Myra Gutin, Historian Of First Ladies
First Lady of the United States, in the words of historian Betty Boyd Caroli, “is the most difficult, unpaid job in America.” The first lady, spouse of the president (some day we might be discussing First Gentleman), is not mentioned in any federal document. She has no specific responsibilities, she is not accountable to any cabinet secretary or department. There is nothing she is required to do, but much that we expect of her.
Sheila Weidenfeld, who served as press secretary to Betty Ford, said that the first lady can provide a window into life at the White House. Nancy Reagan said that she had never worked harder than the eight years she spent at the White House. Another view of the first lady’s unique role was offered by Lady Bird Johnson, who said that the first lady was the only person who could tell the president to be quiet and listen.
Over the years, the role of first lady has evolved to include ceremonial, political, and advocacy functions. Since 1961, the year that Jacqueline Kennedy began her tenure, every first lady (except for Betty Ford, who only served a little over two years) has had a formal White House project and has been engaged in some sort of advocacy. Some first ladies, such as Bess Truman and Mamie Eisenhower, have chosen to focus on ceremonial activities, while others, notably Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Rodham Clinton, were involved in public policy issues.
Everyone has had advice to give our soon-to-be first lady. Anna Perez, who served as press secretary to Barbara Bush, counseled Mrs. Obama to be cautious so that her mistakes don’t cost the president political capital. Other writers have suggested that caution be thrown to the wind. In the words of one, “stir the pot!”
Since she will find herself in “the most difficult unpaid job in America,” I would like to offer advice to Mrs. Obama distilled from 30 years of researching and studying first ladies. I’ve narrowed my suggestions to eight points:
The fact that there isn’t a job description for the first lady can work in your favor. Chart your own course, you can be active or stay in the background. Perhaps moderation is a good idea. Take the time to get to know your staff and understand the demands on your time, then move forward.
Be yourself. Every soon-to-be first lady is asked who she will emulate in the White House. A frequent question is, “Will you be more like Eleanor Roosevelt or Laura Bush?” Just be yourself and speak out about the things that matter to you.
Try to forge a positive relationship with the media. While it isn’t guaranteed, you’re more likely to get “good press” if you try to give reporters what they need. It’s to your advantage to be available rather than evasive.
While you should work on good press relations, be careful of what you say. Liz Carpenter, who served as Lady Bird Johnson’s press secretary used to say, “a reporter is still a reporter.” An unguarded moment may end up headlining the national news. The 24-hour news cycle and the internet guarantee that a comment may follow you for a long time.
Use the White House podium to endorse a project or advocate for a cause. In the words of Lady Bird Johnson, try to find a project that “makes your heart sing,” and then promote it with speeches, statements and appearances. A recent survey conducted from October through November 2008 by the YMCA USA found that a majority of respondents favored a first lady who was a leader on issues she valued. When we think of our most notable first ladies, we recall their commitment to a specific concern: Barbara Bush and literacy, Rosalynn Carter and mental health, Lady Bird Johnson and the environment.
Try to be understanding about the interest in you and your family. At times, the attention may be suffocating and excessive, but the country, the world, is fascinated by the Obamas and want to know about them.
Enjoy living in the White House. You are custodian of our nation’s most famous and grand house, but it is also your home.
Try to be philosophical about criticism. Being first lady means that you’re “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” Speaking about first ladies, Hillary Clinton once observed, “what was said about one of us has been said about all of us.”
When she was preparing to leave the White House in 1989, Nancy Reagan said that serving the country had been the greatest honor of her life. That sentiment has been echoed by many first ladies and all of us hope that you’ll feel the same way when you leave Washington.
Myra Gutin is a professor at Rider University and the author of “The President’s Partner: The First Lady in the Twentieth Century” and “Barbara Bush: Presidential Matriarch.”
Nancy Starmer, Quaker Educator
Dear President and Mrs. Obama: As the head of George School, a Quaker (Friends) coeducational boarding and day school in Newtown, Pennsylvania, I was thrilled when I heard you had chosen a Quaker education at Sidwell Friends School for your daughters.
