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.

Former First Lady Hillary Clinton, in her position as US Secretary of State during her 2012 trip to China. (AP)

Former First Lady Hillary Clinton, in her position as US Secretary of State during her 2012 trip to China. (AP)

This week, First Lady Michelle Obama began her first trip to China, which will last until March 26, making her the fifteenth U.S. presidential spouse to visit that nation. Accompanying Mrs. Obama will be her mother Marian Robinson and, as did her predecessors Betty Ford, Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush on their trips to China, the First Lady’s daughters.

In making official appearances at a university and two high schools in China, Michelle Obama is continuing her agenda of focusing young people on the crucial role that the pursuit of higher education has on their lives. Through social media and, in conjunction with PBS LearningMedia and Discovery Education, she is encouraging American students to follow her itinerary through China as she visits its historical and cultural sites, and to find commonalities with its students.

The social media technology which will keep American students updated on the First Lady’s trip in real time is a primary factor in the increased globalization which has marked the world in the last quarter of a century and has led to inevitable societal change within both the U.S. and China.

While the First Lady’s press office included mention of “current events and people of China” among the topics she hopes to focus on while there, her trip comes during a period when First Ladies, both present and former, were inevitably drawn into more overtly political issues during their time in China, especially on human rights, democratic change, and economic empowerment.

In this final of a three-part series on American First Ladies in China, the experiences of Barbara Bush, Rosalynn Carter, Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush are of an entirely different nature than those of  First Ladies Julia Grant, Nellie Taft, Lou Hoover, Edith Roosevelt and Edith Wilson, who first visited.

Barbara Bush, 1974-1975, 1989

Barbara Bush.

Barbara Bush.

When President Gerald Ford and First Lady Betty Ford made their official visit to China in 1975, among the small delegation of American officials in the party which welcomed them in Beijing was Barbara Bush. Her husband George Bush had been appointed Chief of the Liaison Office to the People’s Republic of China in the fall of 1974 and served until the end of 1975.

In living there with him during that time, Barbara Bush became only the second woman who was an American First Lady to do so, the first being Lou Hoover three-quarters of a century earlier.

Future President and First Lady George and Barbara Bush were part of the welcoming delegaton for the President and Mrs. Ford in China, December 1975.

Future President and First Lady George and Barbara Bush were part of the welcoming delegaton for the President and Mrs. Ford in China, December 1975.

When the Bushes first arrived with their spaniel dog named C. Fred, they were assigned a four-bedroom, two-bath apartment above his office, with a staff of six domestic workers and a driver. Barbara Bush took daily lessons to learn the Chinese language and intensively read up on the centuries of Chinese history.

On the couple’s first full day in their new land they bought bicycles to get around Beijing as the city’s entire native population did. Barbara Bush began to fully explore the ancient city on her bike.

Her official duties were essentially limited to socializing at receptions hosted by her husband for delegations of visiting Americans or Chinese groups that would be soon making visits to the U.S.

Barbara Bush’s perspective of this period in her life captured a closed Chinese society still reflective of the revolutionary era of the 1950s and 1960s.

George and Barbara Bush in China. (GBPL)

George and Barbara Bush in China. (GBPL)

She and her husband went on Sunday to the only church in Beijing which had only three congregants among the scant total of twenty who were Chinese; their daughter was the first person to be baptized in the entire of China since before the Maoist revolution.

George and Barbara Bush before one of the many mammoth images of Mao seen in China at the time they lived there. (GBPL)

George and Barbara Bush before one of the many mammoth images of Mao seen in China at the time they lived there. (GBPL)

Chinese citizens did not smile at or engage her, but did stare at her dog, a rare sight in that land where the species had been largely annihilated on the premise that food they consumed could be better used to feed humans.

On excursions to Canton, Nanking, Wuxi, Shanghai, Beidaihe, Loyang, Sian, Datong, Dalien, Daqing, she was struck by the abject poverty, government sterilization programs to reduce the population, and the hard manual labor shared equally by men and women.

The most startling aspect of her new life in China was the inescapable propaganda campaigns aimed at the Chinese people, both the massive signs (one of which read “Beware of the Imperialist Dogs Who Invaded Vietnam”) and loudspeakers blaring out Communist Party rhetoric. Without prior government approval, she was not permitted to explore China beyond a twenty miles radius of Beijing, as was true even for citizens.

George and Barbara Bush usually rode bicycles around Beijing when they lived there. (GBPL)

George and Barbara Bush usually rode bicycles around Beijing when they lived there. (GBPL)

During trips to cities like Harbin and Tientsin, at factories and commune farms, it was plainly obvious to her that output had been manipulated to suggest the increase was all a result of “the glorious leadership of Chairman Mao.” She also had all types of evidence that she and her husband were being spied upon through their calls, mail and activities.

One month and five days after moving into the White House as First Lady, Barbara Bush returned to China for the first time in fourteen years, joining her husband there on a state visit from February 25 to February 27, 1989.

In Tiananmen Square, Mrs. Bush was stunned by the changes that had occurred in Chinese society since she had last been there: more automobiles, citizens wearing various-colored clothes and not just the requisite drab jumpsuits of the Maoist era, a tremendous number of new buildings.

President Ford, right, and first lady Betty Ford, second from left, visit then-Ambassador George H.W. Bush

President Ford, right, and First Lady Betty Ford, second from left, visit then-Ambassador George Bush and Barbara Bush. (GFPL)

Citizens were more overtly friendly towards Mrs. Bush and her American staff and the tiny congregation of the obscure church she had once attended was now massive and had moved to a far larger gathering place.

During First Lady Barbara Bush’s 1989 trip to China, however, were also the first signs of conflict rising from the communist nation’s move towards a more op

en market economy and concurrent, growing expectations of freedom. At the reciprocal dinner traditionally given by a visiting head of state for the leadership of the host country, among the guests invited to this event hosted by George and Barbara Bush was the Chinese human rights dissident Fang Lizhi.

George and Barbara Bush in China as President and First Lady in 1989. (AP)

George and Barbara Bush in China (AP)

Insulted, the Chinese government leaders to be honored at the dinner threatened to not attend. When they appeared, President Bush tried to diplomatically justify the invitation of the dissident, but the Chinese leadership were elusive in their response. Only the following day did George and Barbara Bush learned that the Chinese police had stopped Fang Lizhi on his way to the dinner, and prevented his attendance.

Mrs. Bush had her own first-hand experience with the hard-line tactics of the Communist Chinese. While following as part of her official media entourage to cover her visit to the Forbidden City, several American journalists found themselves being physically shoved by Chinese security agents in an attempt to distance and separate them from the First Lady.

1989 Pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing's Tiananmen Square erect 33-foot high “Goddess of Democracy” statue. (AP)

1989 Pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square erect 33-foot high “Goddess of Democracy” statue. (AP)

Admitting that the Chinese had become “way too rough” with the reporters, Barbara Bush later reflected, “I should have stopped the tour and told our hosts that unless they lightened up, the tour was over.”

When finally the official White House photographer was “socked so hard that her jaw was dislocated,” the First Lady put a halt to the tour to “lay down a few ground rules” to Chinese officials in the entourage.

It was a menacing incident which seemed to foreshadow those which would take place just four months after Barbara Bush was in China.

In June of that year, in the very same Tiananmen Square where the First Lady had been startled by the radical changes she saw in China, pro-democracy demonstrations symbolized by a large white statue of a woman carrying a torch were crushed by the government.

Through the then-recent technologies of instant replay video, however, the entire world was able to witness much of it as the crisis unfolded.

Hillary Clinton, 1995, 1998

Hillary Clinton. (BCPL)

Hillary Clinton. (BCPL)

While coming to China with an entirely different agenda than Pat Nixon, First Lady Hillary Clinton’s 1995 trip to Beijing left just as indelible a global impression.

Human rights activist Harry Wu was arrested by China when he returned to his native land with a valid visa. (cnn)

Human rights activist Harry Wu was arrested by China when he returned to his native land with a valid visa. (cnn)

She journeyed in what would be the first of her two visits as First Lady to China to address the United Nation’s Fourth World Conference on Women meeting, a gathering of women from around the globe’s different cultures and nations united in their belief that, as Mrs. Clinton famously put it, “women’s rights are human rights.”

There had been considerable pressure before the conference for the First Lady to boycott the conference, due to the fact that China had imprisoned American citizen human rights activist Harry Wu in June when he had returned to his native country with a valid visa. It was officially announced that Hillary Clinton would not enter China unless he was first released. This possibility would prove humiliating to the Chinese government.

The Chinese ended up holding a sham trial which found him guilty of spying, and expelled Wu. Charges were made that China had agreed to freeing him in exchange for a promise that Hillary Clinton would attend the conference and not criticize its policies, to which the U.S. had agreed, but not such deal was made.

The American First Lady delivering her historic speech in Beijing. (Washington Post)

The American First Lady delivering her historic speech in Beijing. (Washington Post)

In fact, no such deal took place and when Hillary Clinton did go to China for the conference, she ended up becoming the first American dignitary to overtly speak out against both China’s human rights violations and media censorship on Chinese soil.

On September 5, 1995, after attending a morning session on “women and health security,” the American First Lady entered the Plenary Hall and made a forceful speech:

First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton delivering her speech at the panel on Women and Health at the U.N. Women's Conference in Beijing on September. 5, 1995 (AP)

First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton delivering her speech at the panel on Women and Health at the U.N. Women’s Conference in Beijing on September. 5, 1995 (AP)

“It is time for us to say here in Beijing, and the world to hear, that it is no longer acceptable to discuss women’s rights as separate from human rights…It is a violation of human rights when babies are denied food, or drowned, or suffocated, or their spines broken, simply because they are born girls…when women and girls are sold into slavery or prostitution for human greed. It is a violation of human rights when women are doused with gasoline, set on fire and burned to death because their marriage dowries are deemed too small…when thousands of women are raped in their own communities and when thousands of women are subjected to rape as a tactic or prize of war….If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all.”

Although she did not literally reference “China,” in her speech, she did make reference to that nation’s notorious policy of forcing women to be sterilized or undergo abortions to enforce a “one child per family” policy and the horrific act by many Chinese families of killing infant girls because a son was more prized. She also made reference to the legal practices in some parts of the Middle East of domestic violence and death by stoning of women and the custom in some parts of Africa of genital mutilation.

Mrs. Clinton greeting some of the thousands of foreign representatives, both men and women, who attended the Beijing conference. (New York Times)

Mrs. Clinton greeting some of the thousands of foreign representatives, both men and women, who attended the Beijing conference. (New York Times)

When she finished her remarks, the hall erupted with wild cheering, shouting and foot-stomping in support of her brave remarks.

The people of China, however, were never permitted to see footage on television of the American First Lady speaking, hear it on the radio or even read it in the newspapers. The Chinese government completed blacked out her remarks and filled its airwaves instead with propaganda extolling the strides of equality women were making in China.

The Chinese government’s senior woman official in attendance at the conference refused to answer questions from the international media who pressed her for a reaction, and all Chinese news outlets were ordered to report nothing of the speech. Only those Chinese who had been chosen by the Communist Party were permitted to participate in the conference and heard Mrs. Clinton’s speech; all other citizens who wished to attend were kept a far distance from the event by Chinese police.  Delegates who were Tibetan and Taiwanese exiles were unable to even obtain visas to attend.

Hillary Clinton keeping her cool amid the bedlam caused by Chinese security at Huairou. (foreignpolicy.org

Hillary Clinton keeping her cool amid the bedlam caused by Chinese security at Huairou. (foreignpolicy.org

There had been a larger drama unfolding at the conference. Apart from delegates designated by their governments there were also representatives from a multitude of non-profit, voluntary citizen groups providing humanitarian services and assistance like monitoring policies and disseminating vital information.

These non-governmental organizations (known as NGOs) had been scheduled to hold a forum as part of the U.N. Conference but the Chinese government banned them from the main gathering. Instead, they were forced to meet in a converted movie theater an hour’s drive outside of Beijing in the relatively remote city of Huairou.

Learning of this, Hillary Clinton not only made her way through a downpour in a small caravan past endless rice paddies to what was now being called the “NGO Forum,” but she made her way through the muddy streets and crowd to address the three thousand women’s rights activists had crammed into the space.

Hillary Clinton with Beijing University's women's legal aid society members during her second trip to China in 1998. (AP)

Hillary Clinton with Beijing University’s women’s legal aid society members during her second trip to China in 1998. (AP)

If her Beijing speech had focused specifically on global violations of women’s equal rights, her subsequent commentaries following it were clearly intended to call out the Chinese government for the way it had reacted to not just what she said but the very conference:

“Freedom means the right of people to assemble, organize, and debate openly. It means respecting the views of those who may disagree with the views of their governments. It means not taking citizens away from their loved ones and jailing them, mistreating them, or denying them their freedom or dignity because of peaceful expression of their ideas and opinions…”

The President and Mrs. Clinton pose with their daughter Chelsea with the famous terra cotta warrior figures on their second of a nine-day state visit to China (Reuter's

The President and Mrs. Clinton pose with their daughter Chelsea with the famous terra cotta warrior figures on their second of a nine-day state visit to China (Reuter’s)

Her first trip to China also became an important turning point not only as an American First Lady but also the long arc of public life that Hillary Clinton would later embark upon.

As she put it, “To me, it was important to express how I felt and to do so as clearly as I could.”Three years later, from June 25 to July 3, 1998, Hillary Clinton returned to China, joining President Clinton on an official state visit there, accompanied by her daughter Chelsea Clinton and mother Dorothy Rodham.

The Clintons on their Li River trip in Guilin, China. (AP)

The Clintons on their Li River trip in Guilin, China. (AP)

While this trip entailed some of the more traditional aspects of trips by American First Ladies to China, such as a walk along the Great Wall, a grand state banquet in the Great Hall of the People, a cruise down the Li River to see its unusual mountain formations, and a quiet summer evening in an old tea house, Hillary Clinton also made public appearances which underlined many of the public issues important to her.

The Clintons walk the Great Wall of China in 1998. (AP)

The Clintons walk the Great Wall of China in 1998. (AP)

At the Shanghai Library, she gave a speech about the status of women and how all of society thrives when the entire population is permitted to contribute to it with their talents. To further emphasize her intrinsic belief in a woman’s right to legal equal treatment, she met with women lawyers working at the Center for the Women’s Law Studies at Beijing University, similar to a legal clinic she had once helped establish while a law professor at the University of Arkansas.

First Lady Hillary Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright tour the Ohel Rachel Synagogue, Shanghai, China.  (BCPL)

First Lady Hillary Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright tour the Ohel Rachel Synagogue, Shanghai, China. (BCPL)

To signal her support of more religious freedom in China, the First Lady toured the recently restored Ohel Rachel Synagogue, where a once-thriving Jewish community had worshiped in Shanghai, and attended Sunday services at the state-sanctioned Protestant Chongwenmen Church.

She also joined the President in politely but unequivocally arguing against the cagey rationale of President Jiang Zemin that China’s oppression of Buddhist Tibet had “liberated” its people.

Despite the aspects of harsh control exercised over its people which China could often demonstrate, Hillary Clinton believed it was important to still visit such a nation for, “deep differences are created by history, geography and culture and those can be bridged only – if at all – through direction experience and relationships.”

Rosalynn Carter, 1981, 1997, 2001, 2003, 2007, 2009, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012

Rosalynn Carter (JCPL)

Rosalynn Carter (JCPL)

To date, no future, incumbent or former First Lady has visited China more frequently than has Rosalynn Carter. Thus far, she has made ten trips there.

As she did during her tenure as First Lady, Rosalynn Carter worked alongside her husband Jimmy Carter in nearly all of his activities as a former President, including traveling with him around the world as they made trips on behalf of the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia, advocating on a number of issues including human rights, fair elections, economic development and accessible health care.

In a series of trips to China which she has made for over thirty years now, Rosalynn Carter has accompanied her husband as they both initiated private sector efforts on behalf of a multitude of these issues and then continued to investigate the progress of the endeavors, expand and improve upon them.

