Through presidents' wives, insights into U.S. history

“First Ladies,” by Susan Swain. (Photo credit: C-SPAN)

First Ladies

Presidential Historians on the Lives of 45 American Women

By Susan Swain and C-SPAN

PublicAffairs. 463 pp. $28.99

Reviewed by Barbara Hall

'The best history has a human face."

Thus writes distinguished historian Richard Norton Smith in his forward to this book, based on a yearlong interview series on public-affairs cabler C-SPAN, moderated by Susan Swain. Among the notable figures who weigh in are Douglas Brinkley, Michael Beschloss, Cokie Roberts, Gail Sheehy, and Judy Woodward.

From Martha Washington to Michelle Obama, this collection spans 45 first ladies. Swain ventures that "the life stories of the presidents tend to become the stuff of legends, while their wives' stories and their contributions to American history are much less well-known." She adds that "through the lives of the first ladies, you will . . . be able to trace the evolution of the role of women in American society."

Abigail Adams and Dolley Madison "were of a generation imbued with revolutionary fervor; these women had a genuine sense they were building a new nation." Likewise, "Eleanor Roosevelt's long and active tenure provides an obvious stepping-stone to our modern first ladies."

In his forward, Smith writes, "It is no accident that first ladies often outstrip their husbands in popular appeal, emotional access, and book sales. Closer to the unscripted dramas of personal struggles and family travail, they deal with the universal and the timeless."

There are some small surprises. Mamie Eisenhower was the first to desegregate the White House Easter egg roll. Robert Kennedy attributed his brother's victory in Texas to Lady Bird Johnson. Martha Washington assigned herself the task of knitting socks for her husband's troops. "She must have knitted thousands of socks for the soldiers," says Patricia Brady.

In addition, there are fascinating, rarefied insights into each first lady. Jacqueline Kennedy's keen sense of human nature served her husband well during his time in office. According to Barbara Perry, Jackie apparently would sit with her husband on a campaign plane, saying in her famed half-whisper, " 'That person's a phony, that one's real. That one's stupid, that one's really smart. Make sure you keep up with that one.' "

Then, too, Sheehy relates, "When I asked Hillary Clinton, 'What was the most ecstatic experience of your twenties?,' she said, 'Falling in love with Bill Clinton.' I said, 'What attracted you to him?' And she said, 'He wasn't afraid of me.' "

At the end of each chapter, there is a segment devoted to the subject's legacy. Possibly the most sensitive and flattering is that for Barbara Bush. Myra Gutin, author of Bush's biography, says this of her: "Barbara Bush is an American classic. She's someone who is still tremendously popular, and she's wise, she's smart, and she brought that commonsense approach to the White House. She has also, as have many of us, been through a great deal, the death of a child and the races for the many offices, and living all over the country. What we would learn from her is the importance of flexibility. She is someone to be admired."

Barbara Hall is a longtime book reviewer and writer on education, history, the arts, and nature.