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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even her hats earned votes. (life)

Even her hats earned votes. (life)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mamie Eisenhower dictating to her secretary. (Life)

Mamie Eisenhower dictating to her secretary. (Life)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Mamie chatted on endlessly to Pat about her toothache.

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Helen "Nellie" Taft. (LC)

Helen “Nellie” Taft. (LC)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was the very scenario that Nellie Taft feared most.

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

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

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

The 1908 Republican convention that nominated Taft. (LC)

The 1908 Republican convention that nominated Taft. (LC)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theodore Roosevelt as president. (LC)

Theodore Roosevelt as president. (LC)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The author with Mrs. Ford in 2001.

The author with Mrs. Ford in 2001.

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

Betty Ford speaks to Jackie Kennedy Onassis 1976.

Betty Ford speaks to Jackie Kennedy Onassis 1976.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Reagan in 1994.

Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Reagan in 1994.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

The 1920 Republican Convention in Chicago. (LC)

The 1920 Republican Convention in Chicago. (LC)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Florence Harding and Harry Daughtery. (carlanthonyonline.com)

Florence Harding and Harry Daughtery. (carlanthonyonline.com)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Britton's book, published in 1928.

Britton’s book, published in 1928.

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

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

Nan Britton. (NYT)

Nan Britton. (NYT)

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

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

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

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

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

At headquarters, Warren Harding embraced and kissed his wife.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Jacqueline Kennedy, 1963

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nancy Reagan, 1981

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Florence Harding, 1922

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

Florence Harding. (carlanthonyonline)

Florence Harding. (carlanthonyonline)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Florence Harding waves to cheering admirers. (carlanthonyonline)

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

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

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

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

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

Grace Coolidge, 1924

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bess Truman, 1945

Not even a pair of sunglasses could shield Bess Truman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jane Pierce, 1855

While always conscious of the tragic death of her young son in the weeks preceding her move to the White House, Jane Pierce also recognized how her mood could impede what she respected as the public’s right to enjoy the grounds of the presidential mansion on the Fourth of July.

Jane Pierce. (carlanthonyonline)

Jane Pierce. (carlanthonyonline)

Due to her religious belief that the Lord’s Day must be spent in silent prayer, she was initially adamant about rescheduling the customary Sunday public concerts played by the Marine Band from the White House South Balcony. Reaction was not entirely sympathetic.

The Congress Hall Hotel where Jane Pierce spent her July Fourth. (Pinterest)

The Congress Hall Hotel where Jane Pierce spent her July Fourth. (Pinterest)

When she joined the President for what was intended as a brief few days away from Washington at Cape May, New Jersey at the end of June, Mrs. Pierce convinced him to extend their vacation for another week.

Content with the presidential suite provided them at the Congress Hall Hotel, the First Lady kept them there until the July Fourth holiday was over in Washington, permitting the large citizenry gathered there for massive fireworks staged from the Navy Yard to make as loud a ruckus on the South Lawn as they wanted, while sparing her all the noise and crowds.

She returned three days after the holiday when she was assured that most of the masses had dissipated.

Julia Grant, 1876

As the two terms of the Grant Administration wound down into its last months, the First Lady remained as eager as ever to defend not only her husband’s conduct as president but the greatness of the nation over which he ruled.

Julia Grant.

Julia Grant.

Her pride especially came to the fore during the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, a display of Industrial Age America’s technological innovations and ingenuity. Although she spent the actual centennial day with her family in the White House, Mrs. Grant intended a highly visible presence for herself at the May 10 opening day of the exhibition.

When the empress of Brazil was invited to place her hand along with that of her husband and President Grant on the great Corliss Engine which powered all of the mechanical exhibits, Julia Grant was livid.

Julia Grant, the empress of Brazil and other wives of officials on the platform of the mammoth engine that set the machinery of the Centennial Exposition in motion. (LC)

Julia Grant, the empress of Brazil and other wives of officials on the platform of the mammoth engine that set the machinery of the Centennial Exposition in motion. (LC)

“I wondered what could have prompted this discourtesy to the wife of the President of the United States,” she later recalled.

The First Lady got her chance to shine, however. When she and the emperor came upon a large exhibit of American tobacco, he doubted it could have much worth. She retorted that it was an especially helpful aid for digestion.

The emperor quipped that rigorous physical exercise was the best way to aid digestion.

“Oh, Your Majesty, you are quite  away behind the times,” the First Lady patriotically pointed out. “The whole energies of the United States are now bent upon inventing labor-saving devices.”

