When First Ladies Played Offense

Apr 12, 2016

Heidi Cruz and Melania Trump have nothing on the Lady Bird Special.

By Kate Andersen Brower
April 12, 2016
Originally appeared in POLITICO

In 1992, Hillary Clinton helped plant rumors of an alleged affair between George H.W. Bush and an aide. In the 1960s, Jackie Kennedy attacked Pat Nixon’s spending habits. In 1976 during the Republican Convention, Betty Ford publicly upstaged Nancy Reagan, whose husband was challenging sitting President Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination. In an interview at the end of the convention Betty said that Nancy “just fell apart at the seams” when she married Ronald.

Most people tend to think of American first ladies of the past as decorous and devoted—gentle, constant presences at their husband’s sides. In fact, they also weren’t afraid to jump into the political fray—whether shooting barbs at an opponent, bearing insults themselves, or slogging it out on the campaign trail. It’s pretty ironic then that this year’s group of candidate spouses—arguably the most modern of any group, including a former president, an investment manager at Goldman Sachs and a onetime supermodel—have for the most part watched the mudslinging from the sidelines, and have been dragged into the news cycle as pawns in a proxy war rather than crucial players themselves. When Melania Trump was dispatched to Wisconsin last week to help her husband win over female voters her rare campaign appearance made headlines. Even Bill Clinton is treading carefully and is less of a dominant force on the campaign trail now than he was eight years ago, seemingly aware that his overzealous campaigning in 2008 hurt his wife’s chances at the presidency. When the former president actively engaged protestors from the Black Lives Matter movement at a rally for his wife last week in Philadelphia, there was a massive backlash. The message is clear to the candidate’s spouses: avoid the spotlight if you can.

Researching my book on the women, from Jackie Kennedy to Michelle Obama, who have shaped the role of the first lady, I was often amazed by how powerful they have been both on the campaign trail and behind the scenes—and how invisible today’s candidate’s spouses seem in comparison. While the 10 first ladies in my book—five from Democratic administrations and five from Republican administrations—have had vastly different personalities, they have had one thing in common: They were mostly visible and tough campaigners. In 1964, Lady Bird Johnson traveled across eight southern states on her “Lady Bird Special” whistle-stop train tour and helped her embattled husband win the election. In 1984, Barbara Bush was on the campaign trail 27 days in one month alone, visiting 37 cities in 16 states—and that was just when her husband was running for vice president.

Of course, there’s no job description for a first lady; the very title is anachronistic in the 21st century, when most women would balk at the notion of giving up their jobs simply because of their husbands’. And there is certainly no blueprint for being the male spouse of a candidate. But one thing is for sure: This presidential election cycle, the candidates’ spouses have stayed more firmly in the background than their modern predecessors.

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As far back as Pat Nixon, candidate spouses often took to the road for months at a time. General Don Hughes had been assigned to protect Pat Nixon during her husband’s 1960 presidential campaign against John F. Kennedy, and though he had served in three wars, “nothing was as draining” as that campaign, he says. In interviews Pat often said she was never tired, and on the campaign trail she would sometimes make do with only a banana until dinner and never complained about being hungry. She had taken charge of her family’s household after her mother died when she was a young girl and could not afford to be tired or hungry. “I don’t get ill,” she told one reporter. “The girls [her daughters, Tricia and Julie] say that there’s no point in telling me if they don’t feel well. They’ll get no encouragement from me.” She once went so far as to say, “Even if I were dying, I wouldn’t let anyone know.”

The gloves were off between Pat and her rival Jackie Kennedy during the campaign. When the press accused Jackie of spending thirty thousand dollars a year on her clothes and going on shopping sprees in Paris, she shot back, “I couldn’t spend that much unless I wore sable underwear.” She added cattily, “I’m sure I spend less than Mrs. Nixon on clothes.” In an oral history that was released years later, Jackie said that she was grateful that her husband didn’t make her “get a little frizzy permanent and be like Pat Nixon.” After Nixon’s defeat to Kennedy that year, Pat told aides she thought Kennedy had stolen the election, and tried to get her husband to demand a recount.

In 1964 Lady Bird Johnson became the first first lady to go on the campaign trail without the president at her side when she traveled 1,628 miles across eight southern states on her “Lady Bird Special” whistle-stop train tour. During the trip she made 47 speeches to half a million people. Lady Bird, who grew up in a small town in East Texas, was the administration’s emissary to the South. She helped her husband win the election by convincing some southerners who were angry at LBJ for pushing Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which overturned the so-called Jim Crow segregation laws, that her husband was right to do so. Tens of thousands of people lined the tracks at railroad stations in small towns across the rural South. There were death threats and angry hecklers who held up signs that read “Black Bird. Go Home.” Lady Bird spoke from the platform of the caboose and would sometimes calmly raise a white-gloved hand to try to calm the protesters. At one stop she told the angry crowd shouting racial epithets that their words were “not from the good people of South Carolina but from the state of confusion.” Johnson’s aide Bill Moyers remembers hearing from an advance man who called from the road almost in tears. “As long as I live,” he said, trying not to cry, “I will thank God I was here today, so that I can tell my children that courage makes a difference.” In Columbia, South Carolina, a group of young men supporting LBJ’s opponent Barry Goldwater shouted, “We want Barry! We want Barry!” Without losing her composure, the first lady turned to them and said: “My friends, in this country we are entitled to many viewpoints. You are entitled to yours. But right now, I’m entitled to mine.”