Deng Xiaoping and his wife visited the US in 1979, seen here with the President and Mrs. Carter, the only presidential couple since the Nixons who did not visit China during his presidency.

Deng Xiaoping and his wife visited the US in 1979, seen here with the President and Mrs. Carter, the only presidential couple since the Nixons who did not visit China during his presidency. (JCPL)

After Chinese Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping and President Carter normalized diplomatic relations in 1979, rapid economic change began in China, starting with families being permitted to farm a percentage of state-owned property and to begin a profitable small business, like animal husbandry or bike repair. He then urged Rosalynn Carter and the President to come to China and see for themselves the resulting changes.

The Carters have made more visits to China than any presidential couple. (princepaulofromania.com)

The Carters have made more visits to China than any First Couple. (princepaulofromania.com)

Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter proved to be the only incumbent President and First Lady since the Nixon presidency who did not visit China – yet they would soon enough earn a record by visiting that country more than any other President or First Lady.

In 1981, several months after leaving the White House, however, they did accept the offer of Deng to first visit and see how the nation was beginning to change.

More than any factor, the Carters were startled by the Chinese government’s genuine commitment to free enterprise.

The Carters received a gift of a drawing from a local Chinese village. (whatsonxiamen.com)

The Carters received a gift of a drawing from a local Chinese village. (whatsonxiamen.com)

In 1997, Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter returned at the invitation of The Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs, to explore possibilities for an expanded relationship for the Carter Center in Chinese town elections, ascertain Chinese attitudes toward Korea, discover as much as possible the true state of affairs about life in China from top political leaders to peasants in villages.

They also raised issues the Chinese would rather ignore, such as its control of Tibet, Taiwan independence, religious and press freedom, persecution of dissidents, and other human rights issues.

An aspect of their trips to China has been the effort by the Carters to encourage religious freedom.(globalministries.org)

An aspect of their trips to China has been the effort by the Carters to encourage religious freedom.(globalministries.org)

Besides Beijing, they also conducted work at Jinan in Shandong province and the rural Zouping County which had not permitted any foreigners to enter until 1984.  Among the promising discoveries, the Carters found that citizens were largely benefiting from a relatively free economic system and able to more freely travel within China.

In 2001, just ten days before the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter were making their third joint visit to China, joined by Carter Center trustees, to help monitor and improve village elections at the invitation of the Ministry of Civil Affairs.

Former President Carter introduces Rosalynn to Communist Party leader Xi Jinping during one of their Chinese trips. (ecns.cn)

Former President Carter introduces Rosalynn to Communist Party leader Xi Jinping during one of their Chinese trips. (ecns.cn)

Although there were tense and sharp arguments on the matter of freedom of religion during discussions in Beijing’s Great Hall, which continued over dinner, it resulted in an invitation for the Carter Center to send a delegation for unrestricted assessment of the religious and Tibetan issues.

On this trip, they also went to Shanghai, and Zhouzhuang, in Jiangsu province.

The Carters returned again to China in September of 2003 to further their efforts of political democratization there and begin meeting also with students who represented the next generation of political and business leaders there.

By the time of their next visit, in December of 2007, the Carter Center had established a working office in China. Among the efforts of particular interest to Rosalynn Carter was one to help train grammar school teachers of blind and deaf children.

The Carters at the opening of a photo exhibition commemorating the 40th anniversary of economic  freedoms initated by him and Deng. (chinaconsulatechicago.org)

The Carters at the opening of a photo exhibition commemorating the 40th anniversary of economic freedoms initated by him and Deng. (chinaconsulatechicago.org)

At an elaborate sixteen-course banquet in honor of the former President and First Lady, they met with, as the former President put it, “extremely successful entrepreneurs who have emerged from China’s shift to free enterprise and its remarkable economic growth.”

In January of 2009, the Carters returned to China to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of normalized US-Chinese diplomatic relations and to further expand the Carter Center’s working relations with government ministries.

During discussions on sensitive matters between the former President and Premier Wen Jiabao in the Hall of Purple Lights, Rosalynn Carter took notes of the discreet conversation.

Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter preview an artifact of China's first emperor. (mychinaclub.com)

Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter preview an artifact of China’s first emperor. (mychinaclub.com)

After visiting a museum in Hong’an, the Carters were feted by Hubei’s governor at a banquet in Wuhan, overlooking the Yangtze River.

Despite frigid temperatures, the couple had a change to enjoy a quiet walk together along the river’s edge.

Before leaving, they visited the Hubei Provincial Museum, where they enjoyed a concert on enormous 2,400-year-old bells.

Perhaps the most unique trip to China made by Rosalynn Carter was the one she undertook in November of 2009 with her husband, son Chip and his wife, to join some three thousand volunteers from around the world in a project of the annual Habitat for Humanity Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project.

Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter helping build a home with her husband through Habitat for Humanity. (sfgate.com)

Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter helping build a home with her husband through Habitat for Humanity. (sfgate.com)

They flew into Chengdu, and drove to the project site in Qionglai City, Sichuan, where an earthquake had destroyed or damaged many of the residential buildings.

The Chinese building project was one of a five-Asian nation effort in the Mekong River basin.

Once again in September, the Carters were back in China in 2010, for meetings on issues of mutual concern to the Chinese government and the Carter Center, as well as making good on their promise to visit the World Expo in Shanghai.

The Carters at a statue dedication and commemoration ceremony at an historic Nanking hospital. (english.cntv.cn)

The Carters at a statue dedication and commemoration ceremony at an historic Nanking hospital. (english.cntv.cn)

After meetings in Beijing intended to encourage greater public access to government information, they flew to Zhijiang, in Hunan Province.

Here they participated in a statue dedication ceremony honoring American and both nationalist and communist “Flying Tiger” Chinese pilots who fought together to defeat the occupying Japanese.

Rosalynn Carter went on her own to Shanghai to tour the city’s Mental Health Center, and then delivered a speech which reflected her lifelong commitment to overcoming the societal stigma of mental health problems.

Mrs. Carter speaking at a symposium on mental health. (cartercenter.org)

Mrs. Carter speaking at a symposium on mental health. (cartercenter.org)

Before returning to the US, they went to Changsha, where the former President delivered a speech at Hunan University, then observing its 1034th year of teaching.

The following year, in December, the Carters again journeyed to China, seeking underwriting for ongoing Carter Center projects and establishing an office for it in Beijing. They also went to Guangzhou, Hong Kong, and Shenzhen, once a rural region that had become a booming center of free trade.

The most recent trip to China made by Rosalynn Carter and Jimmy Carter was in December of 2012, intended to pursue new projects of the Carter Center there and also to meet with a new generation of rising political leaders.

In Beijing during this trip, Mrs. Carter spoke to the large staff of American Embassy workers, where she and the former President also learned of the surprising increase of Chinese citizens seeking to formalize their faith in church membership.

The Carters overlooking a model of new buildings slated for construction in Nanking. (english.jschina.com.cn)

The Carters overlooking a model of new buildings slated for construction in Nanking. (english.jschina.com.cn)

In Nanking, they visited a memorial to those Chinese massacred by Japanese troops in 1937, unveiled a statue honoring American and Canadian missionaries who helped found the original hospital there and helped dedicate a new one.

The 2012 Carter trip to China ended on Hainan Island, where the former President delivered a keynote address on “China’s Place in the World.”

It was during their first 2009 trip, as the Carters made the brief excursion to the Shanghai Airport that may have left the most indelible impression of the new China. As the former President described it:

“The first time I visited Shanghai, in 1949, there were only pedestrians, bicycles and rickshaws. After lunch with Consul General Beatrice Camp, we rode the magnetic-levitated train to the airport, a trip that takes an hour by automobile. Computer controlled, it left at exactly 3 p.m. and arrived at 3:07 p.m. It is the fastest train in the world, designed to run 310 miles per hour, and reached a speed of 269 mph on this short run of about 16 miles. As we flew past the Old City one centimeter above the tracks, I thought the amazing experience symbolized what is happening in China.”

Laura Bush, 2002, 2005, 2008

Laura Bush entering the Forbidden City during her 2008 visit. (english.sina.com)

Laura Bush entering the Forbidden City during her 2008 visit. (english.sina.com)

First Lady Laura Bush made three trips to China during her tenure as First Lady, not having accompanied her husband on a more official state visit there soon after the terrorist attacks on Washington and New York in September of 2001. Mrs. Bush’s China trips were relatively brief and did not take her extensively through the vast nation.

During her brief, initial visit to China,Laura Bush visited a Chinese food show.

During her brief, initial visit to China,Laura Bush visited a Chinese food show.

On February 21, 2002, she joined her husband President George W. Bush on a thirty-hour visit to China, her first. The date marked the anniversary of the President and Mrs. Nixon’s historic 1972 trip there.

Shortly after her morning arrival in China with the President, Laura Bush toured the Forbidden City’s Palace Museum and three of the most architecturally significant of the historic structures on the grounds, the Hall of Supreme Harmony (Taihe Dian) and Hall of Preserving Harmony (Baohe Dian), and Juanqinzhai, a palace built for Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799).

Laura Bush fans herself while watching the U.S. men's baseball team play a practice game against the Chinese team  August 11 at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. (GWBL)

Laura Bush fans herself while watching the U.S. men’s baseball team play a practice game against the Chinese team August 11 at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. (GWBL)

She was joined by the wives of both the U.S. and Chinese ambassadors to each country, led by assistant curator Zhu Chengru, an expert on Ming and Qing dynasty histories. Apart from official appearances with President Bush, she had time only alone to visit a Chinese Cuisine Show in a hotel.

In November of 2005, Laura Bush joined her husband on another trip to China. It was a largely ceremonial trip, with the First Lady visiting the famous Ming Dynasty Tombs as well as the Great Wall of China.

Laura Bush and then President George W. Bush took photos with missionary members after a mass in Beijing on November 20, 2005. (english.cri.cn)

Laura Bush and then President George W. Bush took photos with missionary members after a mass in Beijing on November 20, 2005. (english.cri.cn)

With their trip including a Sunday, the Bushes also attended a missionary Christian Church, highlighting the slight but growing trend towards a more lax attitude by the Chinese government towards freedom of religion.

The occasion of her third trip as First Lady to China was markedly celebratory and uniquely international.

From August 8 until August 11, 2008, Laura Bush joined her husband and their daughter Barbara, as well as her father-in-law former President George Bush, to attend the Opening Ceremonies and watch several competitions of the Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, China.

First Lady Laura Bush and her daughter Barbara pause next to a Fu Dog during their August 2008 visit to Beijing's Forbidden City. (GWBPL)

First Lady Laura Bush and her daughter Barbara pause next to a Fu Dog during their August 2008 visit to Beijing’s Forbidden City. (GWBPL)

“China was consumed with its global spectacle…We waved flags and cheered, moving from the Olympic swimming pool to the basketball stadium to the imported sand court for beach volleyball. It was a stunning sight to see the Chinese cheering for the American basketball players, chanting “Kobe, Kobe, Kobe!” she wrote, referencing Los Angeles Lakers player Kobe Bryant who was part of the U.S. Men’s Basketball team.

George and Laura Bush arrive in China 2002.

George and Laura Bush arrive in China 2002.

With her family members, she also participated in the dedication ceremony of the new U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

Among the few official events scheduled with the Chinese government leadership, Laura Bush particularly recalled a luncheon hosted by President Hu Jintao in the Forbidden City.

“There were small meandering streams and gardens,” she wrote in her poetic memoir, “but the ancient rooms are now largely bare, leaving their past to our imagination.”

Laura Bush in a Burmese refugee camp schoolroom. (chinapost.com)

Laura Bush in a Burmese refugee camp schoolroom. (chinapost.com)

Although she refrained from chastising the Chinese government when she was in that nation, before her 2008 arrival in Beijing, she visited the Mae La refugee camp on the Tahi-Burma border, the largest of nine which sheltered 35,000 refugees.

Her visit was part of an ongoing campaign she had been focused on for several years, to bring global attention to the harsh regime of Burma and the need for inciting peaceful change within it. She publicly called upon Chinese officials to speak out more definitively on Burma’s human rights violations.

Hillary Clinton, 2009, 2010, 2011, 20012, 2012 (2)

Former First Lady Hillary Clinton in her later position as Secretary of State. (DOS)

Former First Lady Hillary Clinton in her later position as Secretary of State. (DOS)

Apart from her two trips to China as First Lady, Hillary Clinton would make five further visits there during her tenure as Secretary of State during the first term of the Obama Administration. This tallies to a total of seven trips to China by Mrs. Clinton.

In February of 2009, a month after assuming her new role as the U.S. Secretary of State, former First Lady Hillary Clinton made her first trip to Asia, visiting Japan, Indonesia, South Korea, and China on what she described as a “listening tour” that was “intended to really find a path forward.”

Chinese President Hu Jintao meets with visiting U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Beijing, China, Feb. 21, 2009. (Xinhua)

Chinese President Hu Jintao meets with visiting U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Beijing, China, Feb. 21, 2009. (Xinhua)

During her three days in China, beginning on February 20, had Secretary Clinton meeting with Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and  State Counselor Dai Bingguo. The topics of their discussion were general in nature, covering economic, security and environmental protection issues.

She returned again in May of 2010, to co-lead the U.S.-China Strategic & Economic Dialogue.

At that event, she pointed with particular pride to being able to sign a student exchange agreement, affirming an intent of President Obama to send some 100,000 American students to China by 2014 to learn the language, culture and business models of the Chinese.

At the same event, the Chinese government announced it would provide scholarships to 10,000 American students.

Senior Chinese official Dai Bingguo and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shook hands before their meetings in Shenzhen, China, July 2011. (AP)

Senior Chinese official Dai Bingguo and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shook hands before their meetings in Shenzhen, China, July 2011. (AP)

The following year, at the end of July, 2011, she returned to China, this time to meet with Dai Bingguo in Shenzhen just as the U.S. government was on the verge of potential debt default, a matter of anxiety as well for China, its largest foreign creditor. At the time, China owned almost $1.2 trillion of U.S. Treasury debt.

Before she had arrived on the mainland, Mrs. Clinton was in Hong Kong where she expressed a calm confidence about the looming crisis: “I’m confident that Congress will do the right thing and secure a deal on the debt ceiling, and work with President Obama to take the steps necessary to improve our long-term fiscal outlook.”

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton introduces U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner  to Chinese President Hu Jintao during a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on May 4, 2012. (Getty)

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton introduces U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to Chinese President Hu Jintao during a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on May 4, 2012. (Getty)

Less than a year later, in early May of 2012, Secretary Clinton was joined by her fellow Cabinet member Treasury Secretary Timothy  Geithner for the fourth joint meeting of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue with Bingguo and the Chinese Vice Premier Wang Qishan. The meetings took place in Beijing’s Great Hall, again with the objective was to strengthen the U.S.-China bond in arenas like culture, education, sports, science and technology, and women’s issues.

That trip, however, put Clinton in the middle of a drama involving blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng. He had escaped house arrest and, after finding his way to the Embassy of the United States, requested the Americans to negotiate his safety in continuing to live in China.

Doing this right before Mrs. Clinton arrived for her meetings, however, the situation “exploded into an absolute circus” as one aide put it. Finally, Secretary Clinton personally negotiated to arrange for Chen’s asylum in the U.S.

The blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng and Hillary Clinton finally met when both were awarded the 2013 Tom Lantos Human Rights Prize on December 6, 2013. (zimbio.com)

The blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng and Hillary Clinton finally met when both were awarded the 2013 Tom Lantos Human Rights Prize on December 6, 2013. (zimbio.com)

Although Chen begged for a seat on the former First Lady’s plane returning to the U.S. she arranged for him to make the trip on a separate flight, and thereby saved the Chinese government from a sense of humiliation on the matter and move it as an example of human rights violations off the agenda of the imminent meetings.

When Hillary Clinton called Chen to inform him of all this, he burst with gratitude at her over the phone, “‘I want to kiss you!”

