September 19th, 2021


Blues for a first lady

Wesley Pruden

By Wesley Pruden

Published June 16, 2015

 Blues for a first lady

Nobody likes to hear himself ridiculed, criticized, scolded or even mildly rebuked, especially when he deserves it. It's part of being human. Politicians, who come with outsized egos, like it less than others.

First ladies, being female, like it least of all.

Michelle Obama, one of the most popular of recent first ladies (her approval rating regularly bumps 70 percent), traveled to Chicago the other day to tell a high-school graduating class how tough the life of a president's wife can be. Hillary opened her presidential campaign for the second time in New York City days later, opening the family closet to air out skeletons and to introduce her latest persona. We're awash in tales of misery and abuse in an era when everybody, even a first lady, yearns to be a victim.

Michelle has been talking in this commencement season about the sticks and stones thrown at her and the mister, letting it all hang out in speeches to high-school and college ceremonies across the land. There's the recurring music of romp and circumstance everywhere.

She told the graduates, their friends and families how "insults" and "slights" directed at the president anger and hurt her. "It used to really get to me," she told one graduating class. She tossed and turned during "lots of sleepless nights." She had to grow a thicker skin, as first ladies before her — all white, as it happens — had to do.

Insults, slights and unkind caricatures wound everyone, and no one feels such slights and insults like a president's wife. Michelle could have asked (or channeled), Laura Bush, Nancy Reagan, Roslyn Carter, Patricia Nixon, Mamie Eisenhower, Bess Truman, Lou Hoover, Hillary Rodham Clinton, or pick a name from the list of Mr. Obama's 43 predecessors. They would all tell her how Americans heckle presidents, and how their wives feel it most.

Mrs. Obama imagines the heckling and shouting at her man is sharper and meaner because of race and bigotry. "That's a burden that President Obama and I carry proudly," she told one high-school class. "We know that everything we do and say can confirm the myths about people like us."

The heat and noise of presidential politics was more painful than she expected. "As potentially the first African-American first lady, I was the focus of another set of questions and speculations, conversations sometimes rooted in the fears and misperceptions of others. Was I too loud or too angry or too emasculating? Or was I too soft, too much of a mom, not enough of a career woman?"

Her friends tell The New York Times that it was a role that she did not want (earlier first ladies didn't want it, either). She struggled, like other first ladies of recent vintage, to find something useful to do, whether prescribing inedible school lunches or nagging tubbies to drop a little weight (or a lot). Only in recent administrations have first ladies felt the urge to emulate Eleanor Roosevelt and become an assistant to the president.

Michelle Obama heard a lot of hurtful things said about her husband, some of them rooted in race and prejudice and some of them rooted in her husband's incompetent performance. But like it or not, and nobody would, the Obamas, like every president and his lady before them, play in a higher league than anyone else. The White House is the kitchen where the heat drives out all but the most determined contenders.

After 67 years, Hillary Rodham Clinton is learning that she has to change her persona again. The old personas are a little too long on the shelf, and they didn't work, anyway. Nothing about any of them ever sounded authentic. Hillary has no memories of racial snubs and slights born of bigotry. But she can exploit her mother's authentic story of heartbreaking melancholia and misfortune, all to get her back to the White House.

Her mother was 8 when her parents put her and a younger sister on a train to relatives in California. The relatives didn't want the little girls, either, and when her mother could no longer bear it she returned to Chicago at 14 to take a job as a domestic for $3 a week. When she found her mother several years later she was spurned again.

Hillary kept this sad story to herself in previous campaigns, determined to protect her family's "zone of privacy." But hard times on the hustings require a new persona. Life for both first ladies has improved in the years since. The two ladies have had a pretty good life themselves, enjoying the prosperity, admiration, comfort and privilege the rest of us can hardly dream of.

All that, and a rose garden, too.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.