What Do We Want in a First Lady?Historians in the News
tags: First Ladies, womens history, nancy reagan, FLOTUS, Lady Bird Johnson
On January 18, 1968, Lady Bird Johnson welcomed about fifty guests to the White House for a Women Doers Luncheon. This wasn’t her first Doers do; an earlier one was focussed on “beautification,” Lady Bird’s personal cause—something every modern First Lady is expected to have—and had as its featured speaker the urbanist Jane Jacobs. The January luncheon was concerned with juvenile delinquency and “crime on the streets.” Some of the Doers were involved in organizations such as the Y.W.C.A.; others were journalists or the wives of politicians. And one was Eartha Kitt, the singer, who was invited because of her work with a youth group. Her fellow-guests might also have heard her rendition of “Santa Baby” or seen her on television, earlier that month, as Catwoman, in “Batman.”
After the luncheon was under way, with polite discussions of street lighting in Indianapolis and a drop-in by L.B.J., Kitt raised her hand and, in a freewheeling soliloquy, declared that one couldn’t talk about juvenile delinquency without also talking about the war in Vietnam. “You take the best of the country and send them off to a war and they get shot,” she said. The war meant that “it pays to be a bad guy,” since a criminal record could keep young men from being inducted into the military—an upside-down version of student deferments. “They can’t come to you and tell you, Mrs. Johnson,” Kitt said. “They cannot get to President Johnson and tell President Johnson about it. They rebel in the streets; they will take pot.”
Bedlam ensued. Another guest—also a first lady, of New Jersey—stood up to say that “anybody who’s taking pot just because there is a war in Vietnam is some kind of a kook.” Lady Bird, her voice trembling, said that the war did not “give us a ticket not to try to work on bettering the things in this country that we can better.” In an audio diary she kept, she said that she feared that her luncheon would be seen as “a riot.” If so, the target was Kitt, who, in the following days, was pilloried as disruptive and “ill bred.” Lady Bird put out a statement calling her “the shrill voice of anger and discord”; the Secret Service asked the C.I.A. for a dossier on her. It mattered that Kitt was Black; one of the few public figures to support her was Martin Luther King, Jr. She lost work, and moved to Europe. One thing the episode illustrates is that the First Ladyship does come with power.
If the job of a First Lady is to be a model of hospitality and grace, Lady Bird was, in this case, a bad one; if the job is to back up her husband and undercut his opponents, she was a good one. Kitt, in a memoir, suggested that her mistake was thinking that the event was really meant to come up with ideas about young people and crime: “Was this a sounding board, or was this simply a theme luncheon to no end?” The problem of the luncheon, then, was also an inherent problem with the institution of the First Lady: how much of it is for real?
Two new books—“Lady Bird Johnson: Hiding in Plain Sight” (Random House), by Julia Sweig, a fellow at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, at the University of Texas at Austin, and “The Triumph of Nancy Reagan” (Simon & Schuster), by Karen Tumulty, a Washington Post columnist—offer perspectives on the confusion of the public and the private, and of seriousness and sham, that is the First Ladyship. Sweig’s book is focussed on Lady Bird during the Johnson Administration, and her main contention is that Lady Bird, in some broad sense, mattered. The author’s fondness for her subject is evident—too much so, at times. Tumulty’s book is more ambitious than Sweig’s—it is a full biography—and more successful. She doesn’t make excuses for her subject, and her clarity about Nancy (as she calls her throughout; her husband is “Ronnie”) gives substance to an engaging, well-written narrative. Tumulty’s Nancy is humanly comprehensible and compelling, and comes out looking better than do many of her worst critics and her husband’s strongest allies—two categories that often overlapped.