Lucretia Garfield, 1881

It was only one month after her husband’s presidential inauguration that Lucretia Garfield fell deathly ill with the malaria that plagued generations of White House residents, resulting from the mosquito breeding grounds in the swamps just south of the executive mansion.

Lucretia Garfield took charge of her wounded husband's sickroom by the time she'd returned to the White House on the Fourth of July 1881. (LC)

Lucretia Garfield took charge of her wounded husband’s sickroom by the time she’d returned to the White House on the Fourth of July 1881. (LC)

Once she was considered strong enough to be physically moved from her bedroom on June 18, the First Lady preceded her husband and two eldest sons by taking in the fresh salt air and cooler temperatures of a retreat established for the family at Elberon, New Jersey.

The entire family was scheduled to spend the July Fourth holiday together there and the President headed with his sons to join his wife a few days before, with a speech at Williams College.

President Garfield got no further than the train depot station, being shot point blank by a disappointed office-seeker Charles Guiteau.

The Jersey shore mansion where Lucretia Garfield was recuperating when, the morning before July Fourth, she rushed back to her wounded husband's side in Washington. She later brought him here, where he died. (longbranchhistory.org)

The Jersey shore mansion where Lucretia Garfield was recuperating when, the morning before July Fourth, she rushed back to her wounded husband’s side in Washington. She later brought him here, where he died. (longbranchhistory.org)

In the early morning hours the day before Independence Day, the First Lady was being sped by train back down to Washington.

On the Fourth of July that year, having composed her initially overwhelmed reaction, she took control of the chaos in a bedroom that was hastily-organized into a hospital ward, dismissing even the President’s belief he would soon die from the bullet wounds.

“Well, my dear, you are not going to die as I am here to nurse you back to life; so please do not speak again of death.”

Sadly, not even Crete Garfield’s determined optimism could alter his fate, the President dying two months later with his wife at his side.

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

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

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

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

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

Dolley Madison, 1808

Dolley Madison. (carlanthonyonline)

Dolley Madison. (carlanthonyonline)

Her husband had not yet been elected the fourth president in his own right and the later, persistent crediting to her of serving as the third president’s official White House hostess are a misnomer, but the Fourth of July in 1802 was a watershed moment for Dolley Madison.

With both President Jefferson and Vice President Aaron Burr being widowers, her status as the  spouse of the Secretary of State, the Cabinet member of highest rank, converged with her natural ease with crowds to forge her into one of the nation’s few female public figures.

An 1803 watercolor of the White House also shows nearby the first residences of F Street, where the Madisons lived (Huntington Library)

An 1803 watercolor of the White House also shows nearby the first residences of F Street, where the Madisons lived (Huntington Library)

Mrs. Madison was a prominent figure among the crowds invited by President Jefferson to his open-house Independence Day reception, using the event one year to solicit prominent women of the city, in her effort to spearhead a private fundraising effort to help compensate the federal government funding of the western exploration by Lewis and Clark.

It was in 1808 that Dolley Madison was given the highest honor and made a bit of feminist history. A band and cavalry contingent stopped outside the private home of Secretary Madison to serenade his wife.

Dolley Madison then presented them with a ceremonial flag and delivered a “patriotic address” related to Independence Day, the first woman known to make a public July 4th speech.

Sarah Polk, 1848

Sarah Polk. (Polk Home)

Sarah Polk. (Polk Home)

In 1848, incumbent Sarah Polk hosted a unique Fourth of July gathering of her First Lady sorority, welcoming among guests her elderly predecessors Dolley Madison and Louisa Adams.

The two presidential widows had joined with Betsey Hamilton, widow of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton in heading up a women’s committee that was part of a larger national organization raising funds for the groundbreaking and initial construction of the long-anticipated Washington Monument.

The drive proved so successful that the laying of the cornerstone ceremony was scheduled for Independence Day that year.

This watercolor illustrates the Washington Monument cornerstone-laying ceremony. (Scottish Rite Temple)

This watercolor illustrates the Washington Monument cornerstone-laying ceremony. (Scottish Rite Temple)

After appearing at the outdoor ceremony beneath a striped tent on the grounds south of the White House, the two former First Ladies joined Mrs. Polk for a reception in their old home.

