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Presidential ‘First Ladies’ – FLOTUS – tend to get a pass because, after all, nobody elected them and a wife’s first duty – as Hilary Clinton reminded us during her husband’s sexual adventures– is to stand by her husband no matter what. With one or two exceptions, such as the magnificent Betty Ford and Rosalynn Carter, first ladies play it safe by advocating bland issues like libraries, mental health and, in Michelle Obama’s case, childhood obesity – at a time when record numbers of children are on food stamps and starvation not fatness is their problem.
The other way First Ladies get known is by fashion trend-setting and elegant interior decoration. Or as Harpers Bazaar says, “(Michelle Obama) is well on her way to leaving a stylish legacy on a par with those other White House arbiters, Jacqueline Kennedy and Nancy Reagan.” Some legacy. Goodbye Rahm Emanuel and Bill Daley, hello to bare-arms style mavens Jason Wu and Thakoon.
President Obama just emailed me that Michelle, our “Commander in Chic”, will be 48 on Tuesday and to wish her happy birthday on her new Tweet. Yes, why not. She’s strong, smart, statuesque, …and from my home town of Chicago. Grows her own vegetables, too, first FLOTUS to do so since Eleanor Roosevelt, FDR’s wife.
Ah, that’s the rub. For me, and millions of Depression-and-war shattered Americans, Eleanor broke the mold and established for all time, we hoped, how a first lady should behave. That is, as a passionate advocate for us 99 percent – “ill housed, ill clad and ill nourished”, in her husband’s words. Eleanor, a daughter of wealth, was a potent factor in FDR’s popularity. This shrewd, restless, sexually unfulfilled, determined, emotionally generous woman earned the love of a broken nation because we believed she was on our side fighting for us. She was called every name in the book, communist, lesbian, whore, etc.
The dominant Republican press, especially, poked nasty, sexist fun at Eleanor going down into coal mines to investigate miserable conditions – like West Virginia’s 2010 killer Upper Branch mine – and helping set up camps for the dispossessed homeless – like those today within sight of the Oval Office windows – photographed in the company of Negroes and migrant workers – like the illegals currently being chased out of Alabama. She was accused, correctly, of using her influence to whisper into FDR’s ear about her favorite causes.
Eleanor was despised, mainly by men (and some frightened women), for precisely the reasons she was admired and even beloved by working women like my mother. I’m sure that FDR’s political advisors, the Rahm Emanuels and David Axelrods of his day, advised him to shut down his bothersome wife. Sometimes he did…and sometimes, calculatingly, our crippled and immobile head of state used her to be his eyes, ears and floater of risky trial balloons. In effect, for thirteen years, she was our Assistant President.
My mother, and women like her, would have gone through fire for Eleanor Roosevelt.
After FDR’s death (in the arms of another woman) our hope was that the next First Ladies would be like Eleanor, an infighter for us. Fat chance. Bess Truman hated politics and immediately after inauguration took off for her home in Independence, Missouri; Mamie drank; Jackie created a candyfloss Camelot; Lady Bird Johnson, like Jackie, kept her eyes averted (from among other things her husband’s affairs) but did her best to…beautify the highways while her husband escalated the Vietnam war.
Bless her soul, Betty Ford, in her outspokenness about practically all the taboos – marijuana, premarital sex, abortion and choice – was like Eleanor’s spiritual daughter. And Rosalynn Carter actually fought for, and got passed, the Paul Wellstone Mental Health Act for equal coverage of mental and physical illnesses.
Then came the Rasputin-like Barbie dolls, Nancy (“Just say no!”) Reagan and the monster snob Barbara Bush who could not be accused of hypocrisy since her contempt for the poor (like the Katrina flood victims) was so open.
Many of my friends believe Hilary Clinton should have been president, but I cannot imagine Eleanor Roosevelt sitting on a Wal-Mart board, like Hilary, and staying conspicuously silent about the company’s vicious anti-worker policies. I’m not sure Eleanor was a pacifist, but I wonder if she, like Hilary, would be so keen to vote to invade other countries like Iraq and Libya and now Iran?
Laura Bush, who was for libraries if nothing else, raises a Michelle problem: what is a wife’s human obligation when her husband goes to an unnecessary war? Is it to preach literacy and keep quiet about massacres? Or, more complicatedly, to be like Michelle Obama, who at least acknowledges the human wreckage and reaches out to medical schools to advocate more training in military and veteran issues like brain injuries and PTSD?
My Eleanor dream runs riot. Will ever a FLOTUS turn over in bed and whisper to a Predator-drone hubby and pound his chest and refuse him sex while demanding, “Honey, when will you stop killing people?”
If there ever was a time when we needed an angry black woman – the label Michelle keeps refusing – now, on the verge of yet another war, this time with Iran, is the time.
Clancy Sigal is a novelist and screenwriter in Los Angeles. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org