That's Mrs. President To You

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Call it Hillary's legacy. First ladies, long consigned to the lacy fringes of history, are increasingly being seen as important figures, deserving of respect, scrutiny and biographies of their own. Says historian Carl Sferrazza Anthony, "Men got to the White House because of the sacrifices the women made."

Kati Marton's Hidden Power: Presidential Marriages That Shaped Our Recent History (Pantheon Books; 414 pages; $25), provides a deft survey of a dozen First Couples, from Edith and Woodrow Wilson to Laura and George Bush. Marton mixes some good history with a lot of pop marriage psychology to show the part that patience, tolerance, insight, determination, sex and occasionally even love have played in the pursuit and exercise of presidential power. Without the ladies, she argues, many of the men for whom Hail to the Chief has been played probably would have ended up as peanut merchants, obscure lawyers or morose ranchers. "[Lady Bird] made the [Lyndon] Johnson presidency possible," insists Marton. Coaxing her husband into running on his own in 1964, when he was in the final months of John Kennedy's unfinished term, Lady Bird wrote, "Beloved, you are as brave a man as Harry Truman--or FDR--or Lincoln...To step out now would be wrong for your country, and I can see nothing but a lonely wasteland for your future."

First among Marton's First Couples are Edith and Woodrow Wilson. Edith Bolling Galt was a widow when she married Wilson in what was judged to be unseemly haste since his first wife had died little more than a year earlier. Galt was handsome, fearless, possessive and responsive to Wilson's fevered sexual impulses. Whisper of the times: "What did Mrs. Galt do when the President asked her to marry him? She fell out of bed." Their marriage was "the greatest love story of the modern presidency," Marton writes, her opinion bolstered by the collection of 250 eloquent, if sometimes syrupy, love letters from which she quotes liberally. "The clock is striking midnight and I must go to bed," Edith wrote in the spring of 1915 during their intense courtship. "A fond and very tender kiss my precious Woodrow before we put out the light--and I feel your dear arms fold around me."

The Wilsons are also the subject of Edith and Woodrow: The Wilson White House (Scribner; 608 pages; $35), a beautifully written and researched volume by Phyllis Lee Levin, whose last book was on Abigail Adams. The great Wilson partnership, which began with their marriage in 1915, grew stronger as his fame climbed. When he was stricken with debilitating strokes in 1919, Edith obscured his physical state and quite literally took over the presidency. Foreshadowing Hillary Clinton, who designed and presented a health care program that failed abysmally in part because of the resentment over her assumption of presidential authority, Edith misplayed her hand. Had she been forthright about her husband's condition and allowed his Cabinet to honestly assess his condition and assume some of the presidential authority, the U.S. rejection of the League of Nations treaty might have been avoided, altering the bitter environment that encouraged World War II.

Anthony, the dean of First Lady literature (seven volumes and counting), is coming out with a new book, The Kennedy White House: Family Life and Pictures, 1961-1963 (Simon & Schuster; 304 pages; $32), a collection of photographs that will center on Jackie, who, as the crowds that visited the recent exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum show, has assumed goddess stature. Jackie's White House years are also the subject of Barbara Leaming's new biography, Mrs. Kennedy: The Missing History of the Kennedy Years (Free Press; 368 pages; $25), which draws on personal letters, Secret Service records and other recently declassified documents to tell the story of the Kennedys' troubled marriage and Jackie's role in shaping Jack's presidency.

And there's more on the way. Barbara Bush is writing a sequel to her popular 1994 best-selling memoir, this one on life after the White House. Hillary Clinton got an $8 million advance for her book, and some critics expect it will be far more interesting than Bill's. Meanwhile, a new museum for Mamie Doud Eisenhower is being completed in Broomfield, Colo.; PBS is toying with a series on White House partners; and there is talk of a television drama about a White House family that would center on a fictional First Lady. No doubt she will be a curvaceous woman of intelligence, strength and wicked humor who saves, if not the world, at least her wandering but likable husband. Maybe they will call it The East Wing.