Four months before she left her position as U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton made her fifth and final trip to China in that official role.

When she arrived in early September of 2012 for this final trip, however, she discovered that her scheduled meeting with Vice President Xi Jinping had been abruptly cancelled. The reason given was that he was suffering from an injured back. She did, however, meet with President Hu and other leading officials over the next two days.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Chinese Foreign Minister exchange their conflicting views on the South China Sea at a news conference in Beijing Sept. 5. (AP)

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Chinese Foreign Minister exchanged their conflicting views on the South China Sea at a news conference in Beijing Sept. 5. (AP)

Most of the geopolitical intelligentsia, however, was convinced that it was a result of the U.S. attempting to involve itself in a conflict among China and its Asian nation neighbors over disputed territorial maritime rights in the South and East China seas, which are believed to hold rich lodes of minerals and other natural resources.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a strained statement that  nations not part of the region should “respect the choice of the relevant parties, hold an impartial position on the issue and make more efforts in favor of regional peace and stability.”

The decidedly Communist Chinese newspaper Global Times more harshly and personally declared that “many Chinese” resented Secretary Clinton.

During the course of her tenure as U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, seen here at the U.N. in September 2011, did not hesitate to explicitly detail the issues which the U.S. sharply disagreed with China. (AP)

During the course of her tenure as U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, seen here at the U.N. in September 2011, did not hesitate to explicitly detail the issues which the U.S. sharply disagreed with China. (AP)

On September fifth, during this final trip as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton gave a larger context to the smaller conflicts which continued to arise between the United States and China: “Our two nations are trying to do something that has never been done in history, which is to write a new answer to the question of what happens when an established power and a rising power meet.”

Not unlike her 1995 speech in China gently chastising it for ignoring women’s rights and human rights when she made her initial trip there as First Lady, Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State had overtly challenged that nation on a variety of issues. She called it “despicable” that both Russia and China were unwilling to take a firm stand against the harsh violence being imposed by Syria’s President Bashar Assad upon his people. She warned African continent nations that the radical changes being wrought in their countries by Chinese development could create a “new colonialism” there if they did not firmly guide their own destiny. She also boldly criticized China for blocking parts of the Internet from being accessed by its citizens.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton toasts with Chinese Vice Premier Wang Qishan during a dinner of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Washington, D.C. May 9, 2011. (Getty)

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton toasts with Chinese Vice Premier Wang Qishan during a dinner of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Washington, D.C. May 9, 2011. (Getty)

On March 18, 2012, to mark the 40th anniversary of the historic first trip to China by an incumbent President and First Lady, Richard and Pat Nixon, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke before the United States Institute of Peace on the significance of that first adventure.

In her remarks, Clinton also acknowledged that United States and China had become inextricably linked in so many vital ways, and pondered with a sense of hope about their future together by looking back on how far the relationship had developed in that time:

“In 1972, [the U.S. and China] were connected only through a narrow official channel. Today, the web of connections linking our nations is vast and complex, and reaches into just about every aspect of our societies….

Tricia Cox, daughter of the late President and Mrs. Nixon, welcomed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton before her remarks at the United States Institute of Peace, marking the 40th anniversary of Nixon's historic trip to China and discussed the future of U.S.-China relations, March 7, 2012, (AFP/Getty)

Tricia Cox, daughter of the late President and Mrs. Nixon, welcomed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton before her remarks, marking the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s historic trip to China and discussed the future of U.S.-China relations, March 7, 2012, (AFP/Getty)

The opportunities before us are also shared, and they define our relationship much more than the threats….We have the chance, if we seize it, to work together to advance prosperity, pursue innovation, and improve the lives of our people and others worldwide…..

We are trying to do this without entering into unhealthy competition, rivalry, or conflict . . . and without falling short on our responsibilities to the international community.

We are, together, building a model in which we strike a stable and mutually acceptable balance between cooperation and competition. This is uncharted territory. And we have to get it right, because so much depends on it….

Interdependence means that one of us cannot succeed unless the other does as well . . . This is, by definition, incredibly difficult.

So let us remember and take inspiration from how far apart our countries were when President Nixon landed in Beijing and how much we have accomplished together since then . . . It is now up to us to make sure that the future is even more promising than the past.”

Three of the fifteen U.S. First Ladies who have been to China: Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush and Rosalynn Carter. (AP)

Three of the fifteen U.S. First Ladies who have been to China: Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush and Rosalynn Carter. (AP)

 

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President and Mrs. Nixon at the Great Wall of China. (RNPL)

President and Mrs. Nixon at the Great Wall of China. (RNPL)

In this second of a three-part series, the National First Ladies Library will offer the first narrative about the experiences of the fourteen First Ladies who have preceded Michelle Obama in visiting China, unfolding chronologically to also provide a sense of developing US-Chinese relations over a century and a half and how what was once an entirely mysterious culture of what was so long referred to by westerners as the “Orient” has evolved into a 21st century society.

As First Lady Michelle Obama prepares to make her first trip to China, she is first visiting the Washington Yu Ying Public Charter School, a Chinese-immersion, International Baccalaureate, elementary school in Washington, DC. After hearing a report from sixth-grade students about their own trip to China last year, she will make informal remarks encouraging students all across the United States to follow the progress of her visit there, and then listen to the school’s pre-kindergarten students as they make conversation with her in the Chinese language they have thus far learned.

The Washington Yu Ying School was named to remember one by the same name which was created for girls in Beijing 103 years ago by Tzen-Kuei Wang, an aide to the Dowager Empress, the first in that country to reform teaching from a tutorial system to the classroom method. Such a shift towards a more western model, however, was not always welcomed by China’s changing leadership.

In the nearly eighty-year period covered by the first article in this series, as First Ladies from Julia Grant to Edith Wilson went to China, and then Eleanor Roosevelt was prevented from visiting, that nation underwent enormous political and cultural change, shifting from an ancient dynastic rule to one of hard-rule communism, wrought by the 1949 revolution. In 1966, the leader of that revolution, Mao Zedong was then serving as the Communist Party Chairman and imposed harsh edicts intended to purge Chinese society of not merely western capitalist influence but also traditional customs of his own nation. It was known as the Cultural Revolution.

Throughout the two decades which followed, events during the trips to China by three incumbent America First Ladies and two former First Ladies reflected the growing change in Chinese society and its increasingly open relationship with the U.S. And while there was never any change in the way the name of its capital was pronounced in Chinese, in English “Peking” was increasingly spelled as “Beijing,” perhaps as a distinction between the old and new China.

In 1972, just six years after the Cultural Revolution, not just the people of China and the United States but the entire world were stunned as a new era suddenly seemed to be dawning when it was learned that Chairman Mao was welcoming the first visit to his nation by an American President and his wife, Richard and Pat Nixon.

Pat Nixon, 1972, 1976

Pat Nixon warmly engages with a young Chinese schoolgirl. (AP)

Pat Nixon warmly engages with a young Chinese schoolgirl. (AP)

Perhaps no American First Lady is better remembered for her visit to China than is Pat Nixon.

She is the first among the seven most recent First Ladies who have done so, and the first to make the journey as an incumbent President’s spouse and the first to visit it at any point in their lives when it was a communist nation, following its 1949 revolution.

Beyond these facts, however, this First Lady’s visible activities in the People’s Republic of China during the February 21 to February 28, 1972 presidential trip there, were vital to the media and the public realization of the unprecedented visit’s monumental significance.

Too, for a presidential spouse who never encouraged publicity for herself during an Administration embattled by a war and political scandals, Pat Nixon’s seven days in China proved to be a turning point for her personally, a moment when the world focused its attention and then acclaimed her.

The first President and First Lady to set foot in communist China, Pat Nixon made her first appearance in the bright red coat that became her trademark during her week there.(RNPL)

The first President and First Lady to set foot in communist China, Pat Nixon made her first appearance in the bright red coat that became her trademark during her week there.(RNPL)

Long before the historic trip to this communist land by a famously anti-communist was publicly divulged, Mrs. Nixon kept fully apprised of the secret negotiating which occurred before it was finalized. In the last planning stages, Chinese leader Chou En-lai suggested to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, “Bring Mrs. Nixon.”

In preparation, Pat Nixon read State Department dossiers on the communist party leadership and studied its hierarchal power structure, so she could remain always aware of who asked her what and tailor what she said in response to them. She learned several key phrases in spoken Chinese.

She also familiarized herself with the ubiquitous “little red book” of China, a collection of remarks entitled Quotations of Chairman Mao Zedong, requisite reading for every Chinese citizen intended to rigorously inculcate them on communist principals.

The Nixons welcomed in Beijing. (RNPL)

The Nixons welcomed in Beijing. (RNPL)

With her preparation, Pat Nixon was better able to understand the thinking of those she encountered and who were her constant guides and companions around China. Whenever Maoist rhetoric was spewed at her, the American First Lady smilingly quipped to simultaneously acknowledge but end the lecturing: “Oh yes, I am acquainted with his philosophy.” She cautiously avoided efforts to debate her on the greater virtues of socialism versus democracy without praising her own nation or denigrating theirs.

All she would concede was that Chinese communism seemed to offer “a well-rounded education.” The only hint of her view on communism was a subtle remark that she preferred the historical buildings instead of the monolithic ones constructed since the Cultural Revolution.

Mrs. Nixon walking through the streets of Beijing. (RNPL)

Mrs. Nixon walking through the streets of Beijing. (RNPL)

From the moment the doors to Air Force One swung open upon landing in Beijing, and Pat Nixon stepped out wearing a winter coat in an eye-popping red color that was the same shade as the Chinese flag, there was no missing her presence anywhere on the trip; in that color, she stood out not only from President Nixon and other US state department officials, but also the thousands of everyday Chinese citizens and officials who uniformly wore drab navy unisex clothes.

In making her numerous appearances for all but one day of her week in China, Pat Nixon also made a point of wearing the same red cloth coat. Not only could she not be ignored, but it seemed to emphasize an important subliminal message: here was the wife of the wealthy, capitalist world leader in appearing in the same clothes on numerous consecutive days and, furthermore, in the emblem color of China, a tacit nod of respect.

During her husband's tenure as Vice President, Pat Nixon visited the Soviet Union and joined in traditional folk dancing. (National Geographic)

During her husband’s tenure as Vice President, Pat Nixon visited the Soviet Union and joined in traditional folk dancing. (National Geographic)

For eight years, from 1953 to 1961, Pat Nixon had traveled the world in her role as vice president’s spouse, pioneering what is now the fairly routine pattern of American Presidents’ spouses on foreign trips: she maintained a separate public schedule from her husband, not resting in palaces and cruising on royal yachts but visiting hospitals, schools, markets and other venues where average citizens lived and worked, focusing spontaneously on a few individuals in each place. She called it her “personal diplomacy.”

The US FIrst Lady sampling Chinese food with chopsticks. (RNPL)

The US FIrst Lady sampling Chinese food with chopsticks. (RNPL)

Since President Nixon spent the majority of his time in China behind closed door in meetings, the large international media contingent that was covering the visit ended up following Pat Nixon: she talked with workers at a glass factory, watched physicians perform acupuncture at a free clinic, listened to grade-school children recite their lessons in a schoolroom, and even sampled the delicacy of goldfish in a restaurant kitchen.

Through the media, however, the general public which watched the television coverage of Mrs. Nixon learned as much about her as a person as it did on the communist Chinese as people. Countering the misperceptions of her as a woman who rose from privilege, she delighted peasants at the Evergreen People’s Commune when, as she pet a pig behind the ear, told of how she had labored as a working-class child and teenager on her father’s farm in southern California and managed to find time to raise a prize-winning pig.

Pat Nixon takes to the panda bear at the Peking Zoo. (RNPL)

Pat Nixon takes to the panda bear at the Peking Zoo. (RNPL)

Among her scheduled activities in China, First Lady Michelle Obama will visit the Chinese panda bears in Chengdu, but American interest in the rare species was prompted by Mrs. Nixon’s intense curiosity when she first set eyes on some during her tour of Peking Zoo.

Pat Nixon and Chinese Premier Chou En-Lai. (Corbis)

Pat Nixon and Chinese Premier Chou En-Lai. (Corbis)

Later at dinner, she animatedly went on about the pandas to Chou En-lai.

Some sources claim it was either her enthusiasm for the unique Chinese pandas or her pointing to a pack of his cigarettes which had a picture of a panda on it which led him to make an outright gift to Mrs. Nixon of two panda bears, which she promptly accepted and donated to the people of the United States.

A special habitat pen was created for them at the National Zoo in Washington, and Mrs. Nixon presided over the ceremony in which the panda bear habitat was officially opened to the public.

Pat and Richard Nixon attend a ballet with Jiang Jing during their second visit to China in 1976. (Corbis)

Pat and Richard Nixon attend a ballet with Jiang Jing during their second visit to China in 1976. (Corbis)

Surprisingly flirtatious, Chou En-Lai made no secret of his affection for Mrs. Nixon. Less receptive was the notorious “First Lady of China,” the formidable Jiang Jing, Mao’s wife who possessed a growing degree of power during the Cultural Revolution.

Controlling all aspects of national culture so that it aligned with Maoist doctrine, from art to music to theater, she and Mrs. Nixon met only once, when the American President and his wife attended a ballet called The Red Detachment of Women, which she had written, cast, produced and directed.

Pat Nixon in a Chinese classroom. (Life)

Pat Nixon in a Chinese classroom. (Life)

What Pat Nixon could not know at the time was that this humorless doctrinal communist leader was secretly an avid fan of Gone with the Wind.

As the newspaper Chicago Today put it:

…the President talked business and politics with Chinese leaders while his wife did the important work. Mrs. Nixon’s presence in Peking and her unfailingly warm, gracious conduct are accomplishing something that official discussions, important as they are, cannot do.  She is establishing direct and friendly contact with the Chinese people on a normal human level; the level where children and families and food and service and health are the most important things.”

Pat Nixon looking over one of the two panda bears given to the U.S. as a gift from China. (US-China Institute)

Pat Nixon looking over one of the two panda bears given to the U.S. as a gift from China. (US-China Institute)

Another newspaper said that despite President Nixon’s resulting pact with China to not dominate any Asian Pacific nation, the American people had remained “much misunderstood and denounced by enemy countries as being war-minded imperialists,” but that Pat Nixon had singularly helped dispel that notion in China.

Tricia Nixon posed with performers portraying her parents in the modern opera Nixon in China. (Metropolitan Opera).

Tricia Nixon posed with performers portraying her parents in the modern opera Nixon in China. (Metropolitan Opera).

Although Richard Nixon would make numerous return trips to China, as a former President, Pat Nixon only accompanied him back there once, in February 1976.

During that visit, Mao was ailing badly and appointed “the First Lady of China” to this time take the central political role over other leaders to serve as escort.

Pat Nixon's only day in China without her red coat. (RNPL)

Pat Nixon’s only day in China without her red coat. (RNPL)

Pat Nixon would again employ her “personal diplomacy” in a visit to the Soviet Union shortly after the China trip, joining President Nixon. On her own, she would also visit three African nations and two South American countries.

Apart from her having the first Chinese panda bears brought to the United States, the role which Pat Nixon played during her husband’s historic visit to China lives on in perpetuity through the repeated performances of the modern opera, Nixon in China written by John Adams, with music by Philip Glass.

Betty Ford, 1972, 1975

Betty Ford (AP)

Betty Ford (AP)

In a manner entirely different from Pat Nixon, her immediate successor Betty Ford also helped to also instantly forge empathy between the Chinese and Americans when she visited China as an incumbent First Lady in December of 1975.

In June of 1972, six months after Pat Nixon first went to China, congressional spouse Betty Ford followed in her wake, joining her husband, who was then serving as House Minority Leader, on a junket there.

The only real challenge she encountered was having to politely consume the sea slugs that were served to her on more than occasion at dinners.

