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Now, the presidential race is heating up in the United States, and we've seen recent appearances from First Lady Melania Trump and potential future first lady Jill Biden. But do we know as much as we should about the women in the White House? Well, today we're taking a look at the iconic role of first lady and the women that have given a different meaning throughout the years from Nancy Reagan and her say no to drugs campaign to Hillary Clinton's move from first lady to presidential candidate.
And to discuss all of this, I'm joined in the studio now by communications adviser and former CNN anchor Gina London and Liz Hand, who's a journalist and commentator. And you're both very welcome. Thank you for being with us.
And let's go back to Jack. O will wait. That's the sort of the first first lady really who stands out in our consciousness as the one who made the roll her own, didn't she, Gina?
It's interesting. I'd love to talk about Jackie Kennedy because she was one of the best loved first ladies in all of American history. And of course, I think when people go to the Smithsonian Institution, when it opens one day, again, that first lady exhibit is one of the most well attended exhibits, and it is largely to see the dresses in the styles that she had. And she was noted for her restoration of the White House because when she arrived with her president, because, of course, she was a fluent French speaker among Italian and Spanish as well, she did say that it was the dreary Maison Blanche.
And she then set out to restore it, not to remodel it, but to go and painstakingly find artifacts and pieces that every as she said, every piece in that White House should have a meaning. And so she was known for giving that first televised tour. That's right. The White House, when you got to see her show, these artifacts that she brought in. And interestingly, she's the one who discovered the Resolute Desk, which is still used in the Oval Office today.
It was a donation, if you will, from Queen Victoria, a desk that was used in 1898 on the HMS Resolute, a ship British people often go, why is it called the Resolute Desk? That's why. But before her, even that last the the first real iconic first lady would have been Eleanor Roosevelt, because she made that role her own. And she even after her president, her husband died in 1945, she became the first U.S. delegate to the United Nations and she chaired the Human Rights Commission at the United Nations.
So incredible contributions made by her.
Isn't it interesting to start by asking the question, what do the American public expect of the first lady? Well, because it's just it's an accident, really. You know, your husband becomes president of the United States. Does that mean you have to do stuff, too, and.
Yeah, go ahead. Sorry. Oh, sorry. Yeah, no, I mean, it was interesting because Lady Bird Johnson, she was once asked about the role of first lady and she said that the first lady needs to be a showman and a salesman, a clothes horse and a publicity sounding board with a good heart and a real interest in the folks, which is that's a hell of a job description for a job that is essentially not one you ask for.
And that when you're paid for. Exactly.
Which is historically undefined, it's not in the Constitution, at least as it's not paid. And even the term first lady itself kind of goes back to British nobility and back to Jackie Kennedy. She notably said that it makes her feel like a prized racehorse this term, this term.
And yet it's interesting because I remember reading an interview with that she did I think it was after the assassination and she was talking about the her time during the Cuban missile crisis and how she had been up Cuban upstate on a weekend. And she got a call from Jack Kennedy to say, can you come back to the White House?
We'll tell you why and what those 13 days. You know, she was his one of his closest confidants. I mean, he they took long walks and, you know, out on the lawns. He literally laid out the whole scenario to her, asked for her advice. She never left her side when things were getting really bad. And and the Secret Service man was saying to her, look, in the event that this goes really, you know, this really does just go bad.
We're going to evacuate you. And she said, no, you're not for myself and Caroline and John, John are going to walk out onto the lawn and face what's coming like real Americans. So, you know, underneath this this glamorous role, there was this incredible, you know, just to say that it's role as a support and help me to so understating really what they do. Something like that tends to get overlooked because everybody focuses on the fact that she was this incredible icon.
I mean, you know, women everywhere were literally aquiver waiting for the next, you know, fashion magazine to come out to see what she was wearing, what designer she was wearing. And she became very much shaped by being a sort of style icon.
When I want to talk about Nancy Reagan, we're going to just jump ahead to Hillary Clinton, just to say that in that recent documentary, she talks about how Bill came and said to her, I am going to I'm being asked to run for president, but this is going to mean. Something for you as well and for our lives, and she had to agree, you know, to be happy with with all of the publicity and all of the questions that will be asked about them and about their marriage.
And implicit in what he was saying to her was, look, you know, a lot of stuff is going to get exposed here that's going to be uncomfortable. And she had to buy into that. So I know why. We'll say we say, you know, you don't volunteer for this job. You do have to buy in, don't you?
