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AN AMORPHOUS POLITICAL ROLE -- U.S. FIRST LADY

AFFAIRS OF STATE:
The Rise and Rejection of the Presidential Couple Since World War II
By Gil Troy
Free Press
486 pages, $27.50
AMERICA'S FIRST LADIES
By Betty Boyd Caroli
Reader's Digest
224 pages, $29.95

It started with Martha Washington. And U.S. presidents' wives have been judged by pretty much the same standards since then.

Gil Troy, a history professor at McGill University who has written about presidential candidates, takes an incisive look at the "power couples" who have occupied the White House for the past 64 years, while Betty Boyd Caroli, who has written previously about presidents' wives and the White House, takes a "kinder and gentler" approach.

But it all adds up to the same thing: the undefined role of a president's wife. He is elected, she is not. She can't help but be politically influential. She can either disguise her role or flaunt it.

Troy has selected the presidential couples of the last part of this century because they have been most visible and most vocal. Presidential couples turned from the darlings of the media in the 1930s to being at the mercy of the huge corps of reporters today who aggressively cover every word and move of White House occupants and their staffs.

With all the traveling, public statements and attempts to be the eyes and ears of the ailing FDR, Eleanor Roosevelt, says Troy, "demonstrated the potential of the first lady as activist, as inspiration and as celebrity."

As the first openly feminist first lady, she set an example, but her immediate successors chose not to follow it.

The electorate, suggests Troy, breathed a collective sigh of relief when the dignified and private Bess Truman chose the traditional role of first lady and lent her public persona only to White House social events.

Mamie Eisenhower and Pat Nixon also stuck with the traditional role. Jacqueline Kennedy created a category of her own. But it wasn't until the outspoken Betty Ford, who at times was more popular in poll ratings than her husband, that first ladyship took another turn toward feminism.

Troy identifies the "who elected her?" phrase with Rosalynn Carter. "Like Lady Bird -- as well as Eleanor Roosevelt -- Rosalynn ran into the enduring discomfort with unelected first ladies seizing power. Increasingly anxious about the changing definition of sex roles, most Americans turned to the White house for reassurance, not creativity."

While much of the factual information is not new, Troy expresses his pithy opinions about such first ladies as Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush. He does deft analyses of Hillary Rodham Clinton and of the state of marriage in the White House.

He has 12 categories or pieces of advice for presidential couples after he carefully evaluates them. He notes there is no correlation between successful marriages and successful administrations.

He can be biting, he can be entertaining, he can be engrossing and he can be controversial -- just as controversial as his subjects.

Fascination with the presidential family, Caroli suggests, is unexplained except that it may have taken the place of royalty after the American Revolution or in later years may have resulted from our form of government allowing greater media access.

She has created a coffee table book with candid and formal pictures of each of this unique group of 43 women (James Buchanan was our only bachelor president) and their families, many in color.

"A first lady's preferences in fashion, food, art and entertainment reflected on the entire nation, and she heard herself chastised for lapses and lauded for success," writes Caroli. "Because of her conspicuous role, the first lady became a model for other American women."

Among wives of considerable political influence before "power couples" was Sarah Polk, who acted as her husband's secretary and counselor. As was Nancy Reagan after her husband was shot, Edith Wilson was accused -- after President Wilson had a stroke -- of not only being the president's protector but also acting as the president.

She goes on to discuss how Frances Cleveland managed to keep the press from learning that President Grover Cleveland had a growth surgically removed from his mouth and recuperated sufficiently to resume official duties without the public's knowledge.

She also provides us with glimpses of family life in the White House: the Clevelands' three little girls, Theodore Roosevelt's six children and John Tyler, who had 15 children by two wives. Caroline Harrison, with a huge extended family, was the first first lady to plan enlargement of the president's home. Congress refused the funds.

Caroli takes us on a delightful and fact-filled historical tour, making it quite clear that even during the last century, those who lived in Washington City (as it was called originally) were aware of what went on in the first family's house.