Each year I have the pleasure of getting to know George School’s new students and their families as they become a part of our community. When our new parents describe the factors that influenced their choice of a school for their children, many point to the combination of rigorous academics and Quaker values such as equality, racial and socioeconomic diversity, and environmental stewardship. Others note that a Quaker education develops each individual’s strengths while fostering a community whose members are grounded by a sense of responsibility to each other. Factors like these — along with Sidwell’s reputation for maintaining the privacy of prominent students such as the daughters of Presidents Nixon and Clinton — no doubt played a role in your decision.
It is difficult to imagine the day-to-day challenges that a child might face while adjusting to being part of the nation’s First Family. Your daughters’ circumstances are unique, and perhaps you are concerned that they will feel isolated as a result.
My knowledge of Quaker schools assures me that you needn’t worry. Friends schools are communities where every student — whether the daughter of a president or of a single mother earning a minimum wage — is valued and embraced. As members of such a community, Sasha and Malia will be guided by dedicated teachers, inspired to discover their own voices and passions, and will form strong and memorable friendships with others from all walks of life.
A parent of a George School graduate recently commented that a Quaker school is a “resource.” The teachers, she said, are mentors who encourage their students to think independently, to act on their convictions, and to care for others. I am confident that Sidwell Friends will be that resource for your daughters.
Nancy Starmer is head of school at the George School in Newtown, PA. www.georgeschool.org.
Children’s Author Ann Thurm
Advice to Barack and Michelle Obama: Be extra patient with your little girls while they try to adjust to the pressures of their new position of being daughters of the President of the United States. Being under intense scrutiny is hard enough for adults; it can be absolutely overwhelming for young children.
Many people will be expecting them to be perfect. You need to tell Malia and Sasha once and twice and again and again and again: “Nobody’s perfect. Not now — not ever. Don’t even try — just be yourself: the unique and lovable child God created you to be.”
Ann Thurm is a Princeton resident and retired marketing executive with over 30 years of experience. She is writing a how-to book, “One Heart: A Gentle Way to Bring God’s People Together,” and a series of children’s stories.
Laurie Morris, Fashion Consultant
Dear Michelle: You look fabulous in jewel tones like emerald, sapphire and bright amethyst. A dress like the black and white print Donna Ricco dress that you wore on the View was a winner — after you wore the dress it sold out of the stores immediately!
Because you are tall and have long legs, skirts and dresses are essential to your wardrobe. American designers will be what you wear! Look at Narcisso Rodriguez, Michael Kors, Oscar De La Renta, and Ralph Lauren. Mix these designer sportswear lines with lower priced T’s and jeans from Gap or J. Crew. A Ralph Lauren bright cashmere sweater, with a Gap T-shirt and pencil jean, accessorized with hoop earrings bangle bracelets, ballet flats, and a stylish pea coat completes a mom friendly day look.
For night, stick with high end designer dresses and coats, beautiful shoes and elegant but bold jewelry.
We will look to you for inspiration; the American fashion industry needs you to send a message of American style and taste to the world!
Laurie Morris is a fashion consultant based in Princeton. LLMSTYLE@aol.com.
Gretchen Zimmer, Dog Park Owner
The Obama family has received plenty of advice regarding hypoallergenic dogs — which breeds are, and which ones are not. So, I want to be fanciful for a minute and throw the restriction out the window.
The world of dogs includes so many wonderful breeds. With that said, I can visualize, oh so clearly, the Obama girls with a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. What a wonderful family pet dog. I have never met a Cavalier I didn’t like.
Cavaliers are of sweet temperament, affectionate, yet handsome. Just a tinge of shyness towards strangers would keep them from jumping on the White House guests, yet a Cavalier warms up quickly. They do not require a lot of exercise — but of course, a there is always the exception. I have a name for the girls’ Cavalier, “Penny,” a unit of change.
Keep in mind that there is a breed rescue group for almost every breed. Just go to www.petfinder.com to locate one.
If the Obama family desires a dog of more substantial size, I would like to suggest the Portuguese Water Dog. The ones I know are not barky, and tend not to jump (appropriate for the White House, or any “house,” for that matter). Oh my — the PWD is listed as a hypoallergenic dog! Perfect! Decision made.
President Obama, you could copy me, and visit your local rescue group, as I did in September, and bring home your own version of my Archie, a little wiggly, fat-bellied brown mix-breed puppy.
Gretchen Zimmer is the founder and owner of the Rocky Top Dog Park (www.rockytopdogpark.com) in Kingston (732-297-6527), where she has evaluated hundreds of dogs to determine whether they are ready to play well with others.