Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Thursday Thirteen #79 -- Remembering the Ladies

The 13 Most Influential First Ladies

I’m fascinated by our First Ladies. It’s such a public position, and yet it’s so undefined. Each woman who has held it has made it her own, finding individual ways to balance the support of her husband and family with her duties as a representative of the United States. Because the job has no formal parameters, she can be as involved (Eleanor Roosevelt), or as remote (Bess Truman), as she wishes to be.

The Research Institute at Sienna College in upstate New York regularly reviews the First Ladies and, with the help of 90 history and poli sci professors from across the United States, ranks them based on their integrity, intelligence, courage, value to country, value to the President, leadership, public image, and “being her own woman.”

Here’s the latest ranking:
1. Eleanor Roosevelt
2. Abigail Adams
3. Dolly Madison
4. Jacqueline Kennedy
5. Hillary Clinton
6. Rosalyn Carter
7. Lady Bird Johnson
8. Betty Ford
9. Edith Roosevelt
10. Sarah Polk
11. Edith Wilson
12. Louisa Adams
13. Martha Washington

Two First Ladies who bounce around in the ratings from decade to decade – Hillary and Jackie – met and liked each other. Interestingly, Jackie’s stock has risen since her death, while Hillary’s dropped after she left the White House for the Senate. Of course, these rankings were established before Hillary’s historic run for President. She may rank higher again these days. (And I wonder what the folks at Sienna would have done with Bill had she had been elected.)

I admire Jackie enormously because she represents what I wish I was, but ain’t: Cool and self-contained, feminine yet strong. That she was only 31 when she became First Lady simply amazes me. How did she come up with that much poise, that much style, and that much sheer intestinal fortitude at such a young age? Internationally, she represented us with grace. Domestically, her goal was to make us proud of our young heritage with projects like state dinners at Mount Vernon and restoring the White House. She could also be very shrewd. To finance the restoration, she initiated the sale of White House souvenir books. Her husband’s advisers warned her that the public would reject this as crass. They were wrong. Decades after the Kennedy-era restoration was paid for, profits from the souvenir books were still saving taxpayers money by defraying the cost of White House maintenance.

I have been learning about Abigail Adams from both the extraordinary HBO miniseries and a book by Phyllis Lee Levine. Wife of one President, mother to another, she was an influence on Jefferson, as well. Forward thinking, literate, patriotic and loving, she is a revelation and inspiration to me. (Since both Mrs. Adamses made the list, I wondered how that other Presidential mother-in-law/daughter-in-law duo rates. Laura Bush is #24 and Barbara Bush came in at #15.)

But two First Ladies that I also feel fondness for because of the extraordinarily tough rows they had to hoe are ranked close to the bottom: Pat Nixon at 33 and Mary Lincoln at 36. Pat Nixon was the epitome of grace under ongoing and unimaginable pressure, even though she was completely blameless in Watergate. Mary Lincoln had in-laws who fought for the Confederacy and, like Jackie, had to bury both a son and a husband before she left the White House. My heart aches for these two, and I think those historians and professors should give them a break.

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Why do they do it this way?

"Hi, I'm calling from Dr. Charles' office. Please call us regarding your test results. Ask for Maria or Dora."

I got up from my desk for just a moment to grab something off the copy machine, and naturally that is the very moment that this call has to come in! I called back immediately, my heart in my throat. Years ago I had carcinoma in situ (a pre-cancerous condition) in this very spot, so naturally I was frightened.

I was on hold for eight tense minutes, listening to the tinkly New Age music they think will relax us. When Maria finally came on the line, she said, "Everything is fine. We will need to see you next year, though."

WHY COULDN'T SHE HAVE JUST LEFT THAT ON MY VOICE MAIL? I asked them to do that very thing when I had the exam. I said that both my home and my office voice mail were secure and that it was absolutely, 100% OK to leave the results on either line. The doctor scribbled it on my folder and handed it to the nurse. And then this.

Of course, I was so grateful that everything is OK that instead of complaining, I just thanked her profusely. What do you bet we go through this again next year? I only hope the same happy results delivered in a less-than-ideal way.