aisle of Palm Desert’s St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, to join Michelle Obama, Rosalynn Carter and Hillary Clinton in the first row at Betty Ford’s funeral.

Nancy Reagan attending the 2011 funeral of Betty Ford. (UPI)

Nancy Reagan attending the 2011 funeral of Betty Ford. (UPI)

It seemed that the old Ford and Reagan political rivalry would, however, persist by the fate of time.

In an odd turn of precedence, Gerald Ford died as the oldest-living President, at 93 years old, outliving Ronald Reagan’s longevity by 45 days. Conversely, Nancy Reagan died as the second oldest-living First Lady at 94, outliving Betty Ford by a year and a half.

 

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A smiling Florence Harding at the 1920 convention after her husband was nominated for the presidency. (Brown Brothers)

A smiling Florence Harding at the 1920 convention after her husband was nominated for the presidency. (Brown Brothers)

With the 2016 Republican National Convention taking place between July 18-21, the National First Ladies’ Library looks at three stories of  women who served as First Lady and their role at presidential conventions.

The 1920 Republican Convention in Chicago. (LC)

The 1920 Republican Convention in Chicago. (LC)

Through the hot and dusty days of the 1920 Republican Convention in Chicago, the wife of one United States Senator made no effort to hide her feelings about the possibility of her husband winning his party’s nomination during the deadlocked balloting.

“I am contented to trail in my husband’s limelight. But I cant see why anyone should want to be president in the next four years. I can see but one word written above the head of my husband if he is elected, and that word is ‘tragedy,’” declared Florence Harding, wife of Ohio’s favorite son candidate Warren G. Harding.

She then added, “Of course, now that he is in the race and wants to win I must want him to, but down in my heart – I am sorry….”

It would be two months before the nation learned from a news story that her fear was based on her astrologer’s prediction using numerical details of the candidate’s birth.

All the more startling for 1920, Mrs. Harding would not only confirm that she consulted the soothsayer but made no apologies for her faith in the veracity of such supernatural consultations.

Although suffragists picketed the 1920 Republican convention, Florence Harding declared herself among their ranks. (LC)

Although suffragists picketed the 1920 Republican convention, Florence Harding declared herself among their ranks. (LC)

The fact that the wife of a presidential candidate was interacting directly with national press corps reporters and, furthermore, permitting herself to be quoted directly, was almost as shocking as her dark observation.

Mrs. Harding would shatter yet another precedent shortly thereafter, while the final states were considering ratifying the constitutional amendment that would give women the right to vote in time for Election Day.

“Yes, I’m a suffragist!” she unequivocally declared.

There had never been a presidential candidate’s spouse in history quite like Florence Harding.

She was accessible, voluble, intelligent, dogged, convincing, often very funny and charming, managing skillfully to convey a simultaneous progressive sensibility within the context of traditional spousal expectations, and a persona that could, from one moment to the next, seem spontaneous or calculating.

Florence Harding was a key advisor among the small handful of men hoping to guide the Senator’s bid for nomination on to victory, playing a part both public and private.

The convention had begun on June 8, 1920 without any certain winner, though the former Rough Rider and war hero Leonard Wood, the 1912 Bullmoose Progressive Party vice-presidential candidate Hiram Johnson, Illinois governor Frank Lowden were favored. Harding was the “favorite son” candidate of Ohio, as Governor Calvin Coolidge was for Massachusetts and former World War I food administrator Herbert Hoover was for California.

Candidate Warren Harding, then a U.S. Senator. (history.com)

Candidate Warren Harding, then a U.S. Senator. (history.com)

In her interactions with the press, Florence Harding offered her crisp political analysis.

She was taking in every move of the convention, observing state delegation reactions to each candidate and tracing the change in numbers with each ballot. She concluded that Johnson’s threat to bolt the convention if he was not nominated was just “great noise” intended to “scare” delegates to support him. She added that these were her own views, and not mimicking those “from a man.”

Chicago's Blackstone Hotel where the legendary "smoke-filled room" was located. (Chicago Historical Society)

Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel where the legendary “smoke-filled room” was located. (Chicago Historical Society)

In the campaign’s headquarters at the Congress Hotel, while the convention was on break or before it had convened each day, she would cajole delegates who dropped by the Florentine Reception Room to vote for her husband on whatever the number of the next upcoming ballot would be.

She had also arranged for the Columbus Glee Club to perform there, the music drawing in crowds. Said an aide, Mrs. Harding was “the life and central figure” of the campaign.

