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Grace under Pressure: America's First Ladies

There's no real job description for the first lady. Instead, the position is shaped by the women who hold it. All of the nation's first ladies have served in their own ways. Read Transcript


IT'S BEEN DESCRIBED AS THE SECOND

HARDEST JOB IN AMERICA.

AN AD FOR THE FIRST LADY

MIGHT READ SOMETHING LIKE THIS:

WANTED: REMARKABLE WOMAN,

WILLING TO WORK WITHOUT PAY,

MUST OFFER OPINIONS ON SUBJECTS

FROM FASHION TO HUNGER

TO PEACE IN THE MIDDLE EAST.

BENEFITS INCLUDE TRAVEL TO EXOTIC,

WAR-TORN LOCALES

AND ENDLESS PAPARAZZI.

NO EXPERIENCE NECESSARY,

PERFECTION PREFERRED.

THERE'S NO REAL JOB DESCRIPTION

FOR THE FIRST LADY.

INSTEAD, THE POSITION IS SHAPED

BY THE WOMEN WHO HOLD IT.

AND ALL OF THE NATION'S FIRST LADIES

HAVE SERVED IN THEIR OWN WAYS.

THE HUGELY POPULAR DOLLY MADISON

DID NOT ESCAPE CENTURE FOR

HER USE OF COSMETICS AND SNUFF.

NOT TO MENTION, SPENDING $11,000

ON REFURBISHING A SHABBY

EXECUTIVE MANSION.

IT'S NO BED OF ROSES, FIRST LADIES

ARE CRITICIZED FOR THE WAY THEY DRESS,

HOW THEY DECORATE THE WHITE HOUSE,

EVEN HOW THEY STYLE THEIR HAIR.

YOU KNOW, MRS. REAGAN USED TO

GET HER HAIR DONE EVERY OTHER DAY.

SO, EVERY OTHER DAY, IT LOOKED GREAT,

AND EVERY OTHER DAY, IT LOOKED

NOT SO GREAT AND....

BUT ON THE DAYS THAT IT

DIDN'T LOOK GREAT,

I KID YOU NOT, WE WOULD HEAR ABOUT IT,

WE'D GET THE PHONE CALLS.

THERE'S NO FUNDS TO KEEP

THE FIRST LADY LOOKING GREAT.

HAIR AND CLOTHING EXPENSES

COME OUT OF THEIR OWN POCKETS,

JUST LIKE AMERICA'S OTHER LADIES.

THE LEVEL OF SCRUTINY IS SUCH

THAT THERE'S JUST NO MARGIN FOR ERROR

AND I THINK THAT IS SOMETHING

EVERY MODERN FIRST LADY FACES,

BUT I THINK IT JUST GETS EVEN

MORE AND MORE SO,

JUST BECAUSE OF CABLE TV

AND THE 24/7 NEWS CYCLE.

DESPITE THE SCRUTINY, FIRST LADIES

INFLUENCE POLICY AND PLAY

IMPORTANT ROLES IN DIPLOMACY.

THEIR STAFFS SAY THEY HAVE

THE ABILITY TO DO THINGS

BEHIND THE SCENES

IN WAYS THEIR HUSBANDS CAN'T.

FOR INSTANCE, GAIL HODGES BURT,

FORMER REAGAN SOCIAL SECRETARY,

SAYS NANCY REAGAN OFTEN

DEFLECTED SLINGS AND ARROWS

INTENDED FOR THE GIPPER

AND EVEN HELPED FACILITATE

CRITICAL TALKS BETWEEN

REAGAN AND MIKHAIL GORBACHEV

DURING THE COLD WAR.

PEOPLE NOW RECOGNIZE THAT THERE

IS A PERSON THERE,

THERE IS A BRAIN THERE.

AND OF COURSE, EACH FIRST LADY

CHAMPIONS HER OWN CAUSE.

WHAT EVERY FIRST LADY DISCOVERS

EARLY ON, SOMETIMES TO HER SURPRISE,

IS JUST WHAT A REMARKABLE

PLATFORM SHE HAS BEEN GIVEN,

JUST HOW FAR HER VOICE CAN CARRY.

AND THAT CAN BE USED FOR

ALL SORTS OF POSITIVE THINGS,

BUT IT'S ALSO SOMETIMES A WARNING,

IF SHE SAYS SOMETHING OFF-MESSAGE

OR POLITICALLY CONTROVERSIAL,

THAT IT MAY BE A PRICE TO PAY.

