The role of First Lady has recently received a lot coverage, both in Hollywood and in Washington. But this unofficial position—for which there is no salary and no constitutional definition—has long tantalized the American imagination. On February 7, journalist and author Kate Andersen Brower will discuss former first ladies, from Jackie Kennedy to Michelle Obama, at The Society of the Four Arts in Palm Beach.
Brower became fascinated by first ladies and the staff that supports them when she was a White House reporter for Bloomberg News. She focused on the staff in her 2015 book The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House (Harper Collins, $28), and then turned her attention to first ladies for her 2016 release First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies (Harper Collins, $29). Both The Residence and First Women are being turned into television series, and each is full of behind-the-scenes details about the inner workings of the White House and the quirks of the first ladies. Below are five of our favorite factoids.
- The First Family pays for their own food. Rosalynn Carter was reportedly aghast when she received her first bill for a month’s worth of groceries and learned she owed $600, a hefty sum in the 1970s.
- The First Lady picks out the meals for the week every Sunday night. Some, like Carter, requested leftovers to curb costs.
- Jackie O’s preferred drink was Champagne on the rocks. In November 1963, the Kennedys were to arrive at the Johnsons’ Austin farm after their scheduled stop in Dallas, and Lady Bird made sure the drink was on hand for this visit that would never be.
- The First Lady’s dressing room offers a vantage point into the oval office. Many first ladies have watched their husbands work from this location, and an outgoing First Lady will show this spot to an incoming First Lady during their private White House tour.
- First ladies can be unassuming diplomats. Many use state dinners, when they are seated near heads of state and other important figures, to convey the administration’s needs, appease hurt feelings, and stroke egos.
PBI.com: How did writing your first book, The Residence, prepare you to write First Women?
Brower: I started doing them at the same time. When I was working on The Residence, I had a separate file about first ladies because I’ve always been so intrigued by them and how they navigate this role that is not constitutionally defined. For The Residence, I interviewed Barbara Bush, Laura Bush, and Rosalynn Carter. Nancy Reagan was not doing well at that time, but I did connect with her over emails. But the other three first ladies were very outspoken about how grateful they were to the staff. The most direct relationships the residence staff have are with the social secretary and the First Lady because the President is too busy. Most of the stories they would tell me and most of the stories in The Residence are about Hillary Clinton, Jackie Kennedy, Michelle Obama.
It sounds like a natural progression.
I’ve always thought so. I also think women are just generally very multifaceted, interesting people to talk about. And all of these women are mothers. I have two toddlers myself and I find it overwhelming just juggling basic things like going to the grocery store. I couldn’t imagine what [the lives of the first ladies] must be like.
Why did you decide to present the book as a group biography?
Because a modern one hadn’t been done before. A lot of times, you think of Eleanor Roosevelt or you think of Jackie Kennedy, but there are really interesting women in between, too. Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter, and Laura Bush—all of these women are interesting and I wanted to explore their relationships with each other, their friendships and their rivalries.
I was fascinated by the varying levels of relationships between these women. What do you think accounts for this?
Like any human relationship, it has to do with their personalities. I think it’s kind of refreshing that it doesn’t have to do much with politics. Lady Bird Johnson was very close to Barbara Bush—a democrat and a republican. It’s about whether or not they connect with the other person, and some people are just more gregarious than others. Lady Bird wrote a lot of letters. Jackie was very private. And Barbara Bush had wonderful letters that she exchanged with other first ladies, including Betty Ford. I was struck by Rosalynn Carter saying she remembered Lady Bird Johnson calling her in the White House during the Iran Hostage Crisis and checking in on her. Lady Bird had been through Vietnam and knew what it was like to feel like a prisoner in the White House. You can hear the chanting of protestors in Lafayette Square across the street. It’s not as glamorous as people might assume.
And these women are the only ones who truly understand what the other is going through.
Yeah. I like the book The Presidents Club and it made me [think about] this fraternity of former presidents, so I wanted to look and see if there was a sorority of former first ladies. I think there is but it’s a very complicated one. And some of the first ladies like Betty Ford and Rosalynn Carter, their husbands were there for one term and there was a lot of resentment that they weren’t reelected. Rosalynn Carter to this day talks about how the biggest regret of her life was that her husband wasn’t reelected. It makes them seem very human to me.
First Women is being turned into a TV series. What do you hope viewers take away from it?
I just hope it gives the depth of these women. It takes a lot to communicate how complex it is and the high highs of reaching this pinnacle of American politics. Also the feeling of, “What have I gotten myself into?” I hope and I’m confident [the producers] will do a good job of portraying how tough the job is.
What personal qualities and attributes make for an effective and beloved first lady?
Empathy is a big one for any candidate and any First Lady. First ladies have to do a lot of emotional heavy lifting. They’re meeting with the family members of soldiers killed in battle. They’re often on the front lines of funerals. Before the public face, there are those meetings that take place behind the scenes that are very emotional. It has to be very draining to feel that pain. I think empathy is key. Jackie Kennedy was seen as a style icon and also important and influential but not a warm and fuzzy person. And then she went through her own tragedy and was so stoic about it. Being able to sympathize and understand what people are going through is the most important quality they can have.
What is the most misunderstood facet of the role of First Lady? What do you think the public often gets wrong?
That it’s just flowers and tea. That’s a very superficial understanding about the job. Most of them are also top presidential advisors. Betty Ford got into trouble for being too outspoken and yet she did it anyway. They want to say a lot more than they’re allowed to say. A lot of times you’re seen and not heard, and I think that’s a very frustrating thing. Especially as women’s roles expand and evolve, and there’s still a long way to go. It’s certainly changed but that role hasn’t kept up with the change.
Knowing all you know about this role, what advice would you give to the first ladies of the future?
Be as honest as you’re comfortable with, because no matter what you do you’re going to be criticized by somebody. And I think that’s true for anybody in a public sphere. Don’t let your husband’s advisors shut you down. … Just be brave because what do you have to lose, really?