Ohio Congressman Simeon Fess declared that Florence Harding was beside her husband to “counsel and advise him…At Chicago, Mrs. Harding might be said to have been his manager. No step was taken without consulting her, and her advice was rarely, if ever, ignored.”

Florence Harding and Harry Daughtery. (carlanthonyonline.com)

Florence Harding and Harry Daughtery. (carlanthonyonline.com)

The campaign’s official manager, Ohio lobbyist Harry Daughtery said, “I could trust absolutely her keen intuitions and her straightforward, honest thinking.”

At one point, Harding became dispirited that he could win. He knew the deadline to file as a candidate for re-election to the Senate was near – and he turned to his wife for advice. Despite her confidence that fate had already determined he would win the presidential nomination, she was practical enough to know anything could happen.

So, she urged him to file for the Senate campaign – and he did.

The balcony viewing boxes of the convention, where Florence Harding sat.

The balcony viewing boxes of the convention, where Florence Harding sat.

Ignoring the snubs she received from the establishment Republicans and society women who sat in the “society row” box seats overlooking the convention floor, Florence Harding was highly anxious on June 12. Seated with Daugherty, they listened as the roll call of states for what was the ninth ballot.

Daugherty later recalled the tense moments. “She had removed her hat int he sweltering heat and sat humped forward in her chair, her arms tightly folded.. In her right hand, she gripped two enormous hat pins…A deep frown shadowed her face.”

“It’s terrible, isn’t it?” Mrs. Harding said to Daugherty. “All this wild excitement. This yelling and bawling and cat-calling. I can’t follow it – ”

Daugherty then whispered to her, warning he had something shocking to tell her and thus she must remain calm. “It’s a hundred and ten in this place and you advise me to keep cool!” Then he informed her that in the next ballot, her husband would have the necessary delegate votes to give him victory.

Florence Harding in one of her large pinned hats. (NFLL)

Florence Harding in one of her large pinned hats. (NFLL)

She leapt from her chair and accidentally stabbed him with her hat pins.

As the tenth ballot began, Mrs. Harding watched intently. Sure enough the Pennsylvania delegation’s vote for Harding put her husband over the top – and cinched him the nomination. Recalled her secretary, “She was more excited and exhibited more emotion then than I ever saw her show upon any other occasion. She was almost hysterical.”

Not waiting for the formal announcement of Harding’s nomination, Florence Harding bolted out of the coliseum to make her way to her husband at their headquarters.

Britton's book, published in 1928.

Britton’s book, published in 1928.

What she could not know was that also sharing that moment was a young campaign aide watching from the coliseum rafters and who, before the decade had ended, would write a book detailing her memories of being mistress to the man just nominated for the presidency.

Had she seen Nan Britton there, Florence Harding would have greeted with neighborly warmth. She knew her as the daughter of a neighbor from their small hometown in Ohio who, as a young teenager, had an overwhelming crush on her husband.

Nan Britton. (NYT)

Nan Britton. (NYT)

What Florence Harding could not know and, in fact, would not be proven by DNA tests until just last year, 2015, was that Nan Britton was the mother of Warren Harding’s child.

All along her path she was stopped by the reporters who she had come to know that week, they peppering her with questions about what she would do as First Lady if her husband won the general election in November.

Warren and Florence Harding campaigning togegther in 1920 at the Minnesota State Fair. (LC)

Warren and Florence Harding campaigning together in 1920 at the Minnesota State Fair. (LC)

“I told them there was an election between me and the White House,” she later recalled.

At headquarters, Warren Harding embraced and kissed his wife.

They were, in that moment, playing out before a gathering crowd of excited onlookers as well as reporters running to the scene, their very first public interaction.

“Whatever of honor has come to me this day,” the newly-nominated Republican candidate for president declared to all within hearing range, “I owe to Florence.”

Shrugging off with modest devotion this acknowledgment of her driving political power, she quipped, “Nonsense, Warren. It was all a preparation for this moment. Destiny has marked you for the man and so you are chosen.”

It was an oblique reference to the astrologer’s prediction that both excited and frightened her.

It took a friend to spontaneously blurt out to all who knew how vital Florence Harding had been to the her husband’s political career, remind Warren and Florence that the victory was “What you both deserve.”

 

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The Fourth of July on the White House South Lawn. (WH)

The Fourth of July on the White House South Lawn. (WH)

Since that day of July 4, 1776. when its independence was first declared by the American colonies upon the ratification of the Declaration of Independence, the United States has marked Independence Day for 240 years.

It was only thirteen years later that the American presidency was established and the Fourth of July began to be observed in various ways by presidential households.