Betty Ford greets a child outside the Forbidden City. (GFPL)

Betty Ford greets a child outside the Forbidden City. (GFPL)

She found the Chinese people to be “much more cheerful” than Russians, who she encountered on an earlier trip to the Soviet Union. “I’m sure there was just as much surveillance,” she wrote, “but it wasn’t so obvious; you felt more at ease.” She was also startled by the control displayed among young Chinese children, and their disciplined marching to martial music.

Exploring Manchuria in the far north, Betty Ford found herself the object of curiosity, there having been no non-Chinese people to visit the region in a quarter of a century.

She also visited an all-women’s rice commune, bought Thermos bottles imprinted with the ubiquitous panda bear and, like Pat Nixon, watched a full medical operation performed with acupuncture rather than anesthesia.

Mao greets the President and Mrs. Ford and their daughter Susan. (GFPL)

Mao greets the President and Mrs. Ford and their daughter Susan. (GFPL)

While she found the red wine to be of good quality, she was perplexed by the national population’s propensity for orange soda.

During her trip to China as First Lady, where she and President Ford were also joined by their daughter Susan, Betty Ford tried to see sites she had missed on her first trip, mostly museums.

She also had the chance to meet an ailing Chairman Mao, who would die within the year. It was her visit to a ballet class at the Central May 7th College of Art in Beijing that ended up becoming the biggest news of the presidential trip.

Betty Ford learns the hand gestures of Chinese ballet at The Central College of Art ballet class. (GFPL)

Betty Ford learns the hand gestures of Chinese ballet at The Central College of Art ballet class. (GFPL)

Discovering that she had enjoyed a career in modern dance before her marriage, some of the students invited Mrs. Ford to join them in a rehearsal.

Although she found it “quite different from anything I had ever tried, particularly in the hand movements,” this American First Lady who was always game to pose or perform publicly in sometimes delicate or humorous situations her peers usually avoided, “took off my shoes and worked in my stocking feet.”

News photographs showing her in perfect professional form dancing alongside the young communist students became an international sensation.

As she recalled: “My act was hailed as having done more to cement relations between the United States and China than all the talks of diplomats. I told Jerry he could stop talking to diplomats. I’d already made the world safe for détente, but he didn’t listen.”

Betty Ford dancing with Judith Jameison of the Dance Studio of Harlem in her favorite Chinese-style gown. (Corbis)

Betty Ford dancing with Judith Jameison of the Dance Studio of Harlem in her favorite Chinese-style gown. (Corbis)

There was one other legacy resulting from Betty Ford’s two trips to China, albeit more personal to her. During her times there she found herself especially drawn to the embroidered silks she found in the marketplaces.

She had several gowns made for herself in a Chinese style, using the mandarin collar so often that it became something of a signature style for her.

Not only did she often wear these to formal White House functions, but one example of these in a mint green is now the gown which represents her in the Smithsonian Institution’s famous First Lady collection of clothing displayed to the public.

Lady Bird Johnson, 1981

Lady Bird Johnson, 1981. (LBJL)

Mrs. Johnson, 1981. (LBJL)

Although she visited Hong Kong at the time her husband was serving as Vice President of the United States, it was not until June of 1981 Lady Bird Johnson was able to explore China.

Making the visit there in her capacity as a trustee of the National Geographic Society, the former First Lady specifically went to the nation in search of active archeological sites.

Little information is readily available about which specific sites she visited beyond Beijing.

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, 1982

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. (AP)

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. (AP)

In the immediate years following President Kennedy’s assassination, his widow worked assiduously in planning his presidential library and museum, her strong opinion in support of then-relatively unknown Chinese-born I.M. Pei as the designated architect.

Two years after Pei’s inspiring JFK Presidential Library and Museum was dedicated, he returned a favor to his friend Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, by inviting her to visit China with him.

Jackie Onassis reviewing architectural plans with I.M. Pei in a Chinese restaurant. (Getty)

Some years before her China trip, Jackie Onassis reviewing architectural plans with I.M. Pei in a Chinese restaurant. (Getty)

The primary event of the October 1982 trip was the opening of the new Fragrant Hill Hotel, north of Beijing, which Pei had been commissioned to design by the communist Chinese government.

Jackie Onassis experienced a China in the midst of change, archaic aspects of life there showing growing pains as element of luxury associated with capitalism were being haltingly introduced.

From Hong Kong, she and the Pei party of guests visited Canton, Kwelin, Soochow, Hangchow, Xian, Shanghai and Beijing.

They would get about on modern trains with massive picture windows dreamily overlooking ancient landscapes to a droning motor bus with a broken toilet, to limousines retooled out of old Soviet Union Zis cars.

Jackie Kennedy Onassis listens to her personal tour guide through Beijing's Forbidden City, October 17, 1982. (Washington Star Collection)

Jackie Kennedy Onassis listens to her personal tour guide through Beijing’s Forbidden City, October 17, 1982. (Argenta)

The former First Lady found herself in some questionable accommodations that ranged from crumbling cottages to unkempt hotel suites.

The legendary politeness of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was, however, most tested when one day she was simply met at the hotel by officials who, as she later joked, “kidnapped” her.

The promise had been that she would be shown “special places” that non-Chinese visitors were never permitted to visit.

No matter how she resisted their offers, they insisted until finally one day a tank-like limousine awaited her at her hotel lobby and Chinese officials essentially ambushed and, as she put it “kidnapped” her for an entire day.

Even though she no longer had the protection of U.S. Secret Service agents as a presidential widow (due to her 1968 remarriage), Jackie Onassis was famous for spontaneously going on adventures.

Hustled into a retooled Zis limousine, she was led on an exhausting all-day tour of sites by a Communist party official bent on didactically inculcating her with visual proof of socialist superiority of citizen services. She soon noticed that the jitney bus of her friends were often arriving at these sites as she was leaving and waved forlornly from behind the window of her car at them, longing to be with them rather than alone.

Ultimately, Jackie Onassis saw no more than her friends had. Once the limo pulled into the entry drive of her hotel and its engine was off, the former First Lady bolted from the “clutches of my kidnappers” as she wrote a friend to join her friends for a cocktail at day’s end.

The trip also held great high points.

Mrs. Onassis was permitted to walk down in the lower exhibition space where Xian’s six-thousand historic life-size terra cotta warrior figures were on display.

It was the calm voyage and astounding views of her trip down the Li River which left the greatest impression on the former First Lady and the other guests of I.M. Pei.

The unusual mountain range Jackie Onassis saw on her Li River cruise and an 8th century painting they inspired. (china.org and chinaodyssestour.com)

The unusual mountain range Jackie Onassis saw on her Li River cruise and an 8th century painting they inspired. (china.org and chinaodyssestour.com)

As they proceeded deeper into the valley, there before their very eyes were the hairpin-shaped mountains familiar to them in ancient Chinese paintings and drawings. To ensure a peaceful experience, the noisy motor of their vessel was turned off and was instead pulled by a tugboat.

Atrium of the Fragrant Hill Hotel, north of Beijing, designed by JFK Library and Museum architect I.M. Pei, who invited former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to make her first trip to China and attend the hotel opening.

Atrium of  Fragrant Hill Hotel.

Until seeing these themselves, they had assumed the old pictures had exaggerated the bulbous mountains. A fellow guest recalled that, with her fantastical imagination, Jackie Onassis felt that she had indeed been transported back in time to the period the paintings had been done, the 8th century.

Metropolitan Museum director Thomas Hoving recalled, “There were other tourists on the boat, and one woman would say to another, ‘That’s Jackie!’ Even in A.D. 800 China on the Li River, they knew Jackie!”

Hawk Moore was posing at the Forbidden City just as Jackie Onassis, in the white coat at right in background, was there. It is one of the few known images of her in China. (cnac.og photo by Hawk Moore)

Hawk Moore posed  at the Forbidden City just as Jackie Onassis ( in white coat over his left shoulder) was there. It is one of the few known images of her in China. (cnac.org photo by Hawk Moore)

In fact, among the very few known images of Jackie Kennedy Onassis in China was snapped inadvertently: as American Hawk Moore posed in front of the Forbidden City entrance, there was the famous former First Lady in the background, the sole figure in a white coat among a sea of curious Chinese citizens in green, black and blue.

The very elegance of Pei’s modern hotel with its one-hundred foot atrium, although commissioned by the communist leadership was resented by party workers employed in constructing the building to completion.

The hotel rooms occupied by the former First Lady and Pei’s other guests had non-functioning restrooms and in the lobby modern abstract canvases commissioned by the architect were deliberately damaged.

Jackie Onassis and Mark Riboud who she later signed up to do a book for her as editor, Capitol of Heaven with photos of the Chinese mountains. (pinterest

Jackie Onassis and Mark Riboud who she later signed up to do a book for her as editor, Capitol of Heaven with photos of the Chinese mountains. (pinterest)

Despite all she had been through, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis refused to believe Hoving who insisted these were acts of sabotage. “She could never understand that people could have that kind of dedicated, blind evil.”

The world’s most famous woman at the time, recognizable by simply her face, Jackie Kennedy Onassis may still have had the last laugh.

While in China, she learned that her friend, French photographer Mark Riboud would be photographing the University of Beijing and asked to join him. He agreed.

“I introduced her as my assistant. She took notes, I took pictures. For an entire day, among students at the cafeteria and in dormitories, with professors and even the rector, she went completely unrecognized. This greatly delighted her,” he recalled.

Nancy Reagan, 1984

Nancy Reagan with Xi'an terra cotta figures.(RRPL)

Nancy Reagan with Xi’an terra cotta figures.(RRPL)

During her six days in China, from April 26 to May 1, 1984, Mrs. Reagan’s public appearances were made with the President.

These included a climb up the Great Wall, watching a Rainbow Bridge Township Kindergarten class performance in Shanghai, a tour of historic sites like the historic terra cotta figures in Xi’an, and meeting with Chairman Deng Xiaoping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

Mrs. Reagan made an especially strong impression on Deng, so much so that before she left, he flirtatiously encouraged her to return to China, “without your husband.”

To honor China's President  Li Xiannian at the July 1985 state dinner honoring him, Nancy Reagan wore the Chinese gown given to her as a gift when she visited China. (RRPL)

To honor China’s President Li Xiannian at the July 1985 state dinner honoring him, Nancy Reagan wore the Chinese gown given to her as a gift when she visited China. (RRPL)

Among the state gifts which the Chinese presented to the President and First Lady of the United States was an unusually personal one.

Created in the color that was both emblematic of the People’s Republic of China and her own well-known favorite shade of “Reagan Red,” was a formal gown designed in a traditional Chinese style, made of embroidered silk.

When Chinese President Xiannian Li and his wife were honored at the White House  a year later, the First Lady wore the gown their government had given her, in a nod of respect.

And President Li told her that Chairman Deng had instructed him to remind Mrs. Reagan that she must return alone to see him in Beijing, “without your husband.”

It was a flattering, if unconventional, sign of just how much closer relations between the two nations had become.

President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan looking at the Great Wall in China, April 29, 1984.  (RRPL)

President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan looking at the Great Wall in China, April 29, 1984. (RRPL)

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This houseboat at the turn-of-the-20th-century would have been a familiar sight to First Ladies Grant, Taft, Roosevelt, Hoover and Wilson when they visited China.  (Smithsonian Institution)

This houseboat at the turn-of-the-20th-century would have been a familiar sight to Julia Grant, Nellie Taft, Edith Roosevelt, Lou Hoover and Edith Wilson when they visited China. (Smithsonian Institution)

With the White House announcement that First Lady Michelle Obama will be in China on a solo international trip from March 20 to March 26, her first to that nation, numerous media outlets have contacted the National First Ladies Library to place her historic journey within an historical context.

This popular incumbent First Lady’s forthcoming visit to Asia’s largest country will find her in Beijing for four days, Xi’an for one day, and Chengdu for two days.

In the last century and a half, fourteen American First Ladies have visited China. Some went before their husbands became Presidents of the United States, others went there while they were incumbent First Ladies and still others made their first journey to the vast nation only after leaving the White House. Several made numerous trips to China before, during or after their tenure as presidential spouses. It covers a period of tremendous change within China, as it went from a nation ruled by dynastic families, still feudal in nature, to a republic during which conflict immediately arose between those seeking to transform into into a socialist state and those favoring a more democratic one.

In this multi-part series, the National First Ladies Library will offer the first narrative about the experiences of these fourteen women in China. Unfolding chronologically, it  provides a sense of developing US-Chinese relations over a century and a half and how what was once an entirely mysterious culture, so long referred to by westerners as the “Orient”, has evolved into a 21st century society.

Julia Grant, 1879

Former First Lady Julia Grant was the first to go to China. (LC)

Former First Lady Julia Grant was the first to go to China. (LC)

It was while making her unprecedented world tour with her husband, former President Ulysses S. Grant that Julia Grant became the first (former) First Lady to visit China.

The Grants  landed in England on May 28, 1877 and from there traveled the globe, treated as touring American monarchs in the British Isles, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Denmark, Egypt, Greece, Italy, Russia, Austria, and Germany, Burma, Singapore, Vietnam, and Thailand.

Nearly a year into their travels, they arrived in China on the night of May 5, 1879 when they first landed in Canton. The entire population was said to have been ordered out to greet the “American King and Queen.”

In both closed carriages on land or aboard the U.S. ship Ashuelot by water, the Grants made stops in Hong Kong, Macao, Woosung, Shangkai, Pei-ho and Chefoo.

Julia Grant became the first of numerous other First Ladies to marvel at what she called the “great Chinese wall,” at the base of which she picked up pebbles and shells as souvenirs, as well as having the record of her visit discreetly painted on the wall.

The Grants in Egypt. (LC)

The Grants in Egypt. (LC)

Along the way, they were feted with endless ceremonies, cannon salutes, welcoming banners, flying flags, thousands of swaying, lit paper lanterns, torchlight parades, and overwhelming firework displays.

This fancy American matriarch was a bit of a novelty for the Chinese. While aboard a rustic flatboat, she glanced into her mirror and noticed three members peering into an open porthole window as she was methodically dressing in her many layers of clothing and decorating her extravagant hairstyle.

Never a teetotaler, Julia Grant admitted that her flatboat junket was made all the merrier by bottles of claret wine.

In Canton, there was so much formal ceremony and so many officials she was expected to meet, the former First Lady was “greatly disappointed….as I…did not have an opportunity to see anything of the city.” Still, she proudly recorded, she did “get one afternoon for shopping.” The highly acquisitive Mrs. Grant managed to select, “at first sight,” jade pieces, enamel boxes, embroidered silks and “best of all,” two massive blue cloisonné vases.

Julia Grant’s most interesting exposure to the Chinese culture was in Tientsin. Although permitted to take tea with the legendary Viceroy Li Hung-Chang aboard ship, she was otherwise sequestered with women.

In light of her status, however, the former First Lady was honored at a special luncheon hosted by the Viceroy’s wife, an unprecedented gesture, and it proved to be the first time that she was even seen by the six other women guests.

Former President and First Lady Ulysses and Julia Grant arriving to meet Siam's King Chulalongkorn at his Palace.

Former President and First Lady Ulysses and Julia Grant arriving to meet Siam’s King Chulalongkorn at his Palace.

Perceived as still holding some form of inherent power, Julia Grant was conveyed through the streets of Tientsin as a potentate, seated on a chair which was raised on a platform and carried by four men, veiled from public sight by a yellow silk curtain.

With the grand flourish of trumpets, her chair was placed on the stone vestibule and the curtains drawn, where Lady Li helped her rise and proceed into the court dining room.

There was a mutual fascination between Julia Grant and Lady Li when it came to clothing.

For the first time in her life, Mrs. Grant saw a woman in a pair of pants, the pair worn by Lady Li being made of brown velvet brocade over which she wore a pearl and jade-encrusted tunic. Julia Grant removed her sizable collection of jewelry, a stickpin, earrings, necklace, rings and brooch and handed them over to the Viceroy’s wife who was curious to examine the items closely.

The meal was a mix of eastern and western custom, the food served on French china accompanied by Chinese chopsticks.

