When an icon is a mir­ror

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - By James Srodes

FIRST LADIES: PRES­I­DEN­TIAL HIS­TO­RI­ANS ON THE LIVES OF 45 ICONIC AMER­I­CAN WOMEN By Su­san Swain and C-SPAN

When the vi­sion­ary jour­nal­ist Brian Lamb launched the ca­ble broad­cast net­work CSPAN in 1979, its pri­mary pur­pose was, and still is, to pro­vide gavel-to-gavel cov­er­age of the au­gust United States Congress. But its sec­ond pur­pose, per­haps more ben­e­fi­cial, has been to pro­mote the Amer­i­can book, par­tic­u­larly books of his­tory and bi­og­ra­phy de­voted to that mud-wrestling free-for-all that is Amer­i­can pol­i­tics.

It is no ex­ag­ger­a­tion to say that C-SPAN’s pro­grams of au­thor talks, in­ter­views and dis­cus­sions that ex­am­ine the ma­jor per­son­al­i­ties who have shaped that story have be­come the dom­i­nant venue for Amer­i­can non­fic­tion lit­er­a­ture. As a grace note, C-SPAN’s ed­i­tors have been pub­lish­ing col­lec­tions of th­ese pro­grams gen­er­ally or­ga­nized around a theme such as the Amer­i­can char­ac­ter or the Supreme Court.

This ninth such col­lec­tion, timely re­leased in March dur­ing the Women’s His­tory Month ob­ser­vances, is an ap­pro­pri­ate and valu­able ex­am­i­na­tion of the lives and roles played by the 45 women most closely iden­ti­fied with the U.S. pres­i­dency.

In this time when the role of all women in our so­ci­ety is un­der­go­ing a long-over­due sea change, the col­lec­tion is es­pe­cially valu­able as an il­lus­tra­tion of how th­ese women adapted to, and con­trib­uted to, the pres­i­dents whose lives they shared. By ne­ces­sity, th­ese pro­files are not the de­fin­i­tive bi­ogra­phies of the women them­selves. Rather, they are in­tro­duc­tions and should prompt young read­ers to delve more deeply into their lives.

One can­not blame Su­san Swain, C-SPAN’s com­pil­ing au­thor and long­time pro­gram mod­er­a­tor, for the un­even­ness of the pro­files. The prin­ci­pal voices here are those of spe­cial­ists called pres­i­den­tial his­to­ri­ans and, as might be ex­pected, not all of them have equal skill or in­sight when they hold forth about 45 such var­ied per­son­al­i­ties.

There is, sorry to say, a ten­dency to fluff up some of th­ese women into stronger, more dy­namic, char­ac­ters as role mod­els than they de­serve. In some cases, the first ladies are ei­ther scanted or overly praised be­cause of some prism of mod­ern moral­ity fil­ter­ing our view of other times. Are all th­ese women “icons,” as billed in the book’s ti­tle? The plain truth is that not all of our pres­i­den­tial part­ners wanted the job of first lady; some in­deed hated it and wanted noth­ing more than to be back home living their nor­mal lives.

That’s as it should be. By def­i­ni­tion, an icon is not just the por­trayal of a sub­ject of ven­er­a­tion but a win­dow through which the viewer can com­mu­ni­cate di­rectly. An icon should not be a mir­ror where we see only our own re­flec­tion. So why shouldn’t we have first ladies who were not role mod­els for mod­ern women but were, in some cases, im­ped­i­ments to their chief ex­ec­u­tive part­ners?

Still, most of the pro­files are good in­tro­duc­tions given the lim­i­ta­tions of space af­forded. Roo­sevelt his­to­rian Dou­glas Brink­ley and Al­l­ida Black, edi­tor of the Eleanor Roo­sevelt pa­pers at Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­sity, pro­vide a good snap­shot of the only first lady to truly be co-pres­i­dent. Eleanor’s con­tri­bu­tions as the savvier po­lit­i­cal op­er­a­tive and the strong moral compass for her hus­band’s 12-year pres­i­dency are given their proper treat­ment here.

Lou Henry Hoover also gets a long-over­due in­tro­duc­tion as a strong and con­tribut­ing first lady. Also in­ter­est­ing are the con­trast­ing per­sonas of the only two first ladies mar­ried to the same pres­i­dent. Ellen Ax­son Wil­son (“life in the White House has no at­trac­tions for me”) was the an­tithe­sis of Edith Bolling Wil­son, who mar­ried Woodrow Wil­son af­ter Ellen died in 1914 and who took over de facto con­trol of the pres­i­dency when he was de­bil­i­tated by strokes dur­ing the last two years in of­fice.

Our first first lady, Martha Wash­ing­ton, gets scanted some­what, one sus­pects, be­cause she de­voted her life to shor­ing up hus­band Ge­orge’s beloved plan­ta­tion home at Mount Ver­non, and that by the ne­ces­sity of the times in­volved en­forc­ing the slav­ery of the hu­man be­ings em­ployed there. By con­trast, Abigail Adams gets proto-fem­i­nist ku­dos (“re­mem­ber the ladies and be kin­der to them than your an­ces­tors”) with a gloss over the fact that her New Eng­land snob­bery ham­pered her hus­band’s ef­forts (with Benjamin Franklin) to win French sup­port dur­ing the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War. The fact that she shame­lessly bought up the promis­sory notes given war vet­er­ans in lieu of pay for pen­nies on the dollar and then lob­bied her hus­band for full re­demp­tion from Congress would surely prompt public out­cry to­day.

Some of the his­to­ri­ans con­tribut­ing to th­ese pro­files had a hard time com­ing up with praise­wor­thy as­sess­ments of their sub­jects, but again, where’s the sur­prise? Af­ter all, th­ese first ladies were hu­man be­ings, not icons. James Srodes is the au­thor of “On Dupont Cir­cle: Franklin and Eleanor Roo­sevelt and the Pro­gres­sives Who Shaped Our World” (Coun­ter­point).

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.