Well, yes, because the spotlight is, as Lisson were saying and as Lady Bird Johnson was quoted as saying there, the spotlight is just as rigorous and bright and glaring upon you as that first lady as it is your husband and all those things that come with it. And especially, I think in many ways for Hillary Clinton, because she knew as his time, as his time and governor, she knew a lot of the rumors and things that that was going on.
She was not that she's not she is not a superwoman.
And she's also one of the most educated of the first ladies, having, of course, her Harvard her Yale degree in law and was a practicing attorney. And then she I think one of the things that's interesting about this scrutiny of the first lady is that they're often criticized for doing too much.
As with Hillary Clinton, when she took over, as I became what was made that task chairperson for his health care reform attempt in 1993, which ultimately failed, or they're criticized for doing too little.
And it's a very difficult role to undertake.
You know, she well, she, I think, had this particular problem. I mean, in that documentary, which is absolutely by Nancy Burstein, which is it's just fantastic. Anybody hasn't seen it to really watch it. It's such an interesting insight both into her and into just the unfolding of a of a presidential campaign in which, going back to your point there, was that in that she she said she spent something like 25 days and doing in hair and makeup during the presidential campaign, which is unbelievable.
And, you know, she has always had this incredible Push-Pull thing against her own career and her deep love of her husband. You know, I mean, she originally she was on a trajectory up the ladder in Washington, D.C. as a lawyer. And she literally step back to move to Arkansas and to, you know, when Bill Clinton was running for governor and sort of give up.
I mean, her friends were aghast when her path to success, when you watched that was much clearer, defined than his was.
Oh, absolutely no. Yes. Yeah. Her road was there visible.
Well, I mean, she got her road with so many sidetracks offered to kind of accommodate her husband. And I mean, you're absolutely right. The whole point was she knew what was coming down the tracks we had that we you know, the extraordinary interview in in 1992 when the whole Gennifer Flowers scandal broke the stand by your man interview the and at the stand by your man interview. And, you know, she and it's you know, it's funny because I know we're jumping forward here.
But even though you would one would think there's very few parallels between herself and Melania Trump. Then we look back to the interview Melania Trump did, and I think it was CBS after the Access Hollywood tape came out and she was there going, I believe in my husband and has anybody investigated who these women really are. So, you know, Hillary time and time again had to step forward and defend her husband at great personal cost to herself. But then there are many women who thinks, well, she stayed in the marriage simply because she had her eye on the big prize, which was her own career.
And this is part of the complete divisiveness of Hillary Clinton, why she's such a divisive figure.
Well, and interestingly, I think building on the idea of accommodating your husband, we've got, of course, Michelle Obama, who was also a practicing attorney and was more senior even than her husband when he when he became a lawyer, as she graduated from Harvard, then was a practicing attorney. And interestingly, talking about carving out your role in giving up your role when you become that first lady, I think it's important to note that the second lady, Jill Biden, continued to be a professor at community college throughout her tenure as second lady.
And she has said if she becomes first lady, she'll continue to teach as well. And I think that could be an interesting departure for first ladies who have often given up their profession in order to accommodate their husband.
Let's talk about Nancy Reagan, because with my fault, we skipped ahead, Nancy, but she had the just say no campaign on drugs.
And some who look back on that will say the Reagan campaign led to much higher incarceration levels in the United States than had been happening up until that point. I mean, how involved was she in that campaign?
Well, the difficulty with Nancy Reagan, as her said, again, this is the spotlight. This is the perception meter. This is not necessarily the reality meter. But again, she was a Hollywood actress.
She was the second wife of of Ronald Reagan. She came in with a very stylized, again, a very camera ready appearance, which some would say would belie the substance of what she was about. And then so the very tone that she took, notably when their their own son, Ron Reagan Jr. then did talk about doing drugs and other of their children came out and almost sort of. In a little bit of controversy into the merits of that campaign itself, just by the virtue of their family, it didn't land like they'd hoped it would.
That campaign and a lot of it goes back then around the same time, there were reports coming out that she was she was consulting astrologers. And just the Nancy Reagan image was not one that was necessarily as substantive as one would have hoped if you're going to try to land that type of a campaign.
Yeah, and she was also seen as being so incredibly protective of Ronald Reagan, particularly after the shooting. I mean, she you know, those stories came out afterwards. You know, that the West Wing, she lay down the law. She she literally rewrote her schedules. She became incredibly protective of him because they really had this incredibly close relationship. And, yes, she had she used to literally consult an astrologer from San Francisco to sort of, you know, to check out, you know, if a certain event was, you know, was was deemed suitable.