When Mrs. Grant and the other American women proved unable to eat much with them, a sterling silver service from England was brought out. Each course alternated between European and Chinese foods but, Mrs. Grant recalled, “out of complement to my hostess, I partook only of the Chinese courses.”

Julia Grant, as a woman, was barred from being received with her husband by Prince Kung, the regent, but she didn't like what he had to say about her granddaughter. (LC)

Julia Grant, as a woman, was barred from being received with her husband by Prince Kung, the regent, but she didn’t like what he had to say about her granddaughter. (LC)

Noticing how the Chinese women ate nuts in between courses, Julia Grant took to the habit and introduced it in the United States at dinners she would thereafter host.

After the meal, Lady Li staged a Chinese pantomime performance for her guests. So curious about how it was all proceeding, the Viceroy himself was spotted peering into the room – until noticed, when he vanished from the sight of the women.

The high and wide walls of the Forbidden City left Julia Grant feeling “safe indeed if on the inside,” unlike the dusty, unpaved streets outside of it. In Peking, she was not invited with her husband to meet the young Prince Kung or the Prince Regent.

When she learned that the Prince Regent had quipped to her son “what a pity” that he had only a daughter and not a son, Mrs. Grant retorted with a bit of American indignation over gender inequality: “[W]e do not agree with Prince Kung; we are very proud of our little girlie.”

Lou Hoover, 1899

Lou Hoover on her wedding day. She sailed for China the next day. (HHPL)

Lou Hoover on her wedding day. She sailed for China the next day. (HHPL)

On February 11, 1899, the day after Lou Henry Hoover was married, the newlyweds set sail from California for China, where her mining engineer groom Herbert Hoover would be working.

Upon settling into a home in Tientsin, she began an intensive study of her imminent life in the new country – the culture, the regional differences, and the history, as well as the language. Even learning several different Chinese dialects, Lou Hoover spoke Chinese more easily than her husband and often translated materials for him.

Porcelain vases purchased by Lou Hoover in China. (HHPL)

Porcelain vases purchased by Lou Hoover in China. (HHPL)

She also began making trips around the country, not only to Peking but some of the interior provinces.

Her interest in Chinese porcelains prompted a lifelong passion for collecting samples of various period porcelains, especially of the Ming and K’ang periods.

One year into their residency in Tientsin, in June of 1900, the Boxer Rebellion broke out.

This was a famous series of violent attacks on and murder of foreigners in a portion of the port city where they predominantly resided by bands of native Chinese who resented the growing foreign influences on Chinese society.

Lou Hoover inspecting one of the cannons at a Chinese fort that shelled the community of Tientsin during the Boxer Rebellion, 1900.

Lou Hoover inspecting one of the cannons at a Chinese fort that shelled the community of Tientsin during the Boxer Rebellion, 1900. (HHPL)

Throughout the crisis, Lou Hoover displayed a brave calm, helping build protective barricades, caring for those wounded by gunshots, and assuming management of a small local cow herd to ensure fresh dairy products for those living within the protected area.

Eventually troops from the U.S., England, France and Russia arrived and patrolled the foreign-resident region along with civilians, like Lou Hoover who worked guard duty.

Lou Hoover in front of the family home in Tienstin. (HHPL)

Lou Hoover in front of the family home in Tientsin. (HHPL)

Before, during and after the Boxer Rebellion, Lou Hoover made her way around China by bicycle, but during the conflict she also learned to fearlessly use a pistol as a means of self-protection.

Despite their home being riddled with bullets and shells, the Hoovers remained unharmed.

Although Lou Hoover never completed the book she’d begun about living in China, in 1909 she did author a definitive article on Tzu Hsi, the Dowager Empress of China.

Nellie Taft, 1901

A young Nellie Taft. (LC)

A young Nellie Taft. (LC)

With more of a  taste for fearless adventure than most First Ladies, and a wanderlust which never abandoned her, Nellie Taft made it her business to get into China and explore alone, leaving her children with her husband, then in Manila serving as the American governor-general of the recently-colonized Philippine Islands.

The atrocities of guerrilla fighters against U.S. military forces had upset the delicate peace that had begun to settle on the islands and this, along with the intense heat had set her on edge.

“I would have to get out of the Philippine Islands or suffer a nervous breakdown,” she later wrote, “I agreed that it would be well for me to ‘run up to China.’”

The fact that she was simply going to “run up to China” in October of 1901, not long after the Boxer Rebellion had been quelled, was not even to stop her, believing that the “alarums of war” meant she was “likely to see more of China ‘from the inside’” than had she gone “during a period of complete calm.”

A year earlier, upon her initial arrival in Asian waters, Nellie Taft was talked out of her determination to explore Shangkai because the Boxer Rebellion was then raging, and she was able only to stop briefly in Hong Kong, before heading on to Manila.

Nellie Taft with her son Charlie, crossing the Pacific Ocean headed for Asia. (Taft National Historic Site)

Nellie Taft with her son Charlie, crossing the Pacific Ocean headed for Asia. (Taft National Historic Site)

Mrs. Taft sailed into Shanghai and proceeded on to Peking. Aboard the S.S. Hamburg, she delighted in drinking the “best beer on draught that I have tasted since leaving Germany.”

When she arrived at the Temple of Heaven, Nellie Taft witnessed this famous place of meditation for generations of Chinese emperors still being used as barracks for U.S. troops who had landed in China to help protect American citizens during the Boxer Rebellion.

Since Tzu Hsi and her retinue, having retreated from the Forbidden City during the fighting, was about to return to her palace, Mrs. Taft was able to look briefly through some of the royal residences.

Although she found the streets of Peking to be narrow and pungent, and a hotel employee attempted to steal her watch, she wrote of Peking with allure, “This place is very much out of the world.”

An 1898 postcard of the Temple of Heaven. (wikipedia)

An 1898 postcard of the Temple of Heaven. (wikipedia)

For this future First Lady, however, failing to closely inspect ancient historic sites during her “very busy days sightseeing” was more than compensated for by the chance to buy “oriental artifacts” at great prices.

“Then there were wonderful tales of valuable ‘loot,’” she admitted. “Not necessarily illegitimate loot, but curious and art treasures in the hands of Chinese themselves who were selling things at ridiculously low figures and, sometimes, with a fascinating air of great mystery. There is some allurement in the idea of bargaining for priceless porcelains, ivories, silks and Russian sables behind closed and double-locked doors, in the dark depths of some wretched Chinese hovel.”

Nellie Taft's embroidered chinese robe in the Manchu style. (Smithsonian)

Nellie Taft’s embroidered chinese robe in the Manchu style. (Smithsonian)

Besides her purchases of numerous bolts of embroidered silks, Nellie Taft was pleased to be gifted with a three-foot brass Buddha and a blue porcelain dog from American officials.

She returned to Shangkai, continuing to tour and shop. And rarely failing to note the appearance of the opposite sex of nations she visited, Mrs. Taft declared northern Chinese men to be, “by the way, stunning looking men.”

Instead of remaining in Shangkai for the steamer that would return her to the Philippines, Nellie Taft decided to use the time for a houseboat excursion down the Yangtze River. Not only did she find the local residents on the shore hostile in their stares at her, but she learned that the clay mounds which her vessel often shored upon were graves.

Edith Roosevelt, 1924, 1932

Former First Lady Edith Roosevelt in 1932, the year she returned to China. (NFLL)

Former First Lady Edith Roosevelt in 1932, the year she returned to China. (NFLL)

Edith Roosevelt visited China as part of a multi-nation tour she made in February 1924, proceeding there from California to Hawaii, and afterwards visiting Japan.

Accompanied by her adult son Kermit, she entered a nation which was functioning under a new anti-royalist republic.

Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt was considerably uncomfortable in a land where a societal fracture was occuring between nationalist forces and those seeking to enforce a communist form of control without any freedom of religious choice over the vast and varied population of China.

Edith Roosevelt during one of her international trips, this time in Easter Europe. (Cleared for Strange Ports, Roosevelt)

Edith Roosevelt during one of her international trips, this time in Easter Europe. (Cleared for Strange Ports, Roosevelt)

In Peking, she made the rounds of the typical western tourists, from the Forbidden City, to the Summer Palace of the legendary Empress H’sui, the latter site prompting her memory of the rich and ornate tapestries, fabrics, scrolls and other gifts the monarch had sent her in the White House.

She was unable to shake a sense of vanishing hope as she looked over ancient but now rarely utilized temples of different Eastern religious sects once so central to Chinese life. “The great spaces of the Temple of Heaven still mark the searching for spiritual light which no longer exists in China.”

Inside the Temple of Heaven. (Temple of Heaven website, China)

Inside the Temple of Heaven. (Temple of Heaven website, China)

Some nine years later, Edith Roosevelt made a second but far briefer visit to China in the last days of December, 1932. President Herbert Hoover had appointed her son, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. as Governor of the Philippine Islands.

Nearly two months earlier, however, Hoover had been defeated for re-election by the husband of the former First Lady’s niece-by-marriage, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Determined to visit the Philippines as her late husband had always hoped to do, Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt first stopped in Shanghai, China before proceeding on to Manila.

Alice to the Palace. The American Princess was carried in a gold vessel to encounter the Chinese Empress. (LC)

Alice to the Palace. The American Princess was carried in a gold vessel to encounter the Chinese Empress. (LC)

While in Shanghai, the former First Lady turned down many invitations to private dinners and receptions from both Chinese and foreign political figures but at the last minute changed her mind and accepted one from Mr. and Mrs. Sun Fo, the son and daughter-in-law of the late “Father of the Chinese Republic” Sun Yat-sen.

Alice Roosevelt with Manchu. (LC)

Alice Roosevelt with Manchu. (LC)

Of course, Edith Roosevelt’s famous stepdaughter Alice Roosevelt Longworth had been the first in the family to tour through China.

In her heyday as “Princess Alice” this Presidential daughter had not only met the old Dowager Empress during her tour of several Asian nations, but had not at all been  intimidated by her.

When this First Daughter married in the White House in 1906, the Empress sent her crates full of lavish, exquisite gifts, from bolts of embroidered silk cloth to porcelain urns to lacquered black wood chests to enameled boxes to multiple pieces of carved jade and ivory jewelery.

The greatest gift from the Chinese Empress which Miss Roosevelt long after remembered, however, was not an object but a living being. It was a little Pekingese dog which the First Daughter named Manchu.

Edith Wilson, 1929

Edith Wilson with a niece, sailing for Europe two years after she visited China. (UPI)

Edith Wilson with a niece, sailing for Europe two years after she visited China. (UPI)

“Pekin[g] is the most fascinating city I have ever seen,” wrote former First Lady Edith Wilson to her brother Randolph during her stay there in June of 1929. Her visit to China was part of a multi-nation voyage she made with a cousin who was working on the rebuilding of a Japanese hospital he helped establish. Landing at Shanghai, she and her party proceeded to Peking by train.

Ensconced in a large corner hotel suite, she had a breathtaking view of the blue-tiled roofs of the Forbidden City’s buildings which entranced her.

Edith Wilson, late 1920s. (ebay)

Edith Wilson, late 1920s. (ebay)

Much of her time was spent being feted as the widow of the man who had proposed the League of Nations, and she was the center of attention at nearly two dozen feasts of twenty-course meals hosted by diplomats and wealthy Chinese business and social leaders.

While game to try all types of exotic foods, some of it made her ill. Rallying to full strength, she made acute observations in her letters about the radical difference between the squalor of the impoverished majority and the luxuries afforded the elite class.

From Peking, Edith Wilson proceeded to Mukden, Manchuria where her world voyage would continue, her next port-of-call being Toyko.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt of the United States and Song Meiling of the Republic of China at the White House. (FDRL)

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt of the United States and Song Meiling of the Republic of China at the White House. (FDRL)

If there is any First Lady that might have been expected to visit China, it would be Eleanor Roosevelt. During World War II, she became the first incumbent First Lady to make overseas trips, and do so without the President, travelling by air and sea to the British Isles, the Caribbean and the Pacific, as a representative of the Red Cross. As a former First Lady, both in her official capacity as a representative of the United Nations and as a private citizen, she was at home around the globe, visiting nations in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, South America, Eastern and Western Europe.

With the Chinese Communist Revolution leader Mao Zedong establishing the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949, however, and the retreat of nearly 3 million nationalist Chinese with their leader Chiang Kai-shek to the island of Taiwan, however, the United States Department of State placed a firm ban on any travel to China by American citizens.

 

Pearl Buck receiving a check from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt for the China Relief Legion. (National Geographic)

Author Pearl Buck receiving a check from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt for the China Relief Legion. (National Geographic)

In 1957, her friend, New York Post publisher Dorothy Schiff whose newspaper carried Mrs. Roosevelt’s daily column, suggested an enticing assignment to the former First Lady: “How would you like to go to Red China for us?”

Eleanor Roosevelt was eager to make the trip, but the State Department, then under the Republican Eisenhower Administration, refused to change its policy, adding that there was no way for the American government to ensure her safety there.

Mao and his party leaders were also especially hostile to Eleanor Roosevelt. Since her days as First Lady, she had been a consistent supporter of the anti-communist nationalists and in that role, she had not only befriended but welcomed its leader’s wife, the overtly political Madame Chiang Kai-shek as an overnight White House guest with much publicity and fanfare.

Thus, China remained one of the few important nations never visited by Eleanor Roosevelt.

Eleanor Roosevelt's newspaper column regarding her unrequited wish to visit China. (FBI)

Eleanor Roosevelt’s newspaper column regarding her unrequited wish to visit China. (FBI)

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The future First Lady Nancy Davis [Reagan] posing for a Hollywood publicity still. (RRPL)

The future First Lady Nancy Davis [Reagan] posing for a Hollywood publicity still. (RRPL)

The broadcast of the annual Academy Awards for Motion Pictures this coming Sunday, March 2, 2014, offers an opportunity to consider an often neglected period in the career of one of history’s most important First Ladies, Nancy Reagan.

Edie Luckett, Nancy Reagan's mother, during her theatrical career (Make-Believe, Leamer)

Edie Luckett, Nancy Reagan’s mother, during her theatrical career (Make-Believe, Leamer)

Born far from the glamorous hills of Hollywood with which she would come to be so closely associated in the working-class neighborhood of Flushing, Queens in New York City, this First Lady’s legals born as Anne Frances Robbins on July 5, 1921.

Nancy Reagan might well have been born in a theatrical trunk, however, given the nature of her mother’s active professional life as a theatrical actress.

Following her separation from Nancy’s birth father Kenneth Robbins, Edith Luckett returned to the theatrical profession which had gainfully employed many of her own family in the late 19th century in the Washington, D.C. area.

Edie counted many friends who went on to become legendary movie actors like Katherine Hepburn and Claudette Colbert, who then took her daughter under their wings. Even Nancy Reagan’s godmother was the famously exotic actress Alla Nazimova.

Since Edie’s work meant she was not just in New York for a show’s run but often traveling the nation as part of touring companies, Nancy Reagan matured into adolescence in the care of her maternal aunt in Bethesda, Maryland.

Nancy Reagan in her high school production of a play called First Lady. (My Turn, Reagan)

Nancy Davis in her high school production of a play called First Lady. (My Turn, Reagan)

While living apart from her mother created anxiety, being so close to Washington permitted the future First Lady to at least attend the annual Easter Egg Roll contest on the White House lawn during the years that Grace Coolidge hosted the event.

Following Edith’s 1928 divorce from Ken Robbins, marriage a year later to Chicago neurosurgeon Loyal Davis and his 1935 adoption of her daughter, Nancy Davis enrolled at the Girls Latin School in the Windy City. There she performed in many of the school plays, including one called First Lady.

Upon graduation, Nancy Davis went on to attend Smith College in Northhampton, Massachusetts. While at Smith, Nancy Davis continued her interest in acting, involving herself in the school’s theatrical productions, including a World War II show called The Factory Follies, which referenced the famous Rosie the Riveters of the era.

Nancy Reagan in a World War II theatrical review at Smith College known as the Factory Follies (AP)

Nancy Davis (center)  in a World War II theatrical review at Smith College known as the Factory Follies (AP)

She graduated with her bachelor’s degree in dramatic arts.

