tv [untitled] May 26, 2012 3:30pm-4:00pm EDT
correspondent cokie robert considers the role and influence of first ladies throughout history. >> now, as a student of the presidency, i've been in presidential libraries for most of my life, i continue to be fascinated with and impressed by our first ladies and we have one of the best here with us already, mrs. barbara bush will be here later and how fortunate we in the whole nation blessed by her service, and looking back at history at other first ladies, you can see how the office has been molded by truly amazing women like dolley madison or julia grant or edith wilson and, of course, the modern first ladies represented at our now 13 presidential libraries. volumes will continue to be written about their influence on the world, how they've been agents of change for the better. i know today's conference and the series of conferences will add to our understanding and appreciation of their vital role of the first ladies.
so, i want to thank you, again, for joining us. as you heard earlier, the next conference in the series is november 15th at the johnson library, so make sure you join us there as well. and i now want to introduce our first panel. it's titled "influence makers, first ladies through american history" and our panelists include first katherine allegory, a noted historian at the university of california-riverside, whose books focus on my favorite first ladies, her book on dolley ma y madison titled "a perfect union" was nominated for the presti prestigious george washington book prize and she's working on a biography of luisa adams and he's written par l"parlor polit" and we're blessed to have aleta
black. she serves as professor of history and international affairs at george washington university and is founding editor and advisory board chair of the eleanor roosevelt paper project. aleta is a real leader in education and we're so grateful she could be here today and we hope you come back and join us often, aleta. the same is true for the third panelist, amity shells, she is a syndicated columnist for bloomberg news and author of a forthcoming book on calvin coolidge that i'm sure will be the definitive biography of the very important but often overlooked president, we're very happy to have amity as part of our panel. and finally we have our moderator cokie roberts. cokie, as i'm sure you all know, is an internationally acclaimed journalist who has won so many awards, including three emmys, she's in the broadcasting and cable hall of fame and was cited by american women of radio and television as one of the 50 greatest women in the history of
broadcasting and she's author of two works "founding mothers" and "ladies of liberty. it's an hopper nor to have you. and i will turn it over to you. >> well, what a treat it is to be here, mrs. bush, so good to see you, and mrs. collins, an old, old friend, dee collins from many years in washington, and these two women are out of a great tradition of the women who come as the adjuncts, really dumb term, to the men who make -- often make trouble and the women make it better. and the ad that anita read, i was thinking at the end where it says united states is an equal opportunity employer, actually
not until a guy has to do all of those things, and then we'll see how it goes. but the truth is, is that people are really so ignorant about the roles of first ladies and the jobs the first ladies have done throughout our history. so, our little panel here is designed to try to shed some light and reduce some of that degree of ignorance, because there's an idea, and aleta's an expert on eleanor roosevelt, and the sense that before eleanor roosevelt, first ladies were sitting around tending to the tatting and pouring tea. and that couldn't be further from the truth. and even since eleanor roosevelt, there's a sense of not really being clear on who was doing what. and so -- and mrs. bush, you always complained that when your husband was elected, people said to you, are you going to be
barbara bush or hillary clinton, i'd like to be laura bush, which, of course, you are and have been wonderfully. but, you know, there's always that thing that goes on, too. in fact, i read that bess truman at one point realized coming in after eleanor roosevelt, she said, identify fe feel like eli monroe coming in after dolley madison, which was very historically accurate for her in a lot of way. kat -- you don't mind if i call you by your nickname? >> no, absolutely. >> you and i have written about, you've written much more at lent about that period of the founding. and, you know, martha washington we know was active politically and in terms of policy, you know, lobbying for the veterans' benefits, for the revolutionary war veterans she'd been to camp with, the eight long years of the revolution. and abigail adams probably
gives -- is the rule breaker in terms of bringing civility. she was kind of causing troubles of her own. but dolley madison. dolley madison was really a figure in american politics that people don't have a really good sense of. >> yes. and i have to say something nice about martha washington. i liked martha. >> she's a very nice lady. >> mary washington, not so much. >> i think she wouldn't disagree if we sort of mention that she didn't have a taste for the role, right? so, she said she at some point felt like a prisoner. >> state prisoner. >> state prisoner. but she acknowledged right away, though, that there was something going on, that she understood that the american experiment was more than just politics. or politics in a different way. so, she began right away even though she didn't care for it, would rather be at home at mt. vernon, she began wondering about protocol.
and in her own way began toprot. because the founders understood it's not enough to have a constitution and a set of laws, we needed to remake life, life in an american way. and the ladies of that class talked about forming what they called an american manner. and by manner, they didn't mean teacups and what fork to use, but a way ofbeing and treating each other. and as you pointed out, abby gal adams not so much. she was much more of a traditional -- more like a political partner to her husband. she was just an idea in politics. >> oh, my gosh, yes. >> sadly, sadly. point to her influence in politics. in addition to the sedition laws. but it's not really until dolley madison comes to washington that we begin to see a real political animal as first lady.