Incumbent First Lady Sarah Polk with her husband President James Polk, joined by others including former First Lady Dolley Madison at far right. (Eastman House)

The President and Mrs. Polk joined by  former First Lady Dolley Madisont. (Eastman House)

Contemporary accounts include the crowd’s marvel at the youthful appearance of Dolley Madison, then over eighty years old.

It is the first known gathering of multiple First Ladies at a public event.

What could not be known to the three First Ladies at the time, however, was that a future presidential hostess was also in attendance, Harriet Lane, the young niece of Polk’s Secretary of State James Buchanan.

While a certain Illinois Congressman was also among the crowd at the ceremony, his wife Mary Lincoln is recorded as having already left the city.

Peggy Taylor, 1849

Peggy Taylor. (NFLL)

Peggy Taylor. (NFLL)

Forever a shadowy figure in her husband’s brief sixteen-month presidency, the wife of Zachary Taylor had arranged with her youngest daughter Betty to essentially divide the First Lady role into private and public responsibilities.

Peggy Taylor would serve as hostess at private dinners, where visiting family members and political figures she knew personally were guests. Betty Taylor Bliss would serve as the public First Lady, promenading at open-house and diplomatic receptions on the arm of her father, greeting guests and seated at dinners with the status of the presidential lady.

A Sunday School Union group in 1849, the year such a group were received by Mrs. Taylor on July Fourth. (Pinterest)

A Sunday School Union group in 1849, the year such a group were received by Mrs. Taylor on July Fourth. (Pinterest)

On the first Fourth of July of the administration, however, Peggy Taylor agreed to make a rare public appearance in the large East Room, so she could join the President in welcoming the teachers and students of the local Sunday School Union.

While she was able to leave the executive mansion on a nearly daily basis and go unrecognized across the public square to attend midday religious services at St. John’s Episcopal Church, on this Fourth of July, Peggy Taylor was willing to temporarily sacrifice her anonymity and accept the gift of a Bible from the Baptist organization.

Little could she know that the next year’s Fourth of July ceremonies would find her husband overeating and contracting a likely bacterial infection, leading to his sudden death days later.

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Ida McKinley, seated at far right, during one of her husband's 1896 presidential campaign speechs on their front porch. (NFLL)

Ida McKinley, seated at far right, during one of her husband’s 1896 presidential campaign speechs on their front porch. (NFLL)

Perhaps the fact that the spouse of the presumptive 2016 Democratic presidential nominee is himself a former President would make it inevitable that his own record as Chief Executive would be likely to be turned into a campaign issue, whether it reflected on his presidential record on issues such as the crime bill or personal life. There have already been questions raised by Republican foes of his wife’s candidacy about Clinton’s life as a former president, involving his foundation, with the intention of making it an issue.

Former President Clinton confers with his wife, the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. (Getty)

Former President Clinton confers with his wife, the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. (Getty)

Yet even if this unique situation were not the case, there would remain a good chance of it occurring. In the last several months during the primary campaign, the professional advantage that may have been given to Heidi Cruz, wife of one of the Republican candidates who dropped out, while she was employed at the investment company of Goldman Sachs was raised during the primary season.

Despite the claims of the media and any given political opposition they were facing that a presidential candidate’s spouse and family members were “off-limits” as campaign issues, the first example of it occurred early on, during the 1808 presidential campaign.

The first two candidates’ spouses who their husbands’ opposition sought to create an issue of involved Dolley Madison in 1808 and Rachel Jackson in 1828.

Dolley Madison, painted by George Catlin.

Dolley Madison, painted by George Catlin.

In the case of the first one, there were lurid tales suggesting she had committed adultery with none other than Thomas Jefferson, strong ally of her husband who served the third president’s Secretary of State. There was no truth to the tales.

In the second case, that of Rachel Jackson, it had been the divorce by her first husband that was not only true but became a full-blown and central issue of her husband’s 1828 campaign.

Apart from the moral questions the opposition sought to raise by suggesting she was, as one campaign tract put it, a “wanton woman,” the fact that she married Jackson only on the claim that her first husband had obtained a divorce from her, rather than the verification was used to imply that Jackson, then a lawyer, had failed to act professionally and would do likewise as president.

Later tales that Peggy Taylor remained “hidden” as First Lady was due to her being a crude “white of the wilds” too coarse to preside over sophisticated social functions at the White House.

Rachel Jackson, one of her portraits in the collection of the Hermitage.

Rachel Jackson, one of her portraits in the collection of the Hermitage.

