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A guided tour through first ladies on TV and in popular culture

They started out with Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours).” “I know every Stevie song on the planet,” the first lady of the United States bragged. Then she and James Corden joined the Beyhive and sang along with Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” advising us all “if you liked it, then you should have put a ring on it.”

Corden liked their temporary excursion into the musical Beyhive. So did the president’s wife, who quipped “we were making honey (pause) to put in our lemonade.” (Explanation for older folks: We’re in a small world of Beyonce Knowles references here.)

For the piece de resistance, Missy Elliott hopped into the back seat for Corden’s newest “Carpool Karaoke” so they could all ride around the White House grounds and sing along with her urging to “get ur freak on” (as it’s spelled in the actual song title.) This came complete with the first lady laying down some syllabic and rhythmic precision right along with every single one of Missy’s torrent of beats.

“How cool is the first lady?” Corden blurted to his audience when it was hardly necessary to remind us. Who, among us, didn’t already know that she’s the LeBron James of first ladies? She can do anything she needs to do and 95 times out of 100, she can do it better than anyone else.

It wasn’t all “Carpool Karaoke.” There was talk too. Right at the beginning, she responded to Corden’s query about whether she’d miss all that luxuriating in 24/7 attention from the White House staff. “Seven and a half years is enough luxuriating,” the first lady told him. “I can make my own grilled cheese sandwich.”

She can also spread a thunderous clickstorm all over the web, whether it’s karaoke with Corden or “mom dancing” with Jimmy Fallon earlier. And lest anyone decry the shameless downward dumbing of it all, she’s always got a noble agenda when she provokes an online clickstorm. In Corden’s case, the 14-minute sequence was to promote a coming world trip and a Snapchat whose theme is “Let Girls Learn.” In other words, in a world where the Taliban can shoot Malala Yousafzai in the face for advocating girls’ education, the first lady is urging young women everywhere to start learning in earnest for their own – and the world’s – sake.

I must say it didn’t surprise me in the slightest that Melania Trump secretly admired Michelle Obama so much that she’d filch a whole section from her first Democratic National Convention speech. But it did get me to thinking about first ladies on television – and in pop culture – in my lifetime.

Here’s a very personal guided tour.

Bess Truman, wife of Harry S.

Chronologically, she could have been on television but she wasn’t. Television wasn’t big enough yet. And nothing about the public parts of being a first lady seemed to appeal to her in the slightest. But then, when Roosevelt’s sudden death hustled her husband into the Oval Office, he memorably said that he felt that the sun, the moon and the stars had fallen upon him. Multiply that by 100 and you’d no doubt have his wife’s feelings.

Mamie Eisenhower, wife of Dwight D.

The archetype, still, for modern first lady in the most conservative minds. Television back then couldn’t yet make her one of its denizens. “Ike runs the country” she used to say. “I turn the lamb chops.” At the same time, consider this factoid: Wherever they lived, the bedroom walls were the same shade of green and they slept on pink sheets. They were military people. Discipline was paramount. Nothing genuine or true about their relationship was ever intended for public consumption. She was a still photograph, then, not a TV interview subject.

Jackie Kennedy, wife of John F.

The revolution arrives in Halston suits. When they go to France on national business, the French are so nuts about her that JFK wittily introduced himself to them as “the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris.” We loved her almost as much over here. Who ever considered before the possibility that a first lady could be young and arrestingly beautiful? And a guardian of American culture? I was as smitten as everyone else – until, that is, she took Charles Collingwood on a White House tour for CBS and revealed a voice that sounded so soft and breathy that it seemed to copy Marilyn Monroe. All things considered, the very thought of that still makes me shiver.

Lady Bird Johnson, wife of Lyndon B.

At our house, the competition was always fierce to see who could sound more like Lady Bird urging Americans to plant “a tree, a sh-a-rub or a booosh.” To my way of thinking, I always won. Then again, maybe I didn’t. In retrospect, she was probably exemplary in performing a wholly thankless job. My respect for her increased in the years after they left the White House. Her husband? Not so much. She was, I now think, so much better on TV than I thought at the time.