she did have a taste for the job. and she establishes so many things that we now associate with the first lady being the commander, if you will, of what we call the unofficial sphere of politics, the social sphere, the connection to the white house, the sort of role as the charismatic figure. and i must say i sympathize with everybody who followed her, because everybody felt that onus of being like dolley madison. she just set so much up in place. >> and essential i hly remained first lady even as her successors came in, she ruled over washington for decades. >> yes. i was first drawn to dolley madison because she was so famous and i didn't understand that. i grew up in philadelphia, so dolley madison ice cream. i watched the charlie brown christmas specials dolley madison cakes and pies. >> i made a dolley madison cake on the martha stewart show, and
martha stewart kept slapping my hand because i kept wanting to talk instead of making the cake. >> you have had the most varied career. i cannot cop to baking anything, let me say that right now. but i wondered about this fame, and discovered indeed by the end of her life and we actually have photographs of her, because she lived long enough to be photographed, that she became this icon, this relic of the republic. and that's when i began to under that first ladies have a capacity for personifying if they so choose. this is a pattern in american women in politics, famous or not. there's sort of two things. one is that they are women, real people, who actually do things. but then there's this also secondary capacity of being a personifying figure, charismatic figure. and i think many a first lady has become to become a first lady and realizing that this thing was sort of larger than life, and that's something that dolley figures out. and she becomes a figurehead for
her husband's administration. you know her husband wasn't very charismatic. >> very short. >> very short. but he didn't have the personifying personality. and she fostered the attachment to the capital city, all of this is happening in 1808, she didn't know this, but the british will burn the capital city and all the work she put in to helping the public identify the house that they called the white house under her term is going to pay off, because it's going to give the surge of nationalism around the war. >> aleta, you've written about all the first ladies for the white house historical society. and so picking up from dolley, did you see, then, sort of carrying this theme through? >> well, yes. but they made it their own in a different way. and i think that i have to say as an aside that i love kat, and this is the first time we've ever talked in public together instead of shooting e-mails back and forth and talking on the phone for hours.
>> she's never heard me say this. but i think that what you've done to set the tone for all of us is really remarkable work. and you haven't gotten enough credit for it. i mean, it really is extraordinary work. but i would say that if i could tweak that a little bit and bring it and broad brush up to today, is that what these women have done have shown amazing courage because they are calm in times when the country is going crazy. i mean, there's just no other word for it, crazy. because there's intense eruption in partisan politics right after dolley, you know, because then we really are breaking into politics, which is a jugular sport, you know, which i thought we had gotten rid of, if i may be personal for a moment --
>> but at least we're not shooting each other. >> exactly. >> in that period they were. >> they were taming each on in the halls of congress. they were putting guns out and shooting at each other. and so if you were looking at whether, you know, a war with native americans or american indians, whether you're looking at the civil war, whether you're looking at the war -- you know, going counterhistorically, you know, whether you're looking at the war of 1812 or you've got huge economic depressions where the country is literally falling apart and there is no catch. there's no common currency between states. there's no sense of union at all. and so what these women do regardless of the period that they're in, you know, have done what you did so -- i don't know the adjective for it. >> beautifulfull fullbeautifulf.
>> it's too calm. you lifted us up. >> right. >> i mean, you did. and you can't write that in a job description, and you sure can't go into the role expecting that's going to be your job. nobody told eleanor roosevelt she was going to be in a foxhole. nobody told eleanor roosevelt she was going to fly an insue la lated aircraft and spend five weeks on 17 islands in wartime and have her eardrums shattered and go deaf in one ear because she's, you know, flying through shooting ballistic, you know, for that time missiles. i mean, you can't prepare for this. >> and once she did that, the generals who had initially been very hesitant to have her do that, saw what a huge difference she made in troop morale, like
martha did, and said please come back. >> absolutely. and they went on record in both the press and their memoirs saying it was their single biggest miscalculation of the war was to oppose her visit. and so i think you can't train for that. i mean, we can talk about policy. we can talk about politics. but the thing to me that is so remarkable about the women who have assumed this position is how much guts they have, how much brains they have, stamina that is just beyond imagination, and a willingness to rise above it and just do it. you know, there's no time for "buts" my beloved pat summitt would cause a pity party. i think that's it. >> amity, that really sort of gets to -- you've got a book coming out on coolidge, and grace coolidge was quoted as
saying you just do it. and, you know, of course, i think that's true about women in general, you know, we put one foot in front of the other. but she -- she had not been part of her husband's mipolitical li. he had really excluded her from his political life and suddenly he becomes vice president and she's in washington big time. >> what do you do when the war is not on, the rest of the time of being first lady when there's not a crisis, when i look at grace and the two people that i will mention that came after her, mrs. hoover and maybe mrs. bush as well, you look what they did, what they did was education. very, very often. they turned to that. so, you have someone in grace's case she was the first -- first first lady who graduated from a coed state school. she graduated from the university of vermont and she actually had this bit of
professional trade training to teach the deaf. so, that was incredible. >> and when she started dating cal, one of her friends said to her, well, you taught the deaf to hear, maybe you can teach the mute to speak. right? >> and it's very -- she had a marital challenge of an intensely, introverted president. but, remember, too, that the deaf and blind in that period were not as today. people looked away. disabilities were negative. and she brought them into society. she brought them to the white house. helen keller came to the white house. that was a very important moment for the deaf and blind, that the first lady would recognize them and integrate them, and she had great personality, so she could draw out anyone. she was the opposite of the president, and she made that her work. i was thinking, too, of mrs.