The root of this, however, may well have been the numerous stories that appeared in the press during her husband’s 1848 campaign, which emphasized her displeasure with Zach Taylor’s candidacy and lack of any interest in going to Washington.

Margaret Taylor. (Heritage)

Margaret Taylor. (Heritage)

Taylor himself made an issue of his wife’s disinterest, making jokes at his own expense for defying his wife’s wishes.

As the incumbent First Lady, Mary Lincoln feared that her overspending federal appropriations for furnishing the White House did turn up in a smaller form during her husband’s 1864 reelection campaign.

The campaign of her husband’s Democratic opponent churned out a small pamphlet listing grievances of the Lincoln Administration and including a separate topic entitled “Mrs. Lincoln’s Crockery,” a reference to her purchase of two purple state china sets, one for the White House and another, apparently, for private use.

Mary Lincoln (LC)

Mary Lincoln (LC)

The topic was addressed simply as a matter of frivolous indulgence during wartime, not a question of the china purchase on government funds. Despite her fears, it never mushroomed into a serious issue – nor did it lead her critics to the knowledge of her larger overspending.

A piece of the purple Lincoln state china. (pinterest)

A piece of the purple Lincoln state china. (pinterest)

Ida McKinley suffered from a number of ailments, the most confounding being the brain dysfunction known as epilepsy.

Since it was still equated at the time with a type of insanity, her husband went to great lengths to hide the true nature of her condition.

In fact, it was a primary reason he decided to conduct his 1896 campaign from the front-porch of their rented home.

Still, as voter delegations came to hear William McKinley deliver his campaign speeches at his home, stories began to circulate about Mrs. McKinley in the western states that ranged from the reasonable suggestion that she had some type of disorder to wildly illogical ones that had no possible derivation in the truth about her epilepsy, such as claims she was a spy or a Catholic.

Ida McKinley as Ohio Governor's wife. (ebay)

Ida McKinley as Ohio Governor’s wife. (ebay)

Ultimately, the campaign felt the threat of perception that there was something wrong with Ida McKinley led the campaign to commission a biography about her life, the first such publication about a presidential candidate’s spouse.

It was the first alleged marriage and the birth of her son that threatened to become a campaign issue in 1920 when Florence Harding’s husband was running for President.

Florence Harding standing beside the front porch of the Harding home in Marion, Ohio.

Florence Harding standing beside the front porch of the Harding home in Marion, Ohio.

The fact that there has never been any record in any county of Ohio that proved she had married Henry DeWolfe, which would have made the birth of their son Marshall a legitimate one, threatened to be raised by Democrats as a campaign issue intended to reflect poorly on the morality of the candidate in a far more judgmental era.

As the Democratic vice-presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt recorded, however, in a private letter to the president of Harvard University, the Harding campaign knew well about the love affairs of the Democratic candidate James Cox and both campaigns decided not to pull out either of the personal issues on the opposition.

Like Mrs. Lincoln, it was the issue of extravagant spending that was leveled against Jacqueline Kennedy, in addition to the fact that she’d been educated in Europe, went fox hunting and had a strong affinity for the French culture.

Jacqueline Kennedy campaigns with her husband weeks before the 1960 election. (pinterest)

Jacqueline Kennedy campaigns with her husband weeks before the 1960 election. (pinterest)

This shaped a persona of her as being an elitist that the average American would feel little to no affinity for, and it became a serious concern of her husband’s campaign advisers who were relieved that her pregnancy during the 1960 campaign naturally kept her from frequent public exposure.

Still, she could handle the issue herself, responding that reports of her expensive clothing taste were exaggerated and had nothing to do with her husband’s qualifications to serve as president.

While she was First Lady, Betty Ford openly discussed social issues including drug use, abortion, mental health, and premarital sex during 1974 and 1975 in media interviews.

Later, her openness was seen as a healthy break from a more repressive demeanor expected of political spouses, to refrain from acknowledging often contentious yet common family issues.

First Lady Betty Ford speaking on women's equality presented a political challenge to conservatives within the Republican Party at the time of her husband's 1976 presidential campaign. (GRFL)

First Lady Betty Ford speaking on women’s equality presented a political challenge to conservatives within the Republican Party at the time of her husband’s 1976 presidential campaign. (GRFL)

At the time, however, advisers on her husband’s 1976 campaign feared she would alienate conservative voters within the Republican Party during the primary season.

