First Lady Kerfuffles

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The death of Nancy Reagan this week brought me back to the glitzy Eighties, the age of glamor and conspicuous consumption. And it reminded me that being First Lady is the most thankless of jobs.

Nowadays, Michelle Obama gets a lot of criticism for traveling too much, spending too much, and not being “ladylike” enough. Despite the fact that her predecessor Laura Bush travelled much more frequently than Mrs. Obama, conservatives routinely vilify Michelle whenever she takes a trip. They also dislike the fact that she displays her dance moves on TV talk shows, and they make cruel personal remarks related to her campaign against childhood obesity.

I hope Michelle Obama takes solace in the fact that many First Ladies who came before her were subject to a critical, demanding public. Jackie Kennedy spent too much on clothes, Betty Ford was too outspoken, Rosalyn Carter had the nerve to sit in on Cabinet meetings, and worst of all, Hillary Clinton tried to push forward her universal healthcare agenda.

During the Reagan years, Nancy Reagan was roundly condemned for her expensive wardrobe, as well as the pricey redecorating and china purchases she made for the White House. When questioned about her expenditures, “Queen Nancy” responded, “I am just being myself.” (New York Times, October 13, 1981) In later years, when it came out that Mrs. Reagan consulted astrologers while advising her husband, the press went wild.

As women’s roles in society evolve, our expectations for First Lady behavior have become a bit anachronistic. These are intelligent women who have given up their own careers and are suddenly expected to be the little woman, staying home and baking cookies, as Mrs. Clinton famously complained when she was First Lady.

I think we need to give our First Ladies, whether Republican or Democratic, a break. And I myself am looking forward to the role that Bill Clinton will fashion for himself when he becomes the nation’s first “First Husband.”

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