Pat Nixon, wife of Richard M.

The iron-clad discipline of the Eisenhowers obviously was their model, which made her an easy target, just for being married to him and sharing some of his sensibility. I always thought that a bit unfair. Any couple that could, as Norman Mailer said, raise those two daughters had far more domestic wisdom than they let on, despite what so many publicly suspected about their secret miseries and alcohol consumption. No matter what she really was, she still doesn’t stand a chance in any pop culture derby because she was succeeded by …

Betty Ford, wife of Gerald R.

The greatest modern first lady, by far, before Michelle Obama. If Michelle Obama is the LeBron James or Michael Jordan of first ladies, she’s Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain wrapped up into one. She transformed the job and the country along with it. She took alcoholism and substance abuse out of the closet and breast cancer too. Before she was finished, her very name became a synonym for addiction recovery. And let’s not even talk about her admitting in 1975 to Morley Safer on “60 Minutes” that premarital sex from her 18-year-old daughter wouldn’t surprise her, nor would the likelihood of her kids sampling weed. She made all of Jackie Kennedy’s beauty, interior decoration and cultural advocacy seem weirdly secondary.

Rosalynn Carter, wife of James E. Jr.

Coming after Betty Ford was no easier than coming before her. She almost harkened back to the Mamie Eisenhower model. The Carters, too, were disciplined people. Even when Jimmy was lusting in his “heart,” no one much cared.

Nancy Reagan, wife of Ronald W.

The most controversial first lady of modern times. That constant look of adoration in her eyes and those pleas for young people to “Just Say No” to all drugs made her seem, to many, almost like a planetary alien. But then the former Nancy Davis had been a Hollywood actress in some very dicey movies so she no doubt thought she could carry anything off (like, say, sitting on Mr. T’s lap). Time eventually revealed that her private reputation in Hollywood was much more complicated. But then so were the two children raised by the Reagans as a couple. The more we knew about her after he left office, the more formidable and admirable she seemed. She was a powerful voice in his ear for a lot of things no else in his innermost circle would say. Notwithstanding her behavior during the AIDS crisis, she was, it seems, in life the most liberal member of the actual Reagan Cabinet.

Barbara Bush, wife of George H.W.

Nancy was a tough act to follow. It didn’t help that Barbara Bush could look so fierce and was so fiercely outspoken. If only she’d been that outspoken to us all about her younger son before his White House residency. No American family of modern political times was likely to have had more interesting dinner time political wrangles than the Bushes. It would have been nice to have heard them before her son’s presidency.

Hillary Clinton, wife of William J.

It was more than a right-wing conspiracy that ensnared them; it was a conspiracy of hypocrisy. Many people of minimal sophistication take for granted that other people’s marriages are built on a variety of moral “arrangements.” (See the Kennedys and the Johnsons.) But the Clintons, from the beginning, drove people nuts and still do. The combination of immense scrutiny and vulnerability did the Clintons, in the popular imagination, no honors. But when their daughter, Chelsea, was the subject of some of the ugliest “Saturday Night Live” jokes ever from Mike Myers and Dana Carvey, she helped to forever close off Presidential Children from Public Commentary. To anyone paying attention, she was always a background figure inches away from going foreground.

Laura Bush, wife of George W.

Still more from the Mamie archetype, performed by a former librarian whose most public job was to be tolerantly amused by her husband. They would have been an amusing and likable couple anywhere else in America besides Pennsylvania Avenue. She would have been a great permanent default first lady for any president who needed an automatically acceptable one. She was always presentable on TV and never the slightest bit memorable.

Michelle Obama, wife of Barack H.

The coolest ever. And the hippest. But then before her, no one ever really tried to be cool. She redesigned the job. Can you imagine any woman less likely to disappear from view when she and her husband leave the White House? Will there ever be a first lady whose post-White House life will excite more interest? I don’t think Mamie or Jackie or Lady Bird or Pat or Barbara or Rosalynn would have approved.

But I think Betty and Nancy – not to mention Hillary – would have understood completely.


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