There were times when a sharp contrast was drawn between her and Nancy Reagan, the wide of Governor Ronald Reagan then challenging President Ford for the nomination. In the general election, however, the issue faded when Ford faced the more liberal Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter, While many depicted his wife Rosalynn as holding more conservative views than Betty Ford, that perception was not enough to draw disaffected Republicans to vote against the Ford candidacy.

 

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Ellen Wilson on a whistlestop, the first incumbent First Lady who left the family home to publicly appear at a spouse's presidential campaign appearances. (Frances Saunders biography of Ellen Wilson)

Ellen Wilson on a whistlestop, the first incumbent First Lady who left the family home to publicly appear at a spouse’s presidential campaign appearances. (Frances Saunders biography of Ellen Wilson)

Melania Trump, many believe, has proven to be a presidential candidate’s spouse who suggests an earlier era when those in her position were often seen, but rarely heard.

Melanie Trump speaking in South Carolina. (youtube)

Melanie Trump speaking in South Carolina. (youtube)

On only four occasions during the South Carolina, New Hampshire and Wisconsin state primary election races of 2016 has she spoken to crowds of her husband’s supporters at rallies and other events.

Unusually, since he has thus far held none of the usual large fundraising events common among modern presidential candidates, Mrs. Trump has been spared the obligation of appearing and speaking at these events as has been performed by the likes of others among this year’s other candidates’ spouses like Bill Clinton, Heidi Cruz, and Columba Bush and many a generation of those from the past.

Whether she will be able to continue this as the general campaign ensues is uncertain, but at least thus far it is a decision that seemingly harks back to an earlier era when presidential candidates’ spouses might be seen, but were rarely heard.

Lucretia Garield, seated at center in black, with family members on the front porch of their home, at a moment when it was not the center of attention during the 1880 campaign. (Garfield NHS)

Lucretia Garield, seated at center in black, with family members on the front porch of their home, at a moment when it was not the center of attention during the 1880 campaign. (Garfield NHS)

Wives of candidates began to publicly appear within the acceptable realm of their designated sphere of the home, when that home was the center point of presidential candidates’ speeches – the front porch.

Women such as Mary Lincoln, Lucretia Garfield, Caroline Harrison and Ida McKinley were soon identifiable to the regular political press corps that were covering their husbands’ campaigns simply by their ubiquitous if silent appearances with or near their husbands.

Roosevelt on Notification Day at his home. (LC)

Roosevelt on Notification Day at his home. (LC)

Yet even as late as 1904, when Theodore Roosevelt stood on his front porch for the ceremonial “Notification Day,” marked by the formal conveyance by party leaders to the candidate of the news that he had received his party’s nomination, and then the candidate’s official acceptance of it, it was considered too political for his wife to appear there with him.

Edith Roosevelt (inset) and the windows she listened through to hear the Notification Day ceremony. (NYT)

Edith Roosevelt (inset) and the windows she listened through to hear the Notification Day ceremony. (NYT)

Instead, recalled his daughter Alice, she stood with her stepmother Edith Roosevelt behind a screen placed behind the open porch window, listening in on the speeches but never being seen by the press covering the event.

Although she worked as an adviser to her husband during his 1912 campaign, Ellen Wilson also remained assiduously silent over the course of it.

Press coverage of her appearances at his side on the whistlestop train tour or at events held in their Princeton, New Jersey home were never marked by any quotes from the candidate’s spouse.

When there was a printed claim that Ellen Wilson approved of women smoking cigarettes, she felt compelled to issue a denial. Rather than break precedent and speak to reporters, however, she typed up a carefully worded but unambiguous statement that made it clear she disapproved of cigarette smoking not just for women but men as well.

Ellen Wilson joined her husband on a podium in Virginia. (carlanthonyonline)

Ellen Wilson joined her husband on a podium in Virginia. (carlanthonyonline)

Then, she smilingly handed out copies of her statement – without uttering a word.

Grace Coolidge was the incumbent First Lady in 1924 when her husband undertook his first presidential campaign. She, like Mrs. Wilson had, appeared with her husband at the relatively few campaign appearances organized by the Coolidge campaign.

However, in what was a highly political bit of stagecraft, during this first presidential election after which women had been granted the right to vote, in 1920, Mrs. Coolidge had her desk brought out on the South Lawn of the White House and posed as she filled out an absentee ballot for her native state of Vermont.

The image was conveyed throughout the nation’s newspapers, intending to encourage other women voters to register to vote or fill out an absentee ballot – and perhaps cast their vote for her husband.