For nearly two-hundred thirty years now, at either the White House in Washington, D.C. or the “Summer White House,” those rented or owned private retreats of presidential families, the July Fourth holiday proved important to several First Ladies for reasons that ranged from private grief to benchmarks in their public roles.

Jacqueline Kennedy, 1963

In the final months of the pregnancy of the president’s wife, a nationally novel condition that no American under the age of 80 had ever known, Jacqueline Kennedy warned her White House staff that she’d be “taking the veil.”

Jackie Kennedy with her son and several nephews at Cape Cod, July 4, 1963.

Jackie Kennedy with her son and several nephews at Cape Cod, July 4, 1963.

She worked diligently all through the winter and spring months, putting into place the permanent infrastructure that would continue her massivc undertaking of turning the White House and its furnishing collections into one of genuine historical significance and which would continue long after her husband’s presidency as over. She streamlined the process of planning a state dinner to her unique tastes of flowers, china, tablecloths, entertainment and protocol form. She signed off on the text copy of what would be the second published book she wanted printed and sold to the public related to the house’s history, this one being biographies and portraits of all the Presidents.

Finally, as the first days of summer began in late June of 1963, the six-month pregnant Jacqueline Kennedy turned over the running of the First Lady’s office to her trusted, lifelong confidante Nancy Tuckerman who had taken on the job of Social Secretary that month.

Mrs. Kennedy would be out of the White House for the next three months, spending the whole summer at a rented home on Squaw Island at Cape Cod, near the larger Kennedy family compound of homes.

With Nancy sending cup work folders with correspondence and other matters requiring her decisions, she would continue working but reduce her hours, resting in order to be ready to give birth to her child, expected in September.

Jackie Kennedy holds her son John as they watch a bundle of sparklers flaming on Independence Day.

Jackie Kennedy holds her son John as they watch a bundle of sparklers flaming on Independence Day.

The First Lady arrived with her two children on July 2. She would be joined by President Kennedy in time to celebrate the actual July Fourth holiday, he arriving by helicopter in the early evening. In the hours before he was with her, Jackie Kennedy headed out to a jetty of rocks extending into the sea, playing with her son John, and being joined by several of her nephews, including Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and William Smith.

Barefoot, clad in a loose, flowered sundress and her ubiquitous headscarf , the First Lady watched as a family handyman lit rockets, sparklers and firecrackers for the enjoyment of the boys. With her son on her lap, she seemed especially attentive to him. One observer at the time pointed out the sense of optimism during the holiday with her was pervasive. Not only was she expecting her third child, but that day, her sister-in-law Ethel had given birth to another child and her sister-in-law Eunice Shriver told the family that day that she was also pregnant.

The Kennedys in a rare public display of affection on the Fourth of July, 1963.

The Kennedys in a rare public display of affection on the Fourth of July, 1963.

When the President set foot on the ground and saw his wife, they did something they almost never did – they embraced and kissed passionately, without their usual regard for being watched by Secret Service agents and White House photographers in even this fleeting act of intimacy.

Later that night, Jackie Kennedy joined her extended family in the basement movie theater of the “big house” owned and occupied by the President’s parents. There they all watched color movies made of the President’s recent trip to Ireland.

The First Lady had deeply regretted not being there, frustrated that her cautious obstetrician had refused to let her make the overseas trip. Th holiday ended with Jackie Kennedy joining everyone out on the big green lawn overlooking the ocean, where a larger fireworks display was put on for them.

Given the sense of hope that Independence Day ended on, it would be hard to reconcile it with the next four months when Mrs. Kennedy would give premature birth to a son who only lived two days and when her husband would be assassinated, seated right beside her.

Nancy Reagan, 1981

The President helped make Nancy Reagan's first Fourth of July birthday as First Lady a relief from her anxieties. They take in fireworks with friends on the White House South Lawn, 1`981. (RRPL)

The President helped make Nancy Reagan’s first Fourth of July birthday as First Lady a relief from her anxieties. They take in fireworks with friends on the White House South Lawn, 1`981. (RRPL)

Her first six months as First Lady may have been cast as the start of a glorious, glamorous, glitzy administration in the popular imagination, but for Nancy Reagan as a real person it was one shock after another.

In one of her first print interviews she made the honest but politically naive declaration that her priority was refurbishing the private living quarters as a “nest” for the president by soliciting private donations at a time of economic recession.

This prompted a dark caricature of her as being insensitive to the masses of unemployed citizens that made her the unwitting lightening rod for administration critics.

Her couture wardrobe furthered this, to be solidified by her attending the British royal wedding.