hoover, who loved reading and who enabled readers and did enabling of reading all her life. >> she was the head of the girl scouts. >> she was head of the girl scouts, so she's always thinking about how to train up and lead out. she and president hoover translated "res metallica" from latin. having gone over hoover's college records i know this from stanford, and she brought readers to white house. i was just reading a story when her back was out once and she had to lie down and there were new learners, adult literacy people, from the mountains, who did not know how to read until adults, who came to see her, and she was so sick, but she nonetheless received them upstairs because she knew it was important for them to meet the first lady, even if the first lady wasn't doing too well. she said, what do you read? here's what i read. don't read trash.
read the great works. she was always there. with that in the background for president hoover, for these projects and also with scouting. a lot of the presidents did scouting. it's wonderful. and i noticed that with mrs. bush, because i'm a reader, too, and when i first saw from the outside just observing the book festival and the literacy project and to have another librarian there, i think the first librarian was abigail fillmore, that's right, in the white house, long ago made a library, she had worked as a schoolteacher, to send that signal in our time is so important, and then the people who read the books or learn the things are better able to handle the emergencyies of which we jut spoke. >> well, that's absolutely right. and i think that many first ladies have the experiences you said, aleta, of, you know, you think you're going to do this, and then life happens, as you had with september 11th, mrs. bush.
but and i want to come back to that in a bit. but on the theme of education, even there it can be something different than you expect. so, for instance, with mrs. johnson, she was always interested in education, but with great society the war on poverty and all of that, people started coming forward saying what's really needed here is early childhood education, which, of course, now we know we really need early childhood education and she tried to start headstart, and it turned out not to be that easy. >> this was the one planted question. >> she told me to ask this. >> because i love this, and i never get to talk about it, and it involves cokie's father. >> i follow instructions. >> but when congresswoman lindsey bogs or ambassador bogs was kind enough to let me interview her, we were talking about different policies, and i am passionate about education, and so she started telling me
the story of how headstart actually got implemented. the program had been conceptualized. the money had been authorized, but they were coming down to the wire and they hadn't spent the money yet, and so it was spend the money or lose it. and so what mrs. johnson did was call cokie's momma, and they called betty ford. and the three of them went to blair house, and they had phones put in in blair house just for the three of them, and they called every minister and every bus driver that they knew from the campaign trails because they had a week, a week, to get the program up and running, and so what they did was they said, okay, we'll use these buses.
