Two Centuries Of First Ladies'


Monday, October 9th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


WASHINGTON (AP) — They don't debate. Their names are not on the ballot. But the election results will propel one of two women into a position that has grown for two centuries alongside the presidency itself.

It even has an unofficial acronym, FLOTUS, for First Lady of the United States.

From Martha Washington to Hillary Rodham Clinton, the women who have been married to presidents offer plenty of perspective for the next first lady, whether she be Laura Bush or Mary Elizabeth ``Tipper'' Gore.

Sifting through old letters, memoirs and biographies, news articles and presidential archives, author William O. Foss has pulled a lot of collective first lady insight together in ``First Ladies Quotation Book,'' published by Barricade Books.

Some first ladies have seen themselves as virtual state prisoners. Some like Eleanor Roosevelt, who served as her paralyzed husband's ``eyes and legs,'' were actively engaged in issues. Others echoed Dolley Madison, who said in 1811 she was seen as ``the very shadow of my husband,'' or Mamie Eisenhower who once said, ``I have but one career and its name is Ike.''

Many have expressed their opinions vividly.

``The one thing I do not want to be called is 'first lady;' It sounds like a saddle horse,'' Jacqueline Kennedy wrote in a 1961 staff memo.

—``For eight years, I was sleeping with the president. If that doesn't give you special access, I don't know what does,'' Nancy Reagan said in 1989.

Most modern first ladies have been linked to causes; roadside beauty and Lady Bird Johnson, literacy and Barbara Bush, mental health and Rosalynn Carter, illegal drugs and Nancy Reagan,

Last February, Hillary Clinton radically expanded the possibilities of being first lady when she launched her candidacy for a Senate seat from New York.

``I hope you'll put me to work for you,'' said the first first lady to run for public office.

From Foss' book, here is a sampling of quotations by first ladies on their evolving position:

—``Being the first lady is the hardest unpaid job in the world,'' Patricia Nixon, 1972.

—``If I had known this was going to happen to me, I would have changed my nose and nickname,'' Lady Bird Johnson, 1963. She later said: ``The first lady is and always has been, an unpaid public servant, elected by her husband.''

—''...the practice of calling the president's wife the ``first lady'' was always a disagreeable one to me. I think that if some clever person would start a little crusade against it in the newspapers it would be ridiculed to death,'' Edith Wilson, in her 1939 memoir.

—``There is certain bounds set for me which I must not depart from — and as I cannot do as I like, I am obstinate and stay at home a great deal,'' Martha Washington, 1789.

—``I'm taking the veil. I've had it with being first lady all the time, and now I'm going to give more attention to my children. I want you to cut off all outside activity — whether it's a glass of sherry with a poet or a coffee with a king. No more art gallery dedications — no nothing — unless absolutely necessary,'' Jacqueline Kennedy, memo to her social secretary, January 1963.

—``No man ever prospered in the world without the consent and cooperation of his wife,'' Abigail Adams, 1809.

``I don't know what they expect me to do, hang up my wash in the East Room like Abigail Adams,'' Grace Coolidge, on entering the White House in 1923.

—``I see some of my ideas put in practice. I'm not sure Lyndon remembers where he got them,'' Lady Bird Johnson, 1963.

—``Always be on time. Do as little talking as humanly possible. Remember to lean back in the parade car so everybody can see the president. Be sure not to get too fat, because you'll have to sit there in the back seat,'' Eleanor Roosevelt, on campaign behavior for first ladies.

—``If the president has a bully pulpit, then the first lady has a white glove pulpit. It is more refined, perhaps, more restricted, more ceremonial, but it's a bully pulpit all the same. ... I suspect there are those who think first ladies should be kept in attics, only to say our lines, pour our tea and then be put away again,'' Nancy Reagan, 1987.

—``The position is such an odd one. In our country, we expect so much from the woman who is married to the president — but we don't really know what we expect ... I think the answer is to just be who you are and do what you can do and get through it ...'' Hillary Rodham Clinton, 1996.

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EDITOR'S NOTE — Lawrence L. Knutson has covered the White House, Congress and Washington's history for more than 30 years.