Nancy Reagan blows out her July Fourth birthday cake candles. (RRPL)

Nancy Reagan blows out her July Fourth birthday cake candles. (RRPL)

It was the nearly-fatal assassination attempt on her husband’s life in March, however, that set the new First Lady off into a state of perpetual low-grade anxiety about his safety among the public and in open spaces.

To distract her, the President determined to make her first birthday as First Lady a memorably convivial one. Although born two days after the holiday, in 1981 she was feted on her 60th birthday with the surprise presence of her close circle of California friends, who joined her in an afternoon White House luncheon, topped by a large white birthday cake.

Later that evening, she hosted the first White House Fourth of July picnic in many a decade, for the executive and domestic staffs and their families. Mrs. Reagan watched the fireworks with the President from a picnic blanket on the South Lawn.

Michelle Obama, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2015

The fashionable First Lady's Fourth of July wardrobes worn to three of the public celebrations she hosted with the President. (WH)

The fashionable First Lady’s Fourth of July wardrobes worn to three of the public celebrations she hosted with the President. (WH)

The incumbent First Lady seems to hold the record among her predecessors for celebrating the Fourth of July holiday at the White House with not only her family but invited members of the public.

Recognizing the holiday as a chance to honor the members of the military and their families, the well-being of whom has been one of her two primary focuses as First Lady, Michelle Obama arranged for several hundred of them to come in the afternoon to first enjoy a barbecue picnic, and then entertained by leading contemporary performers.

She and the President have also come to the South Balcony to offer their words of welcome to the crowd before joining them on the lawn picnic blankets.

Michelle Obama welcomed  military families for White House Fourth of July celebration throughout her tenure. (WH)

Michelle Obama welcomed military families for White House Fourth of July celebration throughout her tenure. (WH)

As the dark of evening set in, Mrs. Obama has sat with the President and the crowds to take in the spectacular fireworks display exploding above the nearby Washington Monument.

Historically, most First Ladies have joined their husbands at private homes in the mountains or at the shore to spend the Fourth of July weekend, but judging from her enthusiasm as she interacted with hundreds of guests, Michelle Obama has preferred spending the nation’s birthday in the nation’s house.

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The Fourth of July on the White House South Lawn. (WH)

The Fourth of July on the White House South Lawn. (WH)

Since that day of July 4, 1776. when its independence was first declared by the American colonies upon the ratification of the Declaration of Independence, the United States has marked Independence Day for 240 years.

It was only thirteen years later that the American presidency was established and the Fourth of July began to be observed in various ways by presidential households.

For nearly two-hundred thirty years now, at either the White House in Washington, D.C. or the “Summer White House,” those rented or owned private retreats of presidential families, the July Fourth holiday proved important to several First Ladies for reasons that ranged from private grief to benchmarks in their public roles.

Florence Harding, 1922

President Warren Harding and First Lady Florence Harding had not been home to Marion, Ohio since they had entered the White House for a year and a half but when they finally came back it was for an especially meaningful occasion.

Florence Harding. (carlanthonyonline)

Florence Harding. (carlanthonyonline)

It was not only the Fourth of July but, in 1922, the centennial celebration of the small town where they had met, married and built a newspaper business.

Unlike previous presidents who had travelled distances almost exclusively by train, the Hardings especially loved driving. So, on the morning of July 3, 1922 they took off from Washington, D.C. in a caravan of cars, driving over two hundred miles along a route which took them past the homes of striking coal miners who nevertheless were out to greet them with waving flags.

The Hardings arrived in Marion at 10:30 that night and went directly to the home of his father, who would be their host, their own home then being privately leased to a local family.

On the morning of the Fourth of July, Florence Harding enjoyed a motor drive through her town in a limousine emblazoned with the presidential seal, along the blacktop streets, vigorously waving her arm to old friends and neighbors along the way.

Warren and Florence Harding riding in an open car on the Fourth of July in 1923, celebrating the holiday in Oregon, (carlanthonyonline)

Warren and Florence Harding riding in an open car on the Fourth of July in 1923, celebrating the holiday in Oregon, (carlanthonyonline)

After a parade review, her highest point of pride was being driven with her husband into the local fairgrounds where centennial celebration ceremonies were combined with the Fourth of July festivities.

Unlike the President, the First Lady had been born and raised in Marion and she was loved there. The band honored her with the playing of “Flo From Ohio,” a song written during the campaign. Not even the presence of Carrie Phillips in the crowd, the known former mistress of her husband, could dim her spirits.

The President told the crowds, “And now I want to introduce you to the best scout a fellow ever had – my wife.”