The future First Lady was still in college, however, when she made her very first appearance on film, performing in a National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis fundraising short film short shown across the nation’s movie theaters.

In the short, Nancy Davis played a volunteer in the fight against polio, a public service effort with incumbent First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt then serving as an honorary chair of the organization which her husband had helped foster.

In 11945, two years after graduating from Smith College, Nancy Davis followed her mother’s footsteps in the limelight, cast in a small role in the touring company of Ramshackle Inn, starring Edith Davis’s friend, the legendary actress Zasu Pitts.

A year later, she won a role in the Broadway musical Lute Song, which starred Mary Martin and Yul Brynner.

Nancy Davis as a stage actress, in emulation of her first theatrical co-star, comedic actress Zasu Pitts, a friend of her mother's. (Make-Believe, Leamer)

Nancy Davis as a stage actress, in emulation of her first theatrical co-star, comedic actress Zasu Pitts, a friend of her mother’s. (Make-Believe, Leamer)

With many theatrical works being filmed for the earliest television show series in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Nancy Davis appeared in another production of Ramshackle Inn for television broadcast, as well as one called Broken Dishes.

It was that latter TV appearance which led to her being flown out to the state she would always love as her home, California, bidden there to make a screen test for Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios.

Mrs. Davis told her friend Spencer Tracey about the exciting prospect and he then phoned legendary director George Cukor who, along with Howard Keel, worked with Nancy Davis in producing a screen test which resulted in a contract.

“Joining Metro,” said Nancy Reagan, “was like walking into a dream world.” On her first day at the MGM studios, she admitted to being “nervous and gullible.”

Nancy Reagan's East Side, West Side scene with Barbara Stanwyck which the young actress filmed in one take and impressed the big star. (greatoldmovies.blogspot.com)

Nancy Davis’s East Side, West Side scene with Barbara Stanwyck which the young actress filmed in one take and impressed the big star. (greatoldmovies.blogspot.com)

The new starlet was struck, recalling how she would report to work some mornings only to find she was seated in the makeup room beside stars such as Elizabeth Taylor and Ava Gardner.

In the MGM lunchroom, she ate alongside the likes of big-name stars such as Fred Astaire, Lana Turner, Frank Sinatra, Deborah Kerr, Gene Kelly, and Esther Williams.

Usually typecast as a youthful mother, she auditioned for many other roles in competition with leading stars of the era. With unnerving frequency, however, Debbie Reynolds got the part.

“I was beside myself with excitement. Not only was Metro the greatest studio in Hollywood,” she wrote, “but I was finally earning a regular paycheck…”

A poster advertising Nancy Reagan's appearance in the Next Voice You Hear.

A poster advertising Nancy Davis’s appearance in The Next Voice You Hear.

Over the years, Nancy Reagan would make a total of eleven feature films, appearing with bold-faced names such as Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, Ray Milland, Ann Sothern, James Whitmore, Cyd Charisse, and Glenn Ford.

During her first year on contract, her first two film roles The Doctor and the Girl and East Side, West Side were as a supporting cast member.

A year later, in 1950, she was cast in two films which won her good reviews.

The New York Times called her Shadow on the Wall depiction of a child psychiatrist “beautiful and convincing” and the newspaper declared her co-starring role as an expectant mother to whom God speaks through the radio in The Next Voice You Hear to be “delightful.”

Nancy Reagan with Ray Milland in Night after Morning.

Nancy Davis with Ray Milland in Night after Morning.

Of all her movie roles, Mrs. Reagan’s own favorite was that of a fiancée whose intended husband dies, in the 1951 film Night into Morning.

Both the New York Times and Washington Post film critics detected authenticity in the emotions she conveyed on screen. The Times declared that she “knows the loneliness of grief,” while the Post critiqued that she “is splendid as the understanding widow.”

Nancy Davis outside her Hollywood bungalow apartment. (RRPL)

Nancy Davis outside her Hollywood bungalow apartment. (RRPL)

It was not then publicly known that, in real life, Nancy Davis had been engaged to a young man during her college years who had, in fact, been killed in an accident which thus altered the course of her personal life.

“I loved the work, although it was a lot less glamorous than people think,” Mrs. Reagan later candidly reflected. She also addressed why she made the choices she did during her life at the time: “I was never really a career woman but only because I hadn’t found the man I wanted to marry. I couldn’t sit around and do nothing, so I became an actress.”

The Reagans at the 1960 Screen Actors Guild annual membership meeting. (Corbis

The Reagans at the 1960 Screen Actors Guild annual membership meeting. (Corbis)

Even her initial 1949 press release upon signing with MGM had explicitly stated that a “successful happy marriage” had always been her personal priority.

Once working steadily as a professional actress, however, she had every hope she would eventually receive offers for a wider range of roles. “I think I could have gone on and made a good career for myself,” she later reflected. She was likely less compulsive about “making it big in pictures” than most of her peers at the time because within a year of arriving in Hollywood, she met the president of the Screen Actors Guild, fellow actor Ronald Reagan.

Nancy Reagan with Lew Ayres in Donovan's Brain.

Nancy Reagan with Lew Ayres in Donovan’s Brain.

After they married in March 1952, the new Mrs. Reagan went on to serve on the Screen Actors Guild board of directors for a decade. Released from her MGM contract that year, she went on to make three more feature films at other studios, the first being a science fiction movie called Donovan’s Brain.

The poster advertising Hellcats of the Navy, the feature film which co-starred the Reagans.

The poster for Hellcats of the Navy, the feature film which co-starred the Reagans.

Her role as a nurse in the 1957 film Hellcats of the Navy is perhaps her most famous because her co-star was her husband.

While the script was panned, her performance was not, one critic noting that Mrs. Reagan “does well with what she has to work with.”

Before making her last motion picture, 1958’s Crash Landing, Nancy Reagan had already begun a second phase of her Hollywood career, guest-starring in a number of television theatrical dramas including four episodes of General Electric Theater, which her husband hosted.

In one of those GE Theater episodes Nancy Reagan’s co-star was Ronald Reagan. The name of it?  A Turkey for the President.

The President and Mrs. Reagan enjoyed watching Hollywood classic firms in the White House movie theater. (RRPL)

The President and Mrs. Reagan enjoyed watching Hollywood classic films in the White House movie theater. (RRPL)

The year 1962 marked the last time Mrs. Reagan acted professionally on camera, doing episodes of four series that year, Wagon Train, 87th Precinct, and The Dick Powell Theater.

Five years later she would be serving as the Golden State’s First Lady during Reagan’s two terms as governor and within twenty years, Nancy Reagan was First Lady of the United States from 1981 to 1989.

It was not the end of offers to star in a feature film, however.

Just seven years after she left the White House, director and actor Albert Brooks approached the former First Lady to consider starring as the lead in his 1996 movie Mother.

Nancy Reagan turned down the offer. And Debbie Reynolds got the part.

The Feature Film Roles of Nancy Davis Reagan

1949 The Doctor and the Girl as Mariette Esmond 

1949 East Side, West Side as Helen Lee

1950 Shadow on the Wall as Dr. Caroline Canford

1950 The Next Voice You Hear as Mary Smith

1951 Night Into Morning as Katherine Mead

1951 It’s a Big Country as Miss Coleman

1952 Talk About a Stranger as Marge Fontaine

1952 Shadow in the Sky as Betty Hopke

1953 Donovan’s Brain as Janice Cory

1957 Hellcats of the Navy as Helen Blair

1958 Crash Landing as Helen Williams

 

Television Series Roles of Nancy Davis Reagan

1948 Portrait of Jennie, (uncredited role as girl in art gallery)

1949 The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse

- Ramshackle Inn (1949)

-Broken Dishes (1949)

1953 The Ford Television Theatre
-The First Born (1953) as Laura Glenn

1953-1954 Schlitz Playhouse
- The Pearl Street Incident (1954) …[character name unknown]

- Twenty-two Sycamore Road (1953) as Nan Gage

1955 Climax!
Bailout at 43,000 Feet as Carol Peterson

1961 Zane Grey Theater
The Long Shadow as Amy Lawson

1961 The Tall Man
Shadow of the Past as Sarah Wiley

1956-1961 General Electric Theater
That’s the Man! (1956) as Evelyn Kent

- A Turkey for the President (1958) as Native-American Indian woman

- The Playoff (1960) as Betty Anderson

- Money and the Minister (1961) as Vicky Carlisle

1962 Wagon Train 
The Sam Darland Story as Mrs. Baxter

1962 87th Precinct
King’s Ransom as Diane King

1962 The Dick Powell Theatre
Obituary for Mr. X as Flora Roberts

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By Will Swift 

 


The following is an excerpt from Pat and Dick: The Nixons, An Intimate Portrait of a Marriage written by Will Swift, a leading presidential biographer. Will Swift’s website is www.willswift.com You can see more about the book on:  https://www.facebook.com/PatAndDickTheNixonsAnIntimatePortraitOfAMarriage

 “All lives have triumphs and tragedies, laughter and tears, and mine has been no different. What really matters is whether, after all of that, you remain strong and a comfort to your loved ones.”

-Pat Nixon in her final interview, June 1992

 

“Pat was always stronger. Without her, I could not have done what I did.” Richard Nixon, In The Arena, 1990.

In a culture that celebrates extroverts, encourages public displays of emotion, and fosters the idea that relationships can be discarded when troubles arise, much of the American public and press still does not understand the private, spacious, and committed nature of the Nixon marriage. The Nixons’ friends saw a tender side to Dick, and a man who depended heavily on his wife. In Pat they witnessed resolve and authentic engagement. Her surprising, deft, and enduring partnership with her husband over nine political campaigns was central to his rise to power and to his enduring impact on the nation. Their union, complex and mysterious, intrigued Americans for half a century. The Nixons’ swift ascent into prominence and power was followed by repeated plunges into public humiliation, and then, each time, a tenacious recovery. Their marriage represented both the fulfillment and the failure of the American dream of self-invention and worldly success.

Twenty years after her death, Pat Nixon has not been fully appreciated for her role in helping her husband make the second half of the twentieth century into what Senator Bob Dole called “the age of Nixon.” She was the loyal and at times resentful wife of a brilliant, sentimental, and sometimes distant man she admired. She proved herself a humane and shrewd team player to a politician who considered her an essential helpmate. A modern, wise and playful woman with a wicked sense of humor, she was also fiercely partisan. Publicly silent but powerful in private, she influenced and tempered her husband, his actions, and his policies.

Pat was also astute in her assessments of people and situations in ways that facilitated her husband’s political career and diplomacy. She had “a good sixth sense about people,” according to her son-in-law Ed Cox. To powerful effect, she studied the subtleties of international politics combining her fascination about foreign cultures with an ability to open her heart to people she met on her travels. Dwight Eisenhower rated her an excellent political spouse, able to converse intelligently with any world leader. Her husband agreed. She believed, with her husband, in the American myth of mission, divinely ordained — that America should serve as an example of justice and freedom, and encourage the people of other nations to believe in their right to liberty and democracy. As a good will ambassador—representing the best of the American spirit—from the 1950s to the 1970s, she significantly advanced her husband’s career at home and elevated the status of the United States abroad, often in countries tottering between democratic and authoritarian forms of government. It is a shame that she did not have a greater opportunity to use her diplomatic gifts; like Jean Kennedy Smith, she might have made an excellent ambassador to Ireland.

When he is viewed through the lens of his marriage and the humanizing portrait of his wife, Richard Nixon, always a conundrum, takes on new dimensions At those times in his life when he was obtaining and wielding power, he could be surprisingly relaxed and engaging, as he revealed in his early married years, his middle age in New York City, and his retirement in New Jersey. His mind worked so quickly that he could often be impatient and awkward in public, but he was far more sensitive and thoughtful in private with his wife, his daughters and his friends. His wife understood the vulnerability that underlay the polarizing and vindictive aspects of his public character.

Dick knew that her positive persona was important to his bid to make his presidency successful, but he genuinely wanted her to feel valued by the American public and the press for her stellar qualities. Even when he was preoccupied with his own career and public agenda, he cared deeply about how his wife was perceived. He valued her as an asset to his administration and sought to safeguard her place in history. While his controlling behavior caused contention between his West Wing and her East Wing, he fought diligently to assist his wife in her first years in the White House and, later, to counter her negative image as a passive first lady, a “Plastic Pat.” The president and First Lady worked together to rectify harsh portrayals of their marriage: when the Nixon union was attacked as lifeless; the couple cooperated on television documentaries and in print interviews to correct portrayals of them that they felt were hurtful and inaccurate.

No one marital style predicts whether a couple will be successful over the long term. Both couples who fight frequently and those who bury their differences can survive the rigors of married life and live contentedly into old age. Pat and Dick often handled problems by avoiding them. They fought by moving apart for brief periods or by communicating through others when tensions peaked. Nonetheless, they always found a way to reconnect before their injuries led to a permanent estrangement. The last year of Watergate, for example, understandably strained the bond between the Nixons, but during their subsequent exile in California they painstakingly renewed their connection to each other, amid life-threatening illnesses, disgrace, and defeat. Many onlookers wondered whether Pat should have stayed with Dick, but her apparent contentment during their last years together suggests it was the right decision for her.

Presidential speechwriter William Safire recognized that Pat shared her husband’s “prejudices and scar tissue.” “Pat and I come from similar backgrounds,” Dick said in a 1982 interview with Good Housekeeping magazine. “We have compatibility and the same general beliefs. I married her because I loved her and admired her intelligence and her great sense of humor.” Their common underlying values allowed them to surmount a vast difference in their enthusiasm for politics, but prevented them from fully acknowledging how their view of themselves as outsiders impeded their public performance.

The Nixons’ well-documented traumas and conflicts led them to discover their strength, courage, and resilience as a couple. Over fifty-three years of marriage each remained a solid comfort to the other. Within the marriage, Pat treaded close to the troublesome line between self-abnegation and healthy love, but in the end she felt that she had received and given enough love to make her life meaningful. Dick had trouble balancing ambition, intimacy, and relaxation in his home life, but he learned from his close brush from death in 1974 to live more fully in the moment, savoring quiet and relaxed times with his wife, and, thus, recalibrating his marriage.

The Nixons haunt and inspire our national psyche. They strove to portray the best of America’s moral character and they succeeded, but they also represented for some Americans the pursuit of achievement and a preoccupation with public image at the expense of self-awareness, personal contentment and integrity. Their marriage—rich with flaws and virtues, constantly reinvented in crisis after crisis, enduring for half a century in the public arena—makes them figures crucial to — and emblematic of — the American story.

Excerpted from Pat and Dick: The Nixons, An Intimate Portrait of a Marriage.

 

Published by Threshold Editions/Simon & Schuster. Copyright (c) Will Swift, 2013.

 

 

 

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Rosalynn Carter in the White House Green Room (The Carter Center)

Rosalynn Carter in the White House Green Room (The Carter Center)

A student made a recent inquiry to the National First Ladies Library about which First Ladies who were considered “southern” may have especially held political views on public issues contemporary to their tenure in the White House.

A colorized version of a familiar image of Mary Lincoln. (Corbis)

A colorized version of a familiar image of Mary Lincoln. (Corbis)

In using the broadest definition of the role of First Lady, which does not confine that to simply those women who were married to Presidents but also to those daughters, nieces, and daughters-in-law who fulfilled the public duties of that role, one finds a number of women might qualify under the widest parameters of southern women who were First Ladies. The categorization of them becomes less well defined when one ponders whether or not to include those who may not have been born and raised in the southern states but who chose to marry men with homes in the southern states and to establish their life there and also adopt prevailing views, particularly as it related to slavery and states rights.

