Small World: A man’s fancy turns

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

Too little attention has been paid, perhaps, to the role that women play in the lives of our presidents. (On the other hand, virtually no attention has been paid to the reverse, i.e., the masculine role in the lives of our feminine rulers for the obvious reason that there haven’t been any of the latter — unless you think that husband Bill messed up Hillary’s run).

But back to our original proposition — how ladies have helped or hurt their presidential menfolks. There are two classes of females for study: the legally united and the freelance operatives. The first of these freelance dames to come to prominence was the woman celebrated in verse when Grover Cleveland ran for office. (I don’t count Sally Hemmings, Thomas Jefferson’s slave, as in those distant days she did not count as a full person — at least not on the electoral rolls). But back to the Cleveland campaign verse:

“Ma, Ma, where’s my pa?

Gone to the White House, Ha, Ha, Ha!”

It seems that the country was no more shocked and unhappy by gossip of unmarried shenanigans in the late nineteenth century than they are today. Cleveland won two of the three elections he contested and was sufficiently unwounded and unworried by the lady’s linkage that he performed his duties well and is generally regarded as a pretty good president. On the other hand, the unnamed lady did not use her wiles to propel her man to the level of greatness.

That was certainly the goal of the second Mrs. Woodrow Wilson. He suffered a stroke in his second term, and she took over the presidency, relegating him to a lonely upstairs room (much as a character in a British novel). If people needed policy advice or direction, she provided it. We didn’t see her like again until the presidency of Nancy and Ronald Reagan. Before and after that lady’s reign (assisted by an astrologer), first ladies lurked in the shadows, offering advice — and frequently persuasively so — but not obviously crowding her man off the stage.

Beauty helps a lot, but the skill to deploy it fetchingly helps even more. I am thinking of Mesdames Kennedy and Obama in this category. One with the physical attributes but not so much of the talent for exposition — or at least not yet — would be Mrs. Trump. Probably she is becalmed by the never-ending series of tales of her husband’s adventures, some of which seem bound to be true.

And therein lies a lesson for the young and aspiring politicians of today. When you are feeling despondent after a debate that went poorly or joyous after a town hall that was a triumph, don’t yield to the beguiling siren call of a lovely who appeals to your mood of the moment. History teaches that in later years she is apt — just when you are trying to play the serious elder statesman — to be an image killer. Porn queens are everywhere and they emerge often like 17-year locusts to take part in raucous, grating, and displeasing choruses.

So, what is the best guidance for a first lady who doesn’t want to play number two, or even a 1.5? What is the technique for winning the golden Oscar for playing a more assertive role than either Bess Truman or Mamie Eisenhower on the one hand or a bossy Nancy on the other? For the model middle-ground winner, I would nominate Eleanor Roosevelt, who carved out her own niche while tolerating in silence her husband’s “fraternizing” with longtime lady friends. It’s a hard art to master. The wounds can be many and fatal if allowed to become infected by the green monster of jealousy.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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