And, you know, she also had this reputation for spending a lot of money on clothes. There was the Reagan Reds, which was literally sort of this sort of she looked she lived in red clothes and it became known as Reagan Red. And there was a big hoo ha when she tried to when she spent a huge amount of money replacing White House China at a time when the country was incredibly deep recession. So she again, she did an awful lot of negative publicity, but she saw this as very much part of her role of protecting her husband in every way and backing him up.
I mean, she really was we you know, we all can remember those those images of you, Ronald Reagan making a speech and she had this sort of fixed gaze of adoration that never left him. And she actually became known as the gays. So, again, she did very much see her role and, you know, as protecting him and backing him up.
And she didn't really care who she insulted or rolled over in the process of doing that.
Well, you know, and interestingly, coming on the heels of the Reagans, the Bush the first Bush era, Barbara Bush, who had married her husband when she was 19, was one of the few first ladies who had married their husband when they were still a teenager.
In fact, she was noted for her calm, quiet support of her husband. And she was again one of the most beloved, not because she was out front, not because she was wearing red, because she was noted for, of course, for her strands of pearls and her almost grandmotherly approach. And in fact, then, of course, when the Clintons were running against the Bushes after his first term, there was that notable comment that paraphrasing now when Hillary Clinton said, well, I'm not going to be a first lady who just makes cookies.
And the next thing you know, in all the newspapers in the US, there was Barbara Bush ran her chocolate chip cookie recipe and then Hillary Clinton, of course, came out. I've got one, two. And there are sort of almost this time to say, well, wait, we need to be approachable. We need to be be relatable to the American people.
And I mean, that's that thing that I'm saying. You're criticized for doing too little. You're criticized for doing too much. It's a very tough road.
And George W's first lady. Laura, you met Laura? I met Laura Bush several times. Yes. And of course, she now again, this talk of education, the first lady, she had a master's degree. There are many educated women that were she was involved in education. That was her championed issue. And many of the modern first ladies, of course, are noted, like you mentioned, Nancy Reagan are noted for the issues that they championed.
And so her literacy, her children's literacy, literacy, rather, and her education came in and she was, again, quite, quite loved by the American people.
While they weren't so fond of her husband for most of his tenure, she was seen very much as an civilizing influence on him. I mean, she if Barbara Bush actually, you know, lauded her for calming George down and, you know, helping him to give up that give up to drink and to sort of straight themselves out, because when she married him, he was a real frat boy. I mean, the interesting thing for someone who was a sort of a primary school teacher and a librarian and quite a quiet spoken girl, I mean, they I think they were engaged within six weeks of six weeks of.
She she sat him down and said no more drinking, that this is out of line.
This is what she did, that in six weeks. And I mean, that was some turnaround.
Another lesson for a listener would like to know, what would the husband of a female president be called?
Well, you know what that is another one of the things I'd love to have us do is segment one day on the first gentleman, I suppose, is what he might be be called, because we haven't had a second gentleman or first gentleman yet.
And so this could be at least if if Biden Harris ticket does win in November, it could be the first time that we actually are seeing some of that nomenclature being changed. Maybe it would be time to gender neutralize that and call it first spouse or first partner or second. Let's make it maybe it's time to come up with an honorific. So that hasn't yet come around.
I think there was a sort of a briefing note done when Hillary Clinton looked like looked like like to take the White House in 2016 about thrilled that Bill Clinton would play in the memo, basically said, well, he's not going to be picking menus for state dinners and choosing curtain fabric because he ain't that kind of guy. And maybe just given. Is his propensity, shall we say, to open his mouth and put his foot in it? Maybe we just ship him abroad and he can do lots of diplomatic stuff overseas.
So it would be very interesting. It will be very interesting, as Dana says, just to see what kind of role that fashion we've touched on Michelle Obama.
I mean, she was considered a success in that role, but not according to everybody. I mean, you know, as with all of the first ladies we've spoken about, there were fans and there were those who were not fans. But what were her major?
Her major campaign, of course, was childhood obesity and health. And she was, of course, notorious for expanding the White House vegetable garden, which had been really in in place again since Eleanor Roosevelt put it in place. And in the 40s is the Victory Garden during during World War I, World War Two. And of course, Hillary Clinton actually had put it up on the roof famously during during the 90s. And it's still in existence today. In fact, just some people have thought that maybe Melania Trump got rid of it.
But in fact, it's still it's like 2.5 million dollars worth of vegetable garden today. But Michelle Obama, because she is so physically fit herself and has made that of her own personal part of her personal brand, notably competing with Ellen Ellen DeGeneres on the show, doing doing push ups and winning. But she also did incorporate a lot of activities into normal, more staid traditions like the Easter Egg Roll. And she had physical activities put into that.