Grace Coolidge filling out her absentee ballot. (LC)

Grace Coolidge filling out her absentee ballot. (LC)

Yet all the while, she remained more silent than her husband, never once discussing not just the issues but her husband’s prospects of winning. The only publicity about her that year involved reams of publicity focusing on her domestic skills as a cook and baker.

This policy remained in place for several decades.

In 1928 and again in 1932, when her husband ran his presidential campaigns, Lou Hoover suddenly fell silent.

The press had known her to be an intelligent, informed public figure who had addressed any number of social issues for well over a decade at that point.

Lou Hoover receiving a kiss from her husband during his 1932 campaign - and the flowers she was seemingly over handed. (HHPL)

Lou Hoover receiving a kiss from her husband during his 1932 campaign – and the flowers she was seemingly over handed. (HHPL)

Yet in the context of the presidential campaigns, she refused to engage reporters on issues, responding once that she was there simply to “get the roses.”

Even her overtly political successor Eleanor Roosevelt followed this policy during her husband’s four presidential campaigns.

Joining FDR on some of his whistlestop campaign tours, she would bend over the railing of the back platform to shake hands but otherwise bypassed the microphone always placed there for speeches.

While she was a popular figure on her husband’s 1948 whistle-estop campaign train, introduced by the candidate at the end of his speeches as “the Boss,” Bess Truman only smiled and waved.

Bess Truman, far right, at a campaign event, always said a political wife's duty was to sit, listen and be sure her hat was on straight. (Truman Library)

Bess Truman, far right, at a campaign event, always said a political wife’s duty was to sit, listen and be sure her hat was on straight. (Truman Library)

As she explained, the role of the candidate’s wife was to “be seen not heard, and make sure her hat is on straight.”

It was only when the candidate’s spouses themselves decided there was an overlooked but important point to be made about their husbands’ qualifications that they began to discuss issues of substance.

Jacqueline Kennedy undertook a series of articles made available by the National Democratic Committee for use by national newspapers in which she addressed medical care for senior citizens, education and housing.

Jackie Kennedy conducts a press conference during the 1960 campaign. (all posters)

Jackie Kennedy conducts a press conference during the 1960 campaign. (all posters)

During a meeting with a New York Times reporter who had asked her about the cost of her clothing, Mrs. Kennedy retorted by raising the issue of nuclear weaponry and how her husband was especially qualified to de-escalate the Cold War.

Four years later, Lady Bird Johnson made a decided break with past presidential candidates’ spouses by raising the issue of civil rights as she made her own, independent campaign trip through southern states.

If the Kennedy and Johnson examples proved that spouses were entirely capable of discussing serious issues, it had still been a matter of their prerogative, of them raising important subjects rather than responding to questions about other consequential topics.

Pat Nixon conducting a press conference during her husband's 1968 presidential campaign. (allposters.com)

Pat Nixon conducting a press conference during her husband’s 1968 presidential campaign. (allposters.com)

As the impact of the organized women’s movement began to make strides of change and equality by 1972, the incumbent First Lady, Pat Nixon, found herself being asked the sort of highly political and pointed questions that no reporter had thought to ask her four years earlier during Nixon’s first successful presidential campaign.

Tersely, and carefully choosing her words to convey opinions aligned with the viewpoint of her husband’s campaign, Mrs. Nixon responded honestly but with as vague and brief answers as she could muster, determined not to create news by potential misspeaking on questions including the Vietnam War, and the new but rapidly growing Watergate scandal.

Ever since that era, presidential candidates’ spouses have known that once they begin making appearances and being accessible to the press, they will be asked as hard and controversial a range of questions as the candidates themselves.

Barbara Bush during a joint interview with her husband during the 1988 presidential campaign. (GBPL)

Barbara Bush during a joint interview with her husband during the 1988 presidential campaign. (GBPL)

By 1988, when presidential candidate’s spouse Barbara Bush routinely conducted rounds of broadcast and print interviews she knew she would inevitably be confronted with issues of the campaign that were especially contentious.

She also knew that, considering her status as the candidate’s wife, whatever she said could be blown up into a headline that would bump out the less sensational targeted message her husband’s campaign intended to be conveyed at that point.

And so, while she often acknowledged being informed on the issue, she refused to respond to the questions.

Later, she further disclosed that on some issues such as abortion and gun control, her personal view varied from the one her husband was campaigning on – all the more reason she compelled herself to, as she put it, “keep my mouth shut.”

 

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