Florence Harding waves to cheering admirers. (carlanthonyonline.com)

Florence Harding waves to cheering admirers. (carlanthonyonline)

As she looked around the fairgrounds, the First Lady could not help but reflect back on her earlier times there, during an often troubled youth under the thumb of her controlling father.

Warren and Florence Harding at a Washington horse show. (pinterest)

Warren and Florence Harding at a Washington horse show. (pinterest)

She wasn’t sure if she was more “proud and happy” to return to the fairgrounds as First Lady, “or when I used to ride up on my white horse to the judges’ stand at the same spot years ago to receive the blue ribbon.”

At a Fourth of July reception held afterwards, she enjoyed a conversation with the young blond woman she’d known as a child, Nan Britton; unknown to the First Lady was the fact that her husband had fathered a daughter by Britton three years earlier. “Yes indeed,” she told Britton, “I keep Warren Harding the best-dressed man in Washington.”

Grace Coolidge, 1924

The Fourth of July had always been an especially celebratory holiday for Grace Coolidge, given that it was also her husband’s birthday.

Grace Coolidge at a summer garden party eating ice cream. (LC)

Grace Coolidge at a summer garden party eating ice cream. (LC)

The day before the national holiday, however, the First Lady noticed how listless her 16 year old son Calvin had become. It was more than tiredness after playing tennis.

In fact, not wearing socks during the game he developed a blister that quickly became infected. The White House physician was called in and took blood samples to be examined at Walter Reed Hospital. The tests confirmed that the younger First Son had a serious and rapidly growing blood infection.

On Independence Day, Grace Coolidge spent Independence Day confined to her son’s bedroom, comforting him and remaining optimistic as she recalled the many dangerous childhood illnesses he had survived, and helping the nurses on duty.

Grace Coolidge and her son Cal at home in 1920 (left) and at the White House in 1924. (Boston Public Library, LC)

Grace Coolidge and her son Cal at home in 1920 (left) and at the White House in 1924. (Boston Public Library, LC)

The next day, the White House announced that the president’s son was in dangerous condition.

On July 6, when she entered the White House car that followed the ambulance that rushed her son to Walter Reed Hospital for an operation attempting to draw the poisoned blood from his system, the typically rosy-cheeked and smiling First Lady was ashen and grave.

Calvin and Grace Coolidge at their son's gravesite. (LC)

Calvin and Grace Coolidge at their son’s gravesite. (LC)

All the best medical efforts were employed to save the life of the President’s son, from saline injections to blood transfusions. Grace Coolidge and her husband kept a vigil through the night at the side of Cal Jr.’s hospital bed, as he became delirious and then sank into a coma.

On the morning of July 7, they returned briefly to the White House to shower and change, then returned to the hospital and remained all day, helpless as they watched their son die later that day.

Less than a week after the Fourth of July, he was buried in the family plot in Vermont where, with the public held at a distance, Grace Coolidge finally gave way to weeping.

Bess Truman, 1945

Not even a pair of sunglasses could shield Bess Truman

Not even a pair of sunglasses could shield Bess Truman from unwanted public attention.

When her husband, as vice president, had to assume the presidency upon the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt  in April of 1945, Bess Truman was first overwhelmed with sadness and uncertainty about what she would do as a public figure.

Within months of serving as First Lady, she seethed with resentment about having to sacrifice the anonymity she’d enjoyed as a Senator’s spouse for the decade preceding her move to the White House.

Insisting on maintaining whatever vestige of private life that hadn’t yet been overwhelmed by the media, she left the President alone in the capital city and retreated to her family’s Victorian mansion in Independence, Missouri.

Using the excuse that she had to attend to her ailing and querulous old mother and oversee previously-scheduled renovations to the mansion, Bess Truman fumed about the curious citizenry staring at the closed windows of the house hoping to glimpse her and lingering newspaper reporters and photographers who skulked around the small town trying to chat locals up for human interest anecdotes about her.

Harry and Bess Truman in front of their Missouri home. (NPS)

Harry and Bess Truman in front of their Missouri home. (NPS)

She seemed to stir at the idea of sharing the Fourth of July with the President, who promised to come home after attending the concluding session of the United Nations in San Francisco.

Instead of fireworks in the sky, there were fireworks in their home, the Trumans bickering about the fact that he could not linger long but had to make his way back to Washington and from there leave on July 5th for the Potsdam conference.

Angered at him for this, when the President asked her to come out on the front porch and pose with him for national news wire service photographers, she flatly refused.  “All I’ve ever tried to do is make you pleased with me and the world,” he griped in reaction.

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