This summer’s Republican convention could be reminiscent of the 1976 contested convention when outsider Ronald Reagan challenged sitting President Gerald Ford in an audacious bid for the Republican nomination. But this year, it’s doubtful that the candidates’ wives will spar as openly as Betty Ford and Nancy Reagan did that week in August 40 years ago. There had been subtle signs that Reagan was thinking of challenging the incumbent Ford before Reagan announced his attempt at a palace coup, as when Ronald and Nancy walked in front of the Fords at an event, leaving Ford’s political aides aghast at the brazen faux pas. In a dramatic scene at the Republican National Convention, which was split down the middle, Betty Ford and Nancy Reagan sat across the hall from each other, and dueling rounds of applause erupted from the crowd when they entered the arena. Nancy was upset that she was assigned a skybox while Betty, who was first lady, was given a seat on the floor. On the second night of the convention, Nancy felt upstaged by Betty, especially when Betty started dancing with singer Tony Orlando to “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree” at the same time the crowd was applauding Nancy; everyone’s attention immediately turned to Betty.

The two never really got along. “Mrs. Ford did not admire Nancy Reagan,” a close aide to Betty Ford said. Betty was particularly upset when she found out that Nancy was not supporting the Equal Rights Amendment. “I couldn’t understand how a woman who had had a professional life could show so little interest in working women,” Betty said in an interview at the end of the convention. “I just think when Nancy met Ronnie, that was it as far as her own life was concerned. She just fell apart at the seams.” Betty refused to call Nancy and apologize, even when Betty’s press secretary, Sheila Rabb Weidenfeld, pressed her to. “You’ve got to call and say that’s just not the case, that you never said that.” But Betty held her ground; that was what she thought and she wasn’t about to apologize for it.

The spouses didn’t always just go after each other. They criticized their husbands’ opponents with vigor—mostly behind the scenes, but sometimes publicly. During the 1984 campaign at an Italian-American Federation dinner in Washington with Democratic rival Walter Mondale, Nancy Reagan—a particularly effective behind-the-scenes force—noted, “When it was Ronnie’s turn to speak, I noticed that Mondale didn’t applaud—not even once.”
Hillary Clinton played a more public role. In her once-familiar role as the candidate’s wife during the 1992 presidential campaign, she referred to President George H.W. Bush’s four years in office as a “failure of leadership” on the stump. Hillary even said in an interview with Vanity Fair that year that a wealthy Atlanta businesswoman had told her about an alleged affair that her husband’s rival, George H.W. Bush, had had with a close aide. It’s all “apparently well known in Washington,” she said slyly. Hillary was referring to Jennifer Fitzgerald, with whom Bush was rumored to have had a romantic relationship for years. “I’m convinced part of it is that the Establishment—regardless of party—sticks together. They’re gonna circle the wagons on Jennifer,” she said. The Clinton campaign was trying its best to make sure the story of Bush’s alleged affair was exposed, and the Bush campaign was furious that the Clintons were planting the story.

First Lady Barbara Bush invited Cragg Hines, who was then the Washington bureau chief of the Houston Chronicle, for a counterattack: an intimate interview in the West Sitting Hall of the White House residence. The first lady sat demurely in an armchair wearing a pretty lilac suit, but her very serious intentions were clear from the moment Hines walked in. “It was the focus of her day,” he recalled with a laugh. When Hines asked her if this was the lowest point the campaign could sink to, she replied, “It can’t get any uglier.” Hillary and Barbara were not afraid to take each other on directly. (In fact, Barbara claimed that Hillary was fair game because “Governor and Mrs. Clinton had both said that they were going to be a co-presidency.”) In her memoir published in 1994, two years after her husband lost to Clinton, Barbara critiqued Hillary’s activist approach to the role of the first lady: “She seems much the stronger of the two,” she wrote. “Does it make him seem weaker?”

The two would never become friends, even after George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton developed a father-son bond. According to former White House officials, it’s no coincidence that whenever Bill Clinton is invited to the Bush family’s summer home in Kennebunkport, Maine, Hillary has other commitments.

Michelle Obama’s campaign style is actually more like that of the wives of the current candidates than that of Hillary Clinton or Barbara Bush. In the 2008 election Michelle was so popular that Barack Obama’s aides would often get asked at rallies, “Have you ever met Michelle?” She hates campaigning and even though she could afford to be more vocal now that her husband isn’t running for office himself, the most controversial statement she has made this election cycle has been a veiled reference to the “disturbing and hateful rhetoric” of the campaign.

Candidate spouses have always been in a tough position, facing endless expectations to be presentable and well-informed—but not too political. Lady Bird Johnson said a first lady needs to be a “showman and a salesman, a clotheshorse and a publicity sounding board, with a good heart, and a real interest in the folks” from all over the country, rich and poor. That’s no easy feat. And it’s no wonder, with the news cycle becoming faster and more cut throat by the minute, recording every glance and every comment, many of these spouses are staying out of the spotlight this campaign season—even Bill Clinton, who so loves to bask in it. It’s an ironic twist: Just as Hillary Clinton stands a chance at becoming president, candidate’s spouses are retreating further into the background.