Here is a definitive list, using the broadest parameters, of those who can be considered southern First Ladies:

Martha Custis Dandridge Washington (born, raised and lived in Virginia)

Martha Jefferson Randolph (born, raised and lived most of her life in Virginia; the president’s daughter served as public hostess for two of the eight social seasons of his administration)

Dolley Payne Todd Madison (born in North Carolina, raised in Pennsylvania, lived part of her life in Virginia)

Rachel Jackson. (The Hermitage)

Rachel Jackson. (The Hermitage)

Elizabeth Kortright Monroe (born and raised in New York, lived part of her life in Virginia)

Rachel Donelson Jackson (born in Virginia, lived in Tennessee, died after her husband’s election, before his presidency)

Emily Donelson (born, raised and lived in Tennessee, niece of Rachel Jackson, served as public hostess for about half of her uncle’s administration)

Sarah Polk. (Polk Ancestral Home)

Sarah Polk. (Polk Ancestral Home)

Sarah Yorke Jackson (born and raised in Pennsylvania, lived much of her life in Tennessee, daughter-in-law of the president by his adopted son, served as public hostess for the latter part of his administration)

Angelica Singleton Van Buren (born and raised in South Carolina, lived in New York, served as public hostess for her widowed father-in-law)

Letitia Christian Tyler (born, raised and lived in Virginia, first wife of the president)

Priscilla Cooper Tyler (born and raised in Pennsylvania, lived in Virginia and Alabama, served as public hostess for her father-in-law since her mother-in-law was unable to do so due to a stroke)

Letitia Tyler Semple (born and raised in Virginia, lived in Maryland and Washington, D.C., served as public hostess following the death of her mother and departure of her sister-in-law from Washington)

A depiction of Angelica Van Buren on the White House South Lawn. (ebay)

A depiction of Angelica Van Buren on the White House South Lawn. (ebay)

Julia Gardiner Tyler (born and raised in New York, lived in Virginia, Washington, D.C. and New York, the second wife of the president and married to him when he served in the Confederate Congress)

Sarah Childress Polk (born and lived in Tennessee, educated in North Carolina)

Margaret “Peggy” Mackall Smith Taylor (born and raised in Maryland, lived in Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi)

Mary Elizabeth “Betty” Taylor Bliss (born in Kentucky, raised on Army posts through southern, midwestern states, educated in northern states, lived in Louisiana, Mississippi and Virginia, served as public hostess for her father’s administration since her mother chose not to do so)

Mary Todd Lincoln (born and raised in Kentucky, lived in Illinois and New York)

Eliza McCardle Johnson (born, raised and lived in Tennessee)

Edith Wilson (artinamerica.com)

Edith Wilson (artinamerica.com)

Martha Johnson Patterson (born, raised and lived in Tennessee, served as public hostess for her father since her mother lived with tuberculosis and was unable to do so)

Ellen Herndon Arthur (born in Virginia, raised in Washington, D.C., lived in New York – died eighteen months before her husband succeeded to the presidency)

Ellen Axson Wilson (born and raised in Georgia, educated and lived most of her adult life outside of the southern states)

Edith Bolling Galt Wilson (born and raised in Virginia, lived most of her life in Washington, D.C.)

Rosalynn Smith Carter (born, raised and lived most of her life in Georgia)

As to those who were especially political in their roles:

Without question, Rosalynn Carter was the most overtly involved in politics and policy of her husband’s administration, certainly to a degree almost never seen in the presidency. One can conduct secondary source research on this from several excellent sources; one can also conduct original research at the Carter Presidential Library, using those of her papers which have been opened to the public.

Ellen Wilson (Library of Congress)

Ellen Wilson (Library of Congress)

Ellen Wilson was also quite involved in social issues which involved contemporary political matters, most notably her efforts to upgrade the sub-standard housing of Washington’s African-American community around the U.S. Capitol Building and the simultaneous enforcement of new “Jim Crow” laws in the city, as well as new policies dictating racial segregation in the federal workplace. Several excellent secondary works (biographies) of her will provide good primary resources to consult further. Her biography Ellen Wilson by Frances Saunders is an excellent source.

A colorized version of a familiar image of Mary Lincoln. (Corbis)

A colorized version of a familiar image of Mary Lincoln. (Corbis)

Edith Wilson had strong if ill-informed opinions that were political in that they involved her husband, but it was his interests and not a natural inclination towards political matters which led her into political matters. Her biography Edith and Woodrow by Phyllis Levin chronicles this well.

Mary Lincoln similarly approached political issues during her husband’s presidency – from the viewpoint of his interests, but also held strong political views of her own which sometimes contradicted his and pre-dated her marriage. The best sources for this are Jean Baker’s biography Mary Lincoln, Life and Letters of Mary Lincoln by Justin Turner and his daughter and Ruth Painter Randall’s biography of this First Lady. The assiduous endnotes will help serve as a guide to original sources.

Priscilla Cooper Tyler. (NFLL)

Priscilla Cooper Tyler. (NFLL)

Perhaps the most politically-overt of southern First Ladies of the 19th century were Sarah Polk and Julia Tyler. There is no good biography of the former but the Polk Ancestral Home in Tennessee will be a good starting point. An excellent joint biography of Julia Tyler and John Tyler is the 1962 …And Tyler Too, by Robert Seager. He uses many of her family papers at Yale University and it is well-resourced.

Like her stepmother-in-law Julia Tyler, Priscilla Tyler was an adopted southern woman, but her daughter is the person who first raised the Confederate flag in Alabama and she held strong emotional views in support of the C.S.A. Her papers are at the University of Alabama and original research may turn up more specifics

Likewise, one may find some new and interesting information on Angelica Van Buren, a native of South Carolina during her life in New York during the Civil War. Some of her papers are included among those of President Van Buren at the Library of Congress and the University of South Carolina has a collection of her books and may also have some of her letters.

For further information, pllease read through the individual biographies of these First Ladies under “research” on the National First Ladies Library website and also consult our bibliography which provides the above sources and many others on each individual First Lady.

 

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The Canton, Ohio headstones over the graves of "Little Ida" and Katie McKinley, the long-dead daughters of the President and his wife, became a tourist attraction during his presidency.

The Canton, Ohio cemetery headstones over the graves of “Little Ida” and Katie McKinley, the long-dead daughters of the President and his wife, became a tourist attraction during his presidency.

November first, the day after Halloween, is the religious All Souls Day in the Catholic faith. In the Mexican culture, it has usually been marked with iconography of skeletons and other unearthly representations of dead family members as the centerpiece of small shrines consisting of objects associated with the lost relative and candles kept lit in the dark.

William and Ida McKinley in their White House bedroom.

William and Ida McKinley in their White House bedroom.

It wasn’t one day each year but every day for nearly thirty years, however, that a President and First Lady remembered their two “lost girls,” daughters who died in 1873 and 1875.

William and Ida McKinley may have moved into the White House in 1897 without any living children but they did what it took to convince themselves and convey to others that their lost girls were still very much alive in a form other than physical.

In fact, at least one Senate wife who befriended the couple spoke of them as “ghosts in the long-ago moonlight.”

Ida McKinley in 1870.

Ida McKinley in 1870.

Eleven months after her wedding to young attorney William McKinley, the witty, worldly former assistant bank manager Ida Saxton had given birth to their first child on Christmas Day in 1871, naming her Katie, after her own mother. Mrs. McKinley had always been unusually close to her mother, many observers presuming they were actually sisters.

Two weeks before Ida gave birth to her second child in April of 1873, named for herself and known as “Little Ida,” however, her mother succumbed to a painful and terminal cancer. Some suggest that it was while managing the high steps of a closed coach or buggy while attending her mother’s cemetery burial that the pregnant Mrs. McKinley took a severe fall.

One of the only two pictures taken of Katie McKinley before she died at three and a half years old.

One of the only two pictures taken of Katie McKinley before she died at three and a half years old.

Whenever or wherever the fall might have taken place, the result was a spinal trauma and apparent concussion, with ensuing neurological problems. Just four years before, she had been hiking upwards of ten miles a day. Now she was beset with chronic immobility and late-onset epilepsy. She was just 26 years old.

Two weeks later, “Little Ida” was born in a condition that was described as “sickly.” She only lived for four months, dying of cholera.

With Ida seeking every possible medical treatment for her seizures and immobility, William McKinley particularly focused his care and love on their first-born, remaining daughter.

Katie McKinley. (NFLL)

Katie McKinley. (NFLL)

Even at just three and half years old, Katie McKinley was known for being highly animated, affectionate with her little dog, making friends with other children and going to visit them, and marked by a merry demeanor.

She was the very picture of health, her long, blond curls were thick and shiny, her blue eyes large and attentive, her cheeks pink and glowing. The child was developing a distinct personality.

A year and ten months after her baby sister died, Katie McKinley contracted scarlet fever and also died.

Ida McKinley. in later life, with the cherished rocking chair of her long-gone daughter Katie.

Ida McKinley. in later life, with the cherished rocking chair of her long-gone daughter Katie.

The unfounded fear of “passing on” epilepsy to an unborn child was the likely reason the McKinleys never had another child but they did the next best thing: they continued to think and speak daily about Katie McKinley. If she had died in the flesh, she was not permitted to pass away in their hearts and minds.

The First Lady stands beneath Katie McKinley's image.

The First Lady stands beneath Katie McKinley’s image.

Oddly ghoulish as many people would find it, wherever Ida McKinley would live from that point on, she would place some of Katie’s clothes across her little rocking chair to display beneath the oil portrait later made of the child from one of the only two photographs taken of her.

She would also speak of Katie in the present tense, making reference over the years to the age she would now be were she physically present.

An 1896 campaign souvenir card showed not only William and Ida McKinley but their long-dead daughter Katie.

An 1896 campaign souvenir card showed not only William and Ida McKinley but their long-dead daughter Katie.

When her father ran for President, Katie McKinley appeared on campaign paraphernalia, the local Canton, Ohio photography studio which had made the only known images of her as a child rather presumptuously letting it be used on postcards, badges and buttons. Rather than protest this, McKinley and his wife were ecstatic about it, eager to have their daughter be part of their political epoch. Still, it often led the political delegations visiting Canton to mistakenly presume that Katie was, in fact, still alive in the more conventional form.

By willful insistence that Katie had come with them to the White House in “some form” and by mentioning and remembering her if even as a ghost or spirit, the President and Mrs. McKinley seemed able to better accept the fact that she would never return to them in physical form. And, truth be told, it may have proved comparatively healthier than never speaking of or acknowledging the trauma.

An example of the "ghost baby" photos popular in the Victorian age, where a dead child was posed to look as if asleep and a permanent image of them made before they were buried and their faces forgotten.

An example of the “ghost baby” photos popular in the Victorian age, where a dead child was posed to look as if asleep and a permanent image of them made before they were buried and their faces would otherwise be forgotten.

In numerous ways, Ida McKinley quite radically defied the conventional expectations of women by refusing to assume even ostensible interest in domestic matters. Likewise, despite her tremendous grief, she did not indulge in the era’s popular practice of having a dead child photographed before it was buried.

A Victorian mother with her dead child's image superimposed on her lap as a ghost.

A Victorian mother with her dead child’s image superimposed on her lap as a ghost.

Despite even her belief in the Hindu tenet of reincarnation, Ida McKinley also resisted either posing with her “lost girls” before their burial or permit a ghostly impression of them superimposed onto one of her own.

Even her conception of her eldest daughter’s ghost was apart from the prevailing ideas on such specters, which were believed to be arrested in time at the moment of their death.

For the President and First Lady, Katie McKinley was no mere “angel baby” in the popular tradition of Victorian mourning beliefs but rather a ghost who was aging along the real-time passage of years.

When the President encountered a particularly poised woman in her late 20s, for example, he seemed almost mesmerized looking at her, as if she might be a manifestation in some odd way of Katie, who would have been the same age.

A "lost child" posed in its bassinet before burial.

A “lost child” posed in its bassinet before burial.

It was different with the ghost of “Little Ida,” who was still a new-born child without a developed personality when she died at four months old. She was the one cast not as a “real child of this earth,” but as the “Christmas angel.” She was later described by relatives who had met the baby as having “come to earth for only a little while…those who saw her could never quite believe that she was meant to be kept here, frail thing that she was…”

Close friends of the couple only further indulged the idea of their daughters still being alive as conscious spirits, with them in the White House.

A friend gave the McKinleys a diorama Easter egg showing Katie and Little Ida on the White House South Lawn.

A friend gave the McKinleys a diorama Easter egg showing Katie and Little Ida on the White House South Lawn.

Noticing how affected the First Lady became during the 1897 Easter Egg Roll on the White House South Lawn, which she watched with some friends and their children from the South Balcony, one of them soon after crafted a sugar egg with an enclosed diorama, spied through a hole in the egg, as a gift for the President and his wife.

The image showed Little Ida and Katie McKinley standing together, now both matured but still young, on the South Lawn. The McKinleys treated the little artistic effort as if it were a jeweled Faberge egg.

A Valentine's Day angel card sent the McKinleys, likely to represent "Little Ida."

A Valentine’s Day angel card sent the McKinleys, likely to represent “Little Ida.”

When Ida McKinley hosted the first known celebration of Valentine’s Day with a dance, including the first known playing of the new ragtime music, one of the guests accepted by sending a gift of her own.

She mailed to the McKinleys a heart-shaped card showing a golden-haired angel toddler, apparently to suggest the four-month old “Little Ida” who had never been photographed.

A snapshot of the McKinley daughters burial place marked by their name in flowers.

A snapshot of the McKinley daughters burial place marked by their name in flowers.

Since the McKinleys spoke quite openly of their maturing spirit of Katie and perpetually-infant angel Little Ida, it wasn’t long before the press began reporting the presence of the “lost girl” ghosts of the White House.

When the President and First Lady arrived for visits home to Canton, Ohio they never failed to make a pilgrimage to their cemetery to visit the final resting places of their daughters.

One of the stereo-optical cards made of the lost girls' graves.

One of the stereo-optical cards made of the lost girls’ graves.

When they were in the White House, they sent lavish floral displays to be placed on the graves; this led to public disclosure of precisely where the headstones of the McKinley “lost girls” was located.

Photographers snapped it and the graveyard tableaux soon appeared on stereo-optical cards.

A tourist poses with the markers for Little Ida and Katie McKinley. (McKinley Presidential Library)

A tourist poses with the markers for Little Ida and Katie McKinley. (McKinley Presidential Library)

Tourists exploring the President’s hometown from as far away as California were sure to include a pilgrimage to Westlawn Cemetery for a snapshot of Katie and Little Ida six feet under.

The President and Mrs. McKinley at the summit of Mount Tom in western Massachusetts, June 1899.

The President and Mrs. McKinley at the summit of Mount Tom in western Massachusetts, June 1899.

Nobody at the time could have guessed that the First Lady’s keeping Little Ida and Katie McKinley alive by the sheer will of imagination affected anyone but her and her husband.

As he weighed military options while devising perhaps his most momentous foreign policy decision, however, the ghosts of his “lost girls” proved to be an emotionally powerful factor in the President’s thinking.

And it would come to alter the fate of millions of living people.

Ida McKinley, the new biography by the website author.

Ida McKinley, the new biography by the website author.

The dramatic account of how that occurred is detailed for the first time in this author’s new book, Ida McKinley: The Turn-of-the-Century First Lady through War, Assassination and Secret Disability, published today and available for sale.

It can be purchased here.

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Candidates Spouses at National Conventions

Bess Truman, right, with dughter Margaret at the 1944 Democratic Convention which nominated her husband as the vice presidential candidate.

Bess Truman, right, with daughter Margaret at the 1944 Democratic Convention which nominated her husband as the vice presidential candidate – and led to his presidency within the year.

For much of the 19th century and into the 20th century, there was a quaint custom called “Notification Day” which came several weeks after the convention, and involved the national committee men coming to the home of the candidate and officially “notifying” him the party’s nomination, which he then accepted in a speech.

Florence Harding. (NFLL)

Florence Harding. (NFLL)

In 1920, U.S. Senator Warren Harding was in Chicago during the Republican Convention which nominated him but remained at his campaign hotel headquarters and made no acceptance speech and did not appear before delegates; his wife Florence Harding was also overtly political like Nellie Taft and had helped to manage her husband’s campaign during the primaries.

