By 1975, it had been a remarkable one-third of a century since a First Lady had been seen at a White House Easter Egg Roll.
And then, Betty Ford showed up, the first presidential spouse to do so since Eleanor Roosevelt had attended the last of the annual events held during her husband’s presidency, in 1941.
Furthermore, Mrs. Ford gamely entered into the festivities of the day by permitting her face to be painted up in clown-makeup along with some of the children in attendance. The following year, she brought along her husband, making Gerald Ford’s appearance at the annual White House Easter Egg Roll the first one by a President since Dwight Eisenhower had done so in 1960.
Making the important decision that all the eggs distributed by the White House would be plastic rather than real, Betty Ford may have disappointed the traditionalists, but she saved the government time and money: it no longer meant that gardeners had to work overtime in cleaning the rotting mess from the massive South Lawn.
Building on Pat Nixon’s gesture to have certificates printed for all the children who attended the event to take away as souvenirs of the White House Easter Egg Roll, Betty Ford also wrote welcoming messages and notes about the holiday, which were printed on small pieces of paper and then inserted inside the plastic eggs.
Betty Ford’s more assertive interest in how the White House Easter Egg Roll was conducted marked the beginning of the White House’s efforts to enlarge the Easter Egg Roll into an event which reflected the interests of First Ladies and their methods of accommodating and engaging those of its thousands of young guests each year.
Rosalynn Carter continued Betty Ford’s custom of writing messages which were printed and inserted into plastic eggs.
She also appeared at each year’s event, joined not only by the President but their daughter Amy and grandchildren Jason and Sarah.
The stage that had been used for many years from which the Marine Band provided music throughout the day was expanded and used for several children’s entertainment performances.
Rosalynn Carter also had a petting zoo set up for the children, allowing them to enter a gated pen to pet and interact with farm animals.
In 1981, Nancy Reagan initiated a new custom which proved especially popular and remains to this day. Instead of plastic eggs, wooden ones were carved and imprinted with the image of the White House and the date of the event. Each one also bore the carved signature of the President and First Lady.
During several of the Reagan years, the wooden eggs also carried the signatures of some celebrities who attended the event. Now, any child under the age of twelve receives one as they leave the grounds.
In 1983, Nancy Reagan also had art exhibits placed on the South Lawn to be enjoyed and appreciated close-up by children and their accompanying adults alike, ranging from eggs painted with landscapes and caricatures by famous American artists placed in glass exhibit cases to large cardboard cut-out figurines made by Corcoran Gallery of Art students of the familiar characters from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland with the faces of famous people at the time.
There was even one of the First Lady as the Queen of Hearts.
During the Carter years, costumed cartoon and other characters from stories familiar to American children at the time began appearing more frequently. While Nancy Reagan was First Lady, however, there seemed to be a far larger contingency of them, delighting children who had a chance to meet the likes of Quick Draw McGraw or Papa Smurf.
Barbara Bush was a seasoned professional by the time she was presiding over the Easter Egg Rolls, having served as the surrogate hostess one year of the Reagan Administration, when her husband was Vice President.
During her tenure, the old and frayed White House Easter Bunny suit was retired for new ones representing both boys and girls, even one with spectacles and these figures began posing with Presidents and First Ladies to be photographed together at the annual event.
Under Hillary Clinton, there was finally a White House Easter Egg Roll grandstand built and colorfully painted, serving as the platform where the President and First Lady would officially welcome the crowds and kick off the festivities.
Excerpt scenes from Broadway musicals, magic shows, science demonstrations and other performances were provided on a continuous basis, thus distracting those children who lined up on endless queues for their chance to compete in the now-orderly egg-rolling contests.
Hillary Clinton also proved to share more than just an overt interest in public policy with Eleanor Roosevelt, for like this predecessor who served as something of a mentor to her, she never missed any of the Easter Egg Roll events held during her tenure as First Lady.
While the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States closed the White House to its regular flow of tourists and limited the number of visitors, Laura Bush used the annual White House Easter Egg Roll to demonstrate appreciation for the sacrifice endured by children who had parents serving in the active armed forces, thus opening access to the closed mansion that one day as a way of also honoring the U.S. military.
Once the event was again publicly accessible, she further widened the parameters of those children who were welcomed by including families with same-sex parents.
A conscientious interest in the lives of children at the event was continued by First Lady Michelle Obama.
Along with the performances by many well-known singers and actors that was provided for the children, there were also food preparation demonstrations offered as a way of encouraging the children to eat more healthily, a component of her “Let’s Move” program.
Beginning with Betty Ford’s appearance at the 1975 Easter Egg Roll, the returned presence of First Ladies for the first time since Eleanor Roosevelt also seemed to mark the end of a traditional aspect of the annual event.
From Frances Cleveland appearing with the family dog Hector in 1887 through the years that Eleanor Roosevelt was joined by her police dog Major, children at the event had come to expect the pets of presidential families to make an appearance.
Alas, Betty Ford did not show up with Liberty the golden retriever or Shan the Siamese Cat. Rosalynn Carter came but Grits the dog and Misty the cat were no where to be seen. Nancy Reagan was there but without either Lucky or Rex, the two dogs of the Reagan White House. Barbara Bush made Millie the springer spaniel famous by ghostwriting her memoirs but the dog did not come down to delight children at the Easter Egg Rolls of the late 1980s or early 1990s. Neither would Hillary Clinton’s dog and cat, Buddy and Socks or Laura Bush’s dogs and cat, Spot, Barney, Mrs. Beasley, and India.
It was Michelle Obama, however, who unwittingly restored this nearly-lost custom when she began presiding over the White House Easter Egg Rolls as First Lady.
She was always joined by the President, her daughters Sasha and Malia, her mother Marian Robinson.
And the family dog Bo.