Presidency: Is Laura Bush a Good First Lady at a Time Like This?

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Ms. Fischer teaches history at Salem State College in Massachusetts.

We know that former First Lady Hilary Rodham Clinton"spoke" to Eleanor Roosevelt, especially in times of stress. Did First Lady Laura Bush turn to any of her predecessors after the acts of terrorism on September 11, 2001?

The United States of America is a country founded in war; the American Revolution (or War for Independence) began with the battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775. Over the centuries, armed conflict--domestic and foreign--has characterized much of U.S. history, from the massacres of Native Americans to the War of 1812 to the Mexican-American War to the Civil War to the Spanish-American War to the occupation of the Dominican Republic by U.S. Marines to World War I and World War II and the Korean Conflict and the Vietnam War to the bombings of Libya in the 1980s and the attacks on Iraq in the 1990s. Given the U.S.'s martial legacy it is not surprising that First Ladies have always been involved in the country's wars. They have served as supporters, as critics, as volunteers, as nurses, and as wives, mothers, and sisters of male soldiers.

The U.S. Constitution is silent about the wife of the president, perhaps the second most powerful person in the country; no formal--peacetime or wartime--job description exists. The non-elected, non-appointed, non-paid wife of the Commander-in-Chief (President) shoulders her own share of burdens and responsibilities during times of war. No one First Lady defined the wartime role for all. However, each has valuable lessons to impart to"Comforter in Chief" Laura Bush if she cares to learn from the past.

The public and press have regularly criticized First Ladies for being too active and simultaneously criticized them for being too inactive during periods of war (and peace). No one more poignantly demonstrates this contradictory response than First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln (1861 to 1865). On April 12, 1861, rebels fired upon Fort Sumter; President Abraham Lincoln ordered seventy-five-thousand militia for active duty; the Civil War had begun.

Mary Todd Lincoln seemed incapable of"doing the right thing" while the country was embroiled in its bloodiest war ever. Initially, the military command feared an invasion of Washington and urged the First Lady and her two youngest sons to leave town. She refused. As a compromise, Mrs. Lincoln was ordered not to leave the White House grounds without a guard. The compromise drew criticism for squandering war funds to guard the President's wife. A southerner by birth, Mary faced charges of disloyalty that mounted when the press reported that every male relative of hers fought for the Confederacy.

Furthermore, popular opinion held that she displayed a callous disregard for the fighting and dying on the battlefield. At least one published poem juxtaposed the image of a soldier dying on the street while looking into the"mirthful White House" with the First Lady's perceived sumptuous lifestyle. When she chose to entertain during the war, Mrs. Lincoln was vilified, but when she halted weekly band concerts, she was also criticized. In contrast, Laura Bush suffered little as a sympathetic nation seemed to understand that the White House needed to cancel its annual Christmas tours for the public out of wartime security concerns. Mary Lincoln's wartime experiences should teach the current First Lady that she will be engaged in a delicate balancing act for the duration, although Mrs. Bush is far more popular with the press than Mrs. Lincoln ever was.

The public usually holds that the First Lady's primary obligation is to support her husband, the President. Her radio address aside, Laura Bush has played the role of loyal wife admirably without deviating significantly from the"proper role of presidential wives in American history." The popular question,"Is Laura Bush re-defining the role First Ladies play in American society?" highlights our ignorance of First Lady history. The historical experience of other wartime First Ladies cannot be ignored. We must understand Laura Bush's actions within the framework of a contradictory and constantly evolving role, one that scholars and the public have always been hard pressed to define.

During the United States' war with Mexico (1846-1848), Sarah Polk (first lady from 1845 to 1849) served as President Polk's assistant and may have influenced her husband's decision to declare war. Apparently First Lady Sarah Polk expanded her role as a Washington hostess to garner political support for the Mexican War; she invited soldiers and elected officials to a full schedule of political and"patriotic" dinners for the purpose of discussing the"godly war." Successive Presidents and their wives used entertaining as a means of promoting the United States as a world power.