you know, the churches and different schools will use their buses, and that's how headstart money first got spent and the kids got to the classrooms. and there's a point of this. it's ingenuity. it's paying attention, and it's bipartisanship, and it's friendship focusing on an area of expertise that is good for the country, and it's a model that i think that we can all follow. >> yes, cat, i wanted to get to that part about the bipartisanship especially, you know. i had the great honor last summer of speaking at mrs. ford's funeral, which she asked me to do, and then told me what to say, but -- because she wanted me to talk about that time when everybody was together, and dolly madison did that. she brought, you know, thomas jefferson would only have the federalists one night and the republicans the other night in the white house, but she brought everybody together, and even when they were really in partisan battles, they decided they couldn't skip her dinners because that's where everything
happened and so they had to show up. >> yeah, and i think at this moment, as i'm listening to both of you, i'm sort of thinking in big themes because i'm a professor and there will be a test at the end of this, i'll say this now, and i think to myself why do we study first ladies? we don't do it just because it's nice. >> right. >> and we don't do it just because they are there, but by looking at the work of women, and in this case women who are spouses of presidents, we see thing and we pay attention to things that we wouldn't. if we just paid attention to the official sphere. >> right. >> legislation and debates, press releases, so i'm seeing these stories, the idea of psychological politics so eleanor roosevelt is contributing to something called psychological politics which now we know are maybe the only politics there are. >> what does psychological politics mean? >> it means how people feel about how they are being ruled, and they feel that way from the messages they get from the leaders, and what these women
did is often send these messages about how they were ruling, about their families and their husbands were the right ones. for instance, i have to tell you the dirty little secret of american history and then we'll get back to bipartisanship. which is we from the beginning have had a fascination with aristocracy. so we fought an american revolution against a king and against a -- >> yeah. >> but that was only a vocabulary of power, royalty that we knew, so when it came time to legitimize this brand new nation that nobody was sure would really work, they wanted to have that kind of aristocracy so we have this crazy moment where john adams is arguing to call george washington my serene highness or something, but in the end we called him mr. president. >> and he said we'll call the
and he called him mr. president and his wife became queen dolly. >> or the presidentess. >> the presidentess, but she answers that need for legitimacy and authority that we needed, and getting back to this idea of bipartisanship -- >> but also, let me just -- >> yes. >> it was always a tug-of-war which i think every first lady has also gone through. you have to be elegant enough and glamorous enough and all that, not just personally but as a style of the white house. people do look up to it and see this sense of royalty, but also down home enough so that you don't alienate people in this republican small "r" society, and martha washington knew that. >> yes. >> when she arrived in new york, as much as she loved her satins and silks, she arrived at the new capital at the time wearing homespun. >> and she also had these lovely white gowns that were supposed to signal the roman republic, but dolly madison did it the other way, i must say. she combined absolutely lavish outfits, i'm talking pink satin and little things that look
suspiciously like a crown with -- tiara, but she had that kind of down home quality and sweetness, and you're using the word bipartisanship, and this is the thing i have to say about dolly madison. there wasn't a word for -- there wasn't a word for that in the early republic. these were people who thought one party should rule, and anybody else was a traitor. unfortunately, there were two groups of people that thought this, and they didn't have a sense of working together, which was going to be the hallmark of a democracy with two parties in it, and somehow dolly madison understood that the salvation of the system would be to bring people together, make them behave and let them begin to see each other as people of good heart and not caricatures of evil. >> and that was particularly necessary at the time, and we're living it to some degree now, because washington didn't really exist. >> right. >> and so they were in these boarding houses with people who
thought exactly like them. >> yes. >> and so they didn't have the sort of ameliorating discussions with other people who might not be exactly like-minded except in social settings. >> you know, dolly madison is famous for redecorating the white house and what she did is restructure it, and what she did is created these huge public rooms where everybody, meaning every member of the government, their families, locals, visitors, diplomats, could all gather in one place, and this is amazing, but before her white house, you know, there was no place in washington where everybody could meet, even just all the members of the government. >> amity, in talking about this though, i alluded to mrs. bush's situation, so education was what she thought she was going to be doing, on her way to capitol
hill to -- to brief the education committee when the first plane hit the trade towers, and then life changes. and all of a sudden another set of issues come out, in this case the women of afghanistan, the women of the world. >> that's right. you look at the situation and you respond, and you have to turn on a dime, don't you? that's the amazing thing. we watched mrs. bush do this, and identify with president bush that women were important to democracy in the middle east, something that other people picked up later. one of the things to give us a plug at the bush institute and the bush center, we have a big emphasis on women in democracy with these groups coming, like the egyptians who were mentioned earlier. vis-a-vis, i want to talk a little bit about grace since i have her on the brain. she didn't expect to be the president's wife. they -- their status was pretty low in washington, they felt, when coolidge was vice president.
they were stuck at the willard. she -- she loved animals. she couldn't have them, and in that the coolidges were like the theodore roosevelts, they had she only had one animal of rodent. when she had to receive as vice president. and all -- and they were already talking about new vice president for the next term. suddenly she's in the white house. or wait a minute, she's waiting outside the white house at the willard for mrs. harding to be ready to leave. to geesht that when the president before died and the widow is there and you want to show respect. and they were extremely gracious. looking at theodore roosevelt.
how to handle when a president dies and you come in. of course roosevelt had that. and what to do when she's there and we have her letters to her sorority sisters. she says i'm like a babe in the woods or alice in wonderland. pray for me. i'm paraphrasing the last part. then she rose to it. she learned this was not about her. this was about service. when you see it's a role and you play it, that's all right. another time we're going to talk about that how it clashes sometimes with your marriage. should i mention the thing we discussed this morning? >> go ahead. >> the coolidges, as all i imagine first couples were, individual cones. cone of chief executive, cone of the first lady. they had a terrible thing happen when they were president which was their son died. calvin coolidge. their son got a blister on the white house tennis court and died within about eight days. this was before --