She sat in a prominent place overlooking the convention floor, interacting with delegate and being sought out by reporters, with whom she openly discussed the machinations and proceedings behind each day of balloting at the 1920 Republican National Convention proceedings.

Thus, she became the first candidates’ spouse to witness her husband being nominated.

Margarette Cox, the 1920 Democratic candidate's wife. (original photographer unknown)

Margarette Cox, the 1920 Democratic candidate’s wife. (original photographer unknown)

That year’s Democratic candidate’s spouse, Margaretta Cox did not attend the convention which nominated her husband, James Cox.

Herbert Hoover broke the custom by appearing at the 1928 Republican National Convention but his wife Lou sat in the balcony watching and listening to his acceptance speech. Democratic candidate Al Smith’s wife Catherine Smith did likewise at the convention nominating her husband.

Although Franklin D. Roosevelt attended the 1932 and 1936 conventions which nominated him for a first and second term, he did not appear at the convention which nominated him in 1940. Having also attended him at the first two, his wife Eleanor Roosevelt went alone to the 1940 one, making a speech to delegates, the first candidate’s spouse or First Lady to do so.

Theo Landon with children Nancy and  John. (Kansas Historical Foundation)

Theo Landon with children Nancy and John. (Kansas Historical Foundation)

Theo Landon “refused” to join her husband Alf at the 1936 Convention in Chicago which nominated him as the Republican presidential candidate, explaining to the press that protecting and raising her two young children (one of whom grew up to become Nancy Kassenbaum, U.S. Senator from Kansas) meant she was “needed at home.”

Thomas Dewey voting in 1944 with his wife Frances. (prweb)

Thomas Dewey voting in 1944 with his wife Frances. (prweb)

In 1944, Thomas Dewey attended the Republican Convention which nominated him as the presidential candidate in Chicago and was joined by his wife Frances there. FDR did not go to the Chicago Democratic National Convention which nominated him for his fourth term. It occurred during World War II and was he was then holding meetings in the South Pacific. Eleanor Roosevelt did not attend either. This was the last time that a nominated presidential candidate did not attend the convention. However, the Democratic vice presidential candidate’s spouse, Bess Truman, did attend. In less than a year, due to President Roosevelt’s death in April of 1945, she would be First Lady.

In 1948, both incumbent President and Democratic candidate Harry Truman and his opponent, Republican presidential nominee Dewey attended the conventions which nominated them and made acceptance speeches. Both conventions were held in Philadelphia.

Frances Dewey (black hat) stands behind her husband as he makes his acceptance speech at the 1948 Republican Convention.  (UNiversity of Rochester)

Frances Dewey (black hat) stands behind her husband as he makes his acceptance speech at the 1948 Republican Convention. (University of Rochester)

Both Bess Truman and Frances Dewey watched the proceedings. Mrs. Dewey did go to the podium, where she watched from behind her husband with others to hear him deliver his acccptance speech.

In 1952, the Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson was divorced. That year, the Republican presidential nominee Dwight Eisenhower was joined by his wife Mamie Eisenhower at the podium and she was welcomed and acknowledged there by the delegates – but she did not speak.

Showing off a new charm for her bracelet to Preisdent Eisenhower at the 1956 convention which re-nominated him for a second term.

Showing off a new charm for her bracelet to Preisdent Eisenhower at the 1956 convention which re-nominated him for a second term. (Life)

In 1956, Stevenson and Eisenhower again ran against each other and Mamie Eisenhower again appeared at the podium but did not speak.

In 1960, Republican presidential nominee Richard Nixon was joined at the podium by his wife Pat Nixon.

However, since she was pregnant, Jacqueline Kennedy did not attend the Democratic National Convention which nominated her husband in Los Angeles.

This was the last time a candidates’ spouse of either party did not appear at the convention which nominated her husband.

Ever since then, the wife of the nominee of each party has been a highly visible figure during the convention week. The list includes:

Teresa and John Kerry.

Teresa and John Kerry.

1964, Lady Bird Johnson (D) and Peggy Goldwater (R)

1968, Pat Nixon (R) and Muriel Humphrey (D)

1972, Pat Nixon (R) and Eleanor McGovern (D)

1976, Rosalynn Carter (D) and Betty Ford (R)

1980, Nancy Reagan (R) and Rosalynn Carter (D)

1984, Nancy Reagan (R) and Joan Mondale (D)

1988, Barbara Bush (R) and Kitty Dukakis (D)

John and CIny McCain.

John and CIny McCain.

1992, Hillary Clinton (D) and Barbara Bush (R)

1996, Hillary Clinton (R) and Elizabeth Dole (R)

2000, Laura Bush (R) and Tipper Gore (D)

2004, Laura Bush (R) and Teresa Kerry (D)

2008, Michelle Obama (D) and Cindy McCain (R)

2012, Michelle Obama (D) and Ann Romney (R)

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Nancy Reagan at the 1996 Republican Convention. (Corbis)

Nancy Reagan at the 1996 Republican Convention. (Corbis)

A final component in multiple inquiries received from the media and public about candidates’ spouses who attended national conventions was the question of which former First Ladies attended these quadrennial events and whether they took on any public role at them. This is the second of a two-part series.

At the 1964 Democratic Convention, there had been a preliminary plan to have the recently-widowed Jacqueline Kennedy address the convention which nominated incumbent President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had succeeded to the presidency nine months earlier upon the assassination of her late husband.

Former First Lady Jackie Kennedy joined incumbent First Lady Lady Bird Johnson at a 1964 National Democratic Convention reception.

Former First Lady Jackie Kennedy joined incumbent First Lady Lady Bird Johnson at a 1964 National Democratic Convention reception.

Concerned that such an appearance would provoke such tremendous sentiment at the convention for the late President Kennedy that it might provoke delegates during the state roll call to spontaneously vote for his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Johnson campaign managers successfully prevented it. However, there is no indication that Jacqueline Kennedy had even seriously considered addressing the convention.

Instead, Mrs. Kennedy appeared at a hotel near the convention hall to receive delegates at a massive reception, alongside her successor Lay Bird Johnson, the incumbent First Lady Lady. Leaving immediately after the event, she was on her plane when a call came through from President Johnson asking her to then come into the convention hall and be photographed with him. She politely declined.

Following her second marriage and widowhood, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis appeared at the 1976 Democratic National Convention, which nominated Jimmy Carter for president. Relieved that her brother-in-law U.S. Senator Edward M. Kennedy had decided not to pursue the nomination that year, her purpose had actually been professional rather than political. By then an editor of books at Viking Press, Mrs. Onassis had come with the intention of convincing Chicago Mayor William Daley of cooperating with a biography which was being published by her employer.

Jackie Kennedy Onassis at the 1976 Democratic Convention. (Corbis)

Jackie Kennedy Onassis at the 1976 Democratic Convention. (Corbis)

Although she failed to enlist Daley’s involvement, she took a visibly prominent seat at the front of a balcony and when her presence was announced by the convention chairman from the podium, the convention broke out in pandemonium. Startled, she stood to acknowledge the cheering but was discouraged when the band struck up the musical

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis appeared at another Democratic National Convention, held in New York City. Having been the first prominent financial contributor to the presidential campaign of Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton a year earlier, Mrs. Onassis felt personal triumph in his nomination as the Democratic candidate in 1992. Although she chose to sit in a less prominent place, she had insisted on attending the convention the night Clinton won the nomination and delivered his acceptance speech.

Former First Lady Pat Nixon appeared at no conventions following the 1972 National Republican Convention in Miami, Florida which nominated her husband for a second presidential term.

Former First Lady Betty Ford found herself somewhat conflicted when she joined her husband at the 1980 National Republican Convention in Kansas City. At that event, one of the issues being debated as an element of the party’s platform was whether to continue supporting the call for an Equal Rights Amendment, which had been one of the defining political issues of her tenure as First Lady.

Invited to lead a parade march of Republican women supporting the ERA plank and then speak at the rally which followed, she recognized that her appearance was unlikely to convince those who opposed it to re-draft that year’s party platform and was more likely to incite media reports of a fractious party. She recalled watching the parade go by her hotel window and feeling despondent on the compromise she nevertheless felt was for the party’s greater good.

Betty Ford joined her husband at the podium of the 1980 Republican Convention (GRFL)

Betty Ford joined her husband at the podium of the 1980 Republican Convention (GRFL)

Along with her husband, Betty Ford attended the next five successive conventions. In her last such appearance, Mrs. Ford also joined her husband at the 2000 National Republican Convention in Philadelphia during which he had to be briefly hospitalized for suffering a minor stroke during the proceedings.

No former First Lady has attended more Democratic National Conventions than Rosalynn Carter. Despite her own political activism, however, she has never spoken at any of the six conventions she has thus far attended: 1984 in San Francisco, 1988 in Atlanta, 1992 in New York, 2000 in Los Angeles, 2004 in Boston, and 2008 in Denver.

Always in attendance along with former President Carter, who has not been reticent about differences with the Democratic Party leadership on specific issues over the years, her lack of a speaking role may be due to his being the one among them who has sought to have his addresses delivered live and during prime-time. In 2008, for example, when the former President was permitted only to deliver brief remarks via video but then appeared onstage with Mrs. Carter waving to delegates once the recording had played, the podium was lowered before they were able to walk off it.

Former President and Mrs. Reagan together attended the 1992 National Republican Convention in Houston. Four years later, despite concerns about leaving the side of her ailing husband, Nancy Reagan traveled the sort distance from her home in Los Angeles, California to attend the 1996 Republican National Convention being held in San Diego.

Three former Repubican First Ladies joined two of their husbands at the 2000 convention Ford, Bush and Reagan. (Washington Post)

Three former Repubican First Ladies joined two of their husbands at the 2000 convention Ford, Bush and Reagan. (Washington Post)

Mrs. Reagan had an important symbolic role at the 1996 Republican convention. Becoming only the second former First Lady to address a national convention, she thanked delegates for their years of support for her husband through his political career and appealed to their loyalty for him to encourage equal fervor for the candidacy of the party’s nominee that year, U.S. Senator Robert Dole.

Apart from her status as a former First Lady, Barbara Bush had a highly personal motivation for attending the National Republican Conventions of 2000 and 2004. A prominent presence during the full week of both events, she proudly watched her son George W. Bush win and accept the party’s nomination on both occasions.

With the dual status of being an incumbent First Lady and a candidate for the U.S. Senate, Hillary Clinton addressed the 2000 National Democratic Convention in Los Angeles. She returned four years later, this time as a former First Lady and incumbent U.S. Senator, addressing the 2004 convention which nominated John Kerry as the party’s presidential candidate.

Hillary Clinton at the 2004 Democratic Convention. (Corbis)

Hillary Clinton at the 2004 Democratic Convention. (Corbis)

Hillary Clinton’s appearance and speaking role at the 2008 National Democratic Convention was perhaps the most historic and certainly unique. That year, she came in the role of a presidential candidate seeking the nomination in her own right. Although her candidacy was close, the nomination went to U.S. Senator Barack Obama.

Although Laura Bush was still the incumbent First Lady when she introduced the 2008 National Republican Convention nominee’s spouse Cindy McCain, she did not appear at the 2012 one.

Which First Lady, incumbent or former, appeared at and addressed more national conventions?

With Eleanor Roosevelt doing so at the 1940, 1952, 1956 and 1960 National Democratic Conventions, and Hillary Clinton doing so at the 1996, 2000, 2004 and 2008 ones, the record is tied between them.

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Eleanor Roosevelt Speaking at the 1960 Democratic National Convention. (Corbis)

Eleanor Roosevelt Speaking at the 1960 Democratic National Convention. (Corbis)

From what can best be currently determined from existing scholarship, the first former First Lady to attend a national convention was Edith Roosevelt.

Edith Roosevelt at the 1912 Republican Convention in Chicago. ((Morris, EKR)

Edith Roosevelt at the 1912 Republican Convention in Chicago. ((Morris, EKR)

She joined her husband former President Theodore Roosevelt at the 1912 Republican Convention in Chicago, Illinois as he fought against the odds to gain his party’s presidential nomination away from the incumbent President William Howard Taft.

When her husband failed to win the nomination, Edith Roosevelt expressed disgust with the intra-party fighting which continued. She chose not to accompany her husband two months later to the national convention of his newly-formed breakaway Progressive Party, which nominated him.

“I have lived, most reluctantly,” she said, “through one party split.”

Although she was the niece of incumbent First Lady Caroline Harrison and lived in the White House while serving as her secretary and assistant, Mary Lord Dimmock went on to marry the widowed, former President Benjamin Harrison four years after her aunt’s 1892 death.

While her status as a presidential spouse was ambivalent, her status as a presidential widow was not.

Former First Lady Edith Wilson and Jesse Jones at the 1928 Houston Democratic National Convention.

Former First Lady Edith Wilson and Jesse Jones at the 1928 Houston Democratic National Convention.

Recognized with honors as a member of a former presidential family, she attended the 1916 Republican National Convention which nominated her friend Charles Warren Fairbanks of Indiana as the vice presidential candidate.

At the 1928 Democratic National Convention in Houston, Texas, former First Lady Edith Wilson assumed a role of high visibility. With the death of her husband, former President Woodrow Wilson four years earlier, Edith Wilson developed a public profile as the symbol of him, his Administration and his ideals, particularly his failed dream of a League of Nations.

She proceeded to Houston from Washington in the private train care of the former U.S. Ambassador to France Hugh Wallace and his wife, joined by her friend financier Bernard Baruch. In Houston, she was the houseguest of famed financier and Democratic Party Jesse Jones.

She later recalled an unexpected incident which led to a precedent – of sorts, during one of the convention’s evening sessions: “Mr. Jones took me up on the platform. Then without any warning to me at all he stepped on to the rostrum and announced to the delegates, ‘Mrs. Woodrow Wilson will now address you!’”

Speaking in what was described as a “low and resonant” voice, she merely acknowledged the applause. Her voice was evidently not recorded nor was there a transcription of what she said beyond thanking the delegate welcome for her. Edith Wilson did not recall exactly what her words were, recalling only, “I said what I could.”

Former First Lady Nellie Taft, right, with her daughter Helene at the 1940 Republican Convention.

Former First Lady Nellie Taft, right, with her daughter Helene at the 1940 Republican Convention.

Four years later, Edith Wilson attended the National Democratic Convention in Chicago, accompanied by Bernard Baruch, where they were joined by writer Clare Booth, who was then a Democrat.

When former First Lady Nellie Taft attended the 1940 National Republican Convention in Philadelphia, she willingly posed for photographs and spoke to reporters in a hotel suite serving as the campaign headquarters of her son, U.S. Senator Robert Taft, who was seeking his party’s nomination.

Although the nomination went to Wendell Wilkie, Mrs. Taft remained seated in the convention hall with her daughter Helene Taft Manning, taking in the proceedings to the end.

It was not so much as a symbol of her late husband but as a powerful political broker in her own right which led former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to attend three successive National Democratic Conventions, in 1952, 1956 and 1960.

Eleanor Roosevelt at the 1952 Democratic National Convention.

Eleanor Roosevelt at the 1952 Democratic National Convention.

Although she skipped the 1948 National Democratic Convention in light of the fact that she was then a U.S. representative of the newly-formed United Nations, her presence at the 1952 convention was intended to help Adlai Stevenson win the party’s nomination.

Mrs. Roosevelt at the 1956 convention. (original photographer unknown)

Mrs. Roosevelt at the 1956 convention. (original photographer unknown)

Stevenson’s candidacy being opposed by incumbent President Harry Truman who supported Averell Harriman.

Stevenson won not only the 1952 nomination but did so again in 1956, crediting Mrs. Roosevelt’s support as a key factor in his success, despite losing the general election both times.

Former First Lady Bess Truman did not accompany her husband, former President Harry S. Truman to the 1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles.

Four years later, however, former First Lady Mamie Eisenhower did go with her husband to the 1964 Republican National Convention, held in San Francisco.

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