LAURA BUSH CHAMPIONED

WOMEN'S RIGHTS IN AFGHANISTAN,

PUSHING FOR EDUCATION

AND PREVENTATIVE HEALTHCARE.

WHAT I LOVED MOST ABOUT HER

IS THAT SHE NEVER FORGOT A DETAIL,

SHE CONNECTED WITH PEOPLE,

REALLY, ALL OVER THE WORLD

BECAUSE SHE PAID ATTENTION

TO WHO THEY ARE AND WHAT

HER ENVIRONMENT WAS,

AND REALLY, REALLY CONNECTED.

SUSAN SHER, LONG TIME FRIEND

AND FORMER CHIEF OF STAFF

TO MICHELLE OBAMA,

SAYS MRS. OBAMA DEVELOPED AN INTEREST

IN HELPING MILITARY FAMILIES

AFTER HEARING THEIR STORIES ON THE

CAMPAIGN TRAIL WITH HER HUSBAND.

THAT LEFT AN IMPACT ON HER

AND SHE WAS VERY CLEAR

FROM THE BEGINNING, THAT SHE WANTED

TO WORK WITH MILITARY FAMILIES,

TO EASE THEIR BURDENS,

IF THERE WAS A WAY TO DO THAT.

INTEREST IN THE CURRENT FIRST FAMILY

IS PERHAPS, UNPRECEDENTED,

BUT THE OBAMA'S AREN'T AFRAID

TO STEAL PRIVATE MOMENTS

IN THE MIDST OF PUBLIC EVENTS.

SOME OF THE PHOTOS THAT I'VE SEEN,

WHERE THEY'RE SORT OF

TAKING A PRIVATE MOMENT

IN A VERY PUBLIC ARENA,

IS SOMETHING THAT I THINK

IT'S IMPORTANT TO THEM,

NO MATTER WHAT ELSE HAPPENS,

TO KEEP THE RELATIONSHIP GOING.

THOSE WHO'VE WORKED FOR

FIRST LADIES SAY THE THING

AMERICANS OFTEN FORGET,

IS THAT THE WOMEN PLAYING

AMERICA'S HOSTESS,

ALSO HAVE TO DEAL WITH

THE EVERYDAY CHALLENGES OF LIFE.

MRS. REAGAN HAD BREAST CANCER,

THE PRESIDENT HAD COLON CANCER.

THERE WAS AN ATTEMPTED

ASSASSINATION ON HIM.

HER MOTHER DIED WHILE

SHE WAS IN OFFICE.

THEY MUST ALSO ABSORB CRITICISM.

AND THEN THINK ABOUT IT,

THIS IS THE PERSON SHE CARES

MOST FOR IN HER LIFE,

THAT SHE LOVES SO DEEPLY.

YET DAY TO DAY, WAS PRETTY BRUTAL

AND THAT SHE WAS ABLE TO CREATE

THIS SANCTUARY AROUND THEIR FAMILY

THAT REALLY WAS WHERE THEY

DERIVED A GREAT DEAL OF STRENGTH.

SO, WHAT ABOUT THE DAY

WHEN AMERICA WELCOMES

ITS FIRST FEMALE PRESIDENT

AND HER FIRST GENTLEMAN

TO THE WHITE HOUSE?

I THINK IN OUR LIFETIME, WE MAY

VERY WELL SEE A WOMAN PRESIDENT

AND THEN, PERHAPS, THE TITLE

WILL BE RETIRED

AND MORE IMPORTANT, MAYBE THE

DOUBLE STANDARD WILL BE RETIRED

BECAUSE I GUARANTEE YOU,

PEOPLE WON'T PAY AS MUCH ATTENTION

TO WHAT THE FIRST GENTLEMAN WEARS

OR HOW HE STYLES HIS HAIR

AND THEN, MAYBE THAT WILL BE

THE ULTIMATE SUCCESS OF

THE MODERN WOMEN'S MOVEMENT,

THAT EVERYONE IS ASSESSED

BY THE SAME STANDARDS.

UNTIL THEN, AMERICA'S FIRST LADIES

WILL CONTINUE TO SHAPE

THEIR UN-ELECTED OFFICE

AND LEAVE THEIR MARKS

ON AMERICAN HISTORY.

JENNIFER WISHON,

CBN NEWS, WASHINGTON.

EMBED THIS VIDEO


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