And so I think for for her for her champion, cause it was it was largely deemed a success.
I think we saw her evolve very much into the role as well. I mean, she started off the whole thing was she was mom in chief. And there was a great play made when she first moved into the White House. But she did it. You know, she was slightly she was very, very concerned about how it would play out with her two very young daughters, you know, how to protect them best. And she put in place very, you know, strict rules when their Family First Family first moved into, you know, that no work could be brought home.
Owners had to be spent with the children. So it was very much this. I'm not going to let this, you know, destroy our family, I think.
But, you know, we saw evolve. I mean, I when I was over in covering the campaign in 2008, I was up in, I think, Columbus, Ohio.
And the first time I've actually seen her speak and she just walked out onto the stage and she just blew everyone away. I mean, she just walked out. No notes, because she's famous for speaking, you know, just just off the top of the head. And she you know, she was absolutely extraordinary.
And I think it's very interesting the way we've seen her evolve and become much more intrusive as she became known as such a great speechmaker. We all remember the speeches she's made of the, you know, at the Democratic convention even recently at the most recent one. I mean, she gave a fairly blistering speech against the, you know, the administration at the Trump administration. I mean, she probably went, you know, if they expect to see the cuddly Michelle Obama, that's not what I got.
Not this really angry kind of woman, you know, incredibly passionate.
You've mentioned Donald Trump and his presidency. And we need to talk about Melania and Maureen Dowd. Writing today in The Irish Times says that Melania called Ivanka Trump favorite child, apparently the princess. And Ivanka has called Melania at the portrait. Now, we saw when they were all on stage and Ivanka walked up, Melania was standing there. Did you see the.
Oh, my gosh. So she smiled.
And then the moment Ivanka had walked past, the face was frozen.
And see, this is a fascinating from a communications viewpoint, from the lens of purposeful communications, which at this point is, as Lisa was talking about, the understanding and awareness that the spotlight is on you is in inherent in this job. And not to mention the fact even more so for Melania Trump, because she's been a professional model.
That is how she made her career. She knows when the cameras on. So it is very interesting for me as one who talks to my client about body language and purposeful behavior and all this that this woman is signaling, she is not doing this as, oh, I'm unaware that the camera's on. There is no chance on my mind that she is not with every swipe of the hand to her husband that is caught on camera with every piece of clothing that she picks.
She is signaling I don't know exactly. It seems to be a little bit of mixing Ling.
I mean, what is the message or message? That is the big mystery in the Enigma. Yeah, but she is definitely signaling something for your famous zahira jacket she wore.
It says, I really don't really care. Do you go to court? And she was going to visit a, you know, an immigration child immigration center down in Texas. And of course, this caused a massive Ferreri. Now, afterwards, it came you know, it's sort of she said that, well, I was just having a go at the liberal media, you know, that that was what it was. But I mean, just completely right.
She's hyper aware of the of the of the cameras on her. She knows exactly, you know, how the impact she has. I mean, we all know the conspiracy theories swirl around, you know, the Trump White House. But I mean, ironically, one of this one of the murder conspiracy theories is actually involves her and the. This great conspiracy theory that she has been replaced, it's called the Millennium Body Double Replacement, that she has actually been replaced by somebody like her and she has been spirited off somewhere.
But, you know, it adds to this wonderful sort of soap opera kind of thing that's going on, the portrayal of the princess. This is I think this is referred to in the book. And they're going out tomorrow, Malani and me, by a former close friend of hers, Stephanie Kulka, former being the former, think definitely been there.
Nobody sees any anymore, you know, into which she goes into the poisonous relationship between various particular between I think of Anna and again and and Melania. And again, this is the sort of the tussle for the role of first lady in a way because of Anna, very much would see herself in that sort of event. Yeah. Sorry, Ivankov. My God, I keep so hard the first lady.
That's a whole different story. Remember, Ivana was noted to saying, I don't show job to Melania early on and talk about them. But, you know, I mean, she is. It is fascinating to watch her. She she just seems to I mean, she just seems to do her own thing. She kind of glides through, you know, beautifully. She sort of turns a fairly deaf ear. She she said, oh, I try and talk about doing this.
And it doesn't she says, we don't quite get the message.
Yes. Maybe it will become apparent as time goes on.
I think I think there is a watch this space on the on Melania Trump. I can certainly see what happens. Thank you both very much indeed for coming in. Fascinating to talk to you both.
We're going to be talking about the perfect fry up after this today with Claire Byrne on RTL Radio. We'll listen back on the radio player up.