Broadcast: September 29, 2003
The wife of the United States president has no duties or powers under the law, but has an important place in America. I'm Faith Lapidus.
And I'm Steve Ember. We tell about First Lady Laura Bush and other wives of presidents, this week on the VOA Special English program THIS IS AMERICA.
The National First Ladies Library in Canton, Ohio, recently opened an education and research center. Laura Bush spoke at the event. Missus Bush, the wife of the forty-third president, talked about other first ladies in history. She remembered how Bess Truman, the wife of the thirty-third president, had described the duty of a first lady.
Harry Truman served in office from nineteen-forty-five until nineteen-fifty-three. His wife said the job of the first lady is to sit quietly in public next to her husband and make sure her hat is on straight.
Missus Bush said some people agree with this. But, she added, the fact is first ladies have made and changed history.
In two-thousand-one, for example, Laura Bush became the only first lady to give a full presidential radio message. She spoke in place of her husband in his weekly talk. She described the poor conditions for women and children in Afghanistan under Taleban rule.
Laura Bush is a former teacher and librarian. She and her husband moved into the White House in January of two-thousand-one. Since then she has spent a lot of time on educational issues.
Missus Bush has launched a national campaign called Ready to Read, Ready to Learn. It places great importance on reading to children to prepare them for school.
Laura Bush has also started the National Book Festival in Washington. The first one took place on September eighth, two-thousand-one. About thirty-thousand people came to enjoy storytelling, readings, musical performances and book-signings. The Library of Congress gathered writers and artists from across the United States.
The third National Book Festival will be held this year on October fourth.
This interest in reading follows a tradition set by another first lady, Barbara Bush -- the mother of the current president.
Barbara Bush is the wife of George Herbert Walker Bush, America‘s forty-first president. They lived in the White House from nineteen-eighty-nine until nineteen-ninety-three. She continues to serve as honorary chairman of the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy. That group has awarded millions of dollars to programs across the country.
Laura Bush was born Laura Welch in Midland, Texas, in nineteen-forty-six. She developed an interest in reading as a young child. She completed her studies in education at Southern Methodist University in Dallas in nineteen-sixty-eight. Then she taught school until nineteen-seventy-two. The next year she earned a master's degree in library science at the University of Texas at Austin.
She met George Walker Bush in Austin in nineteen-seventy-seven. They married in Midland a few months later. In nineteen-eighty-one they had twin daughters. Jenna and Barbara are now college students.
Historically, many first ladies limited their activities. They organized dinners for important guests. Or they welcomed groups to the White House.
But other first ladies have been activists. Hillary Rodham Clinton is now a United States senator from New York. No other first lady has ever been elected to office.
She campaigned for the Senate during her last days in the White House. Her husband, Bill Clinton, was America’s forty-second president. He served two terms, from nineteen-ninety-three until two-thousand-one.
Hillary Clinton led the efforts in her husband's administration to enact a health care reform plan. That plan died in Congress. As first lady she was also active in children's issues. And she supported her husband during his impeachment trial in nineteen-ninety-nine. The Senate cleared him of charges that he lied about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, a young White House worker.
Hillary Clinton and her husband also both faced accusations of dishonesty in their past financial dealings. She was called to give evidence while first lady. The accusations never resulted in charges.
Hillary Clinton has many critics. But she also has many supporters. Many people believe she will run for president herself someday.
Eleanor Roosevelt was another activist. She was married to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He was elected president four times, and served until his death in nineteen-forty-five. (The Constitution now says presidents can serve only two terms.) Franklin Roosevelt guided the nation through the great economic depression and most of World War Two.
Much of the public also liked Eleanor Roosevelt. She did humanitarian work. She worked to improve human rights for women and minorities. She spoke throughout the country about major issues.
But she, too, was often criticized. Some people did not think a first lady should influence public policy.
Sometimes President Roosevelt joked about his wife's influence. In nineteen-thirty-three, he named a woman to the Cabinet for the first time ever. Union leaders opposed the appointment of Frances Perkins as labor secretary. But Missus Roosevelt supported her.
Later Missus Roosevelt said she was sorry for the problems her husband had with the union officials. But Franklin said he would rather have an hour of trouble with union officials than trouble with Eleanor for the rest of his life.
Early in American history, Abigail Smith Adams was first lady. Her husband, John Adams, was the second president of the United States. This was in the late seventeen-hundreds. Missus Adams expressed strong opinions. Critics had a name for her. They called her "Missus President."
But one first lady did more than influence her husband's decisions. For months, Edith Wilson made the decisions. Her husband was Woodrow Wilson, America's twenty-eighth president. He suffered a stroke in nineteen-nineteen.
Edith Wilson performed many presidential duties while her husband was sick. So, for a time, Missus Wilson was America's unofficial president.
Social duties are a part of life for any first lady. Dolley Payne Madison was famous for her parties even before she became first lady.
She was the wife of James Madison, America's fourth president. He had been secretary of state to President Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson's wife died, so Dolley Madison helped him entertain visitors.
Dolley Madison probably is best known for what she did when the British invaded Washington. That happened during the War of Eighteen-Twelve. When the British burned the White House, Dolley Madison fled with important government documents. She also removed a painting of America's first president, George Washington.
Martha Washington had not enjoyed being first lady as much as Dolley Madison did. Martha Washington once said, "I am more like a state prisoner than anything else. There are limits set for me which I must not move past. And, as I cannot do as I like, I resist and stay home a great deal."
One modern first lady said she wanted to live a private life. Instead Jacqueline Bouvier (boo-vee-AY) Kennedy became one of the most famous first ladies ever.
She was married to John Fitzgerald Kennedy. They moved into the White House in nineteen-sixty-one.
Jackie Kennedy was young and beautiful. Her picture was always in the press. During a state visit to France, she became very popular with the French people.
This caused the president to describe himself as the man who came with Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris.
Each time the wife of a new president enters the White House, she redefines the job of first lady. Someday there may be a complete redefinition. If so, Americans will have to decide what to call the person married to the president. "First gentleman" perhaps?
Our program was written by Jerilyn Watson and produced by Caty Weaver. I'm Faith Lapidus.
And I'm Steve Ember. Join us again next week for more about life in the United States, on the VOA Special English program THIS IS AMERICA.