The White House: The First Lady Bird

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The impact of First Ladies on U.S. history has never been particularly resounding, but all have contributed fascinating footnotes.

There was John Adams' wife Abigail, for example. She hung laundry in the East Room of the White House; yet she insisted on receiving visitors in a chair built like an empress' throne. Zachary Taylor's wife Margaret never wanted him to be President. She felt that it would deprive her "of his society and shorten his life," so she secluded herself in a wing of the White House, where she puffed away sulkily on a corncob pipe for the duration of his Administration. Mrs. U. S. Grant put so many tassels and hunks of ornate furniture in the East Room that people said it looked like a steamboat saloon; yet she was idolized as a model of high style. Despite the fact that she was cross-eyed, she refused to undergo a corrective operation because her husband liked her that way.

Fainting & Needlework. Ida McKinley, on the other hand, was given to fainting spells, and she whiled away nearly all of her husband's term doing needlework. William Howard Taft's wife Helen attended every Cabinet meeting with him, and when the press accused her of influencing policy, she insisted that she went along only to keep him awake. Woodrow Wilson's second wife Edith was called "the Acting President" because only she and a doctor could visit—and presumably influence —her husband during the months that he lay ill after a stroke.

Eleanor Roosevelt, of course, all but made the role of First Lady an official national office. Harry Truman called Bess "the boss"—and in many ways she was, though she never pretended to be more than a displaced housewife. Once Truman found her burning some of the letters he had written to her. "Bess, you oughtn't to do that," protested Harry. "Why not? I've read them several times," said Bess. "But think of history!" pleaded the President. "I have," murmured Bess as she tossed the last bundle into the fire. Mamie Eisenhower, always the general's lady, presided dutifully over social occasions when it was required, otherwise shunned the public gaze almost as much as Bess Truman. Not so her successor.

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