Rating the first ladies

Posted: Sep 17, 2003 12:00 AM

This is not a book review column, but I have read a book that justifies more national comment than it has yet received. "Rating the First Ladies" (Citadel Press, 2003) by John B. Roberts II, is an absorbing book that accomplishes something never before attempted: assessing, in one book, the explicitly political contributions of each of the 37 first ladies to the presidents of the United States -- from Martha Washington to Laura Bush. Of course there have been many books that describe the social duties of first ladies. But by focusing on their political contributions (or lack thereof), Roberts has painted fascinating parallel histories of both presidential politics and the evolving role of women in America. Although I like to think that I am reasonably well read on America's political history, I learned something interesting, often revelatory, about those histories on almost every page.

While the scholarship of the book is impeccable, I found value in the book because of the sophisticated political insights of the author, who has been a major behind-the-scenes political operative in Washington's presidential politics since the early 1980s. Roberts was a senior member of Ronald Reagan's political office in the White House and in his re-election campaign. He was also a senior strategist in the Republican Congressional campaigns of the 1990s. (Disclaimer: I know the author well from my political years with President Reagan and Newt Gingrich.) The readers get the same astute analysis from Roberts that President Reagan received from him. Imagine reading a hard-eyed Robert Novak column ripping into President Grant's crooked first lady Julia Dent Grant, and you will have some sense of how these chapters can read -- when the first ladies deserve it. Roberts is very smart.

He is also very well connected. His chapters on Reagan and George H.W. Bush break new ground on behind-the-scenes political decision-making in those presidencies. For example, his chapter on Barbara Bush makes news (not yet reported as of this writing) that it was Barbara Bush not the campaign manager Lee Atwater who made the decisive case for use of the controversial Willy Horton ads that won Bush the presidency. According to Robert's inside account, Atwater and George W. Bush first had to convince Barbara, who then made the case to the reluctant President Bush. There are other newly revealed items about the behind-the-scenes operations that took down Geraldine Ferraro in that campaign. I thought I was behind the scenes of that campaign -- but apparently not as deeply behind the scenes as Roberts was. Very interesting.

Although Roberts is a former professional Republican operative, he is at least as hard on the Republican as he is on the Democratic first ladies. For example, he gives a decidedly uncomplimentary account of how Barbara Bush chose literacy as her charitable endeavor, and he was coolly impartial in contrasting the political acumen of Herbert Hoover's first lady -- Lou Henry Hoover -- unfavorably with that of FDR's Eleanor. But he also quotes from surprisingly vivid private correspondence of Eleanor Roosevelt to support his explicit characterization of her as a lesbian.

Particularly in the earlier chapters on the 19th-century first ladies, Roberts brings to bear his Oxford-trained art history knowledge to assess the political implications that flowed from furniture and fashion decisions by first ladies. Redecorating the White House has been causing political problems for presidents for 200 years now. It didn't start with Nancy Reagan, as the reader learns throughout this book. Nor did negative campaigning start recently. It may surprise many readers to learn from this book that first ladies have been both the victims and the instigators of negative campaign operations for most of our history.

"Rating First Ladies" is not all hard-edged political analysis. Each chapter is an astute -- and sometimes enchanting -- invocation of a full personality. Male readers would have to have a heart of stone not to wish they could share a dance with the blond, violet-eyed pixie, Harriet Lane -- the bachelor President James Buchanan's niece, who served as his first lady. Roberts brings to life the mischievous charm of this young lady, who captured the hearts of all who met her -- from Queen Victoria to the gimlet-eyed wives of United States senators. We meet "Sahara Sarah" Polk, so called in her time because she barred liquor from the White House -- thus keeping it dry as the Sahara. We also encounter darkly the mentally ill Ida McKinley, whose husband President William McKinley would suddenly throw a large handkerchief over her head at state dinners when she started having fits. All those 19th century presidencies will never merge in your mind again, after reading this book. And the 20th century first ladies you thought you knew something about emerge as both stronger and much more interesting than you could possibly imagine. "Rating the First Ladies" is a first-rate book.