Suzanne Fields

The unforgiving focus on private lives is even more intense now. The lens is ubiquitous and far more powerful than it was two decades ago. A president's wife can't remain a private person no matter how hard she tries.

Moving on is not an option, as Hillary learned when she ran for president herself. She had to carry the burden of an impeached husband. The requirements of the first lady change with the culture, but are dependent on the status of her husband.

The first first lady who made a public difference was Dolley Madison, whose husband confronted a Congress as acrimonious and divided as the Congress today. But she gave wonderful soirees for her husband's friends and foes, who cordially argued politics over bowls of ice cream, the new capital's new taste sensation. (And there was no Rocky Road, Chunky Monkey or Cherry Garcia in those days.) Her letters reflect that she enjoyed every minute of the Washington social limelight, even when she was privately grieved by her son, who went to debtors' prison twice and whose extravagance left her a poor widow.

Children of presidents confront the best and the worst of all possible worlds, enjoying attention but subject to merciless criticism. When music critic Paul Hume criticized the concert voice of first daughter Margaret Truman as "flat a good deal of the time," her father reacted as Harry Truman, not President Truman. He wrote a famous note to the critic promising that if they ever met he would "need a new nose, a lot of beef steak for black eyes and perhaps a supporter below!" Margaret was amused, or said she was ("it sold tickets").

Few presidents have been as robust as Harry Truman in their defense of family -- those were clearly different times -- and it would probably not occur to Mitch Daniels to threaten pugilism to defend familial honor. He bowed out of presidential politics gracefully.

Americans," he said, "are ready to summon the discipline to pay down our collective debts ... to put the future before the present, their children's interests before their own." He did that for family. Let's hope he's right about the rest of us.


Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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