Presidential marriages require that the First Lady publicly support the President, and no one more clearly demonstrated this support than Lady Bird Johnson (first lady from 1963 to 1969). She worried constantly about President Lyndon B. Johnson's obsession with the war in Vietnam. As the war in Southeast Asia began to overshadow Johnson's vision for a war on poverty at home, Lady Bird fretted about the strain of the war on her husband's health and insisted that he get more rest.

What are we to make of Abigail Adams (first lady from 1797 to 1801) and the threat of war with Great Britain that hovered over the John Adams Administration? Abigail pushed the President, as many did, to sign the Alien and Sedition Acts. While the President struggled to avoid war, Abigail privately wrote,"All we need is a declaration of war. …And-though the President must not hear me say this!--one undoubtedly would have been made--ought to have been made." Public support-private opposition? Some First Ladies did more publicly to support their husband's policies than stroke their egos or plan parties. Eleanor Roosevelt (first lady from 1933 to 1945) journeyed to the South Pacific in fall 1943; thousands of soldiers asked her to convey messages to their loved ones back home. On her return, she and her staff followed through on a number of the requests, phoning families with greetings. For some women, wartime actions and reputations preceded their tenure as First Ladies and continued to influence public perceptions after they entered the White House.

During the American Revolution, Martha Washington (first lady from 1789 to 1797) traveled to General Washington's encampments and assisted with food preparation, visited the sick and wounded, performed clerical duties, and made and repaired uniforms. After the war, first lady Martha Washington earned a reputation for interceding on behalf of veterans and helping them secure pensions.

Like Martha Washington, Margaret Taylor (first lady from 1849-1850) spent years following her husband Zachary Taylor, a military officer, from one frontier outpost to another, nursing and cooking for his soldiers. Julia Grant (first lady from 1869 to 1877) was an army wife who frequently lived in camp and nursed General Ulysses Grant's soldiers. Lucy Hayes (first lady from 1877 to 1881) also nursed soldiers who served under her husband, Rutherford B. Hayes, during the Civil War. Lou Hoover (first lady from 1929 to 1933), nursed the wounded while being fired upon during the Boxer Rebellion in China.

In what is probably the best-known wartime act of a First Lady, Dolley Madison (first lady from 1809 to 1817) did more than nurse the wounded. In June 1812, the United States declared war on Great Britain. Although privately alarmed by the warfare, publicly the First Lady attempted to boost the nation's morale by cheering soldiers on to fight and maintaining a full social schedule.

In the spring of 1813, the Americans burned the Parliament buildings of Toronto. The British announced that they would destroy Washington in retaliation. Dolley described"the fears and alarms that circulate[d] around" her. But it would be over a year before the British made good on their threat. On August 24, 1814, the First Lady watched thousands of Washingtonians flee the city in panic and heard firing cannons in the distance. Even with no word from President Madison, Dolley remaind calm.

Despite requests from the mayor, the First Lady refused to leave the capital. Then she heard from the President that the British were advancing. Before taking flight, Dolley ordered that George Washington's Gilbert Stuart portrait be removed from the wall and given to friends for safekeeping. In addition, she saved copies of important state documents and valuable silver. The British arrived, set fire to the President's house, and left a gutted bare shell.

After the British defeat, President and Mrs. Madison took up a temporary residence in Washington. Immediately, Dolley resumed her role as Washington hostess as if to publicly declare that the Presidential couple would not allow the destruction perpetrated by the British to interfere with the country's politics.

Although the details may differ, First Lady Laura Bush's conduct since the"war on terrorism" began does not deviate greatly from the manner in which earlier First Ladies dealt with wartime conditions. First Ladies as wartime and peacetime partners to the President have always had a significant political impact and been an integral part of presidential administrations.

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David Greene - 2/6/2002

I thought the article was well written and informative. I enjoyed it. Very nice job.