Former First Ladies Club

By Jean Li Spencer

The most powerful fraternity in the country is composed of the distinguished gentlemen who have spent time in the Oval Office and are called “Mr. President” for the rest of their lives. Regardless of party affiliation, personality and post-presidential accomplishments, many former presidents are initiated as esteemed members of the so-called Presidents Club, of which membership is exclusive. Perhaps the most useful feature of lifetime membership within the Presidents Club is the expectation that former presidents lend guidance, aid or friendship to one another in times of crisis.

Recently, membership within the Presidents Club expanded to include George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama before the elder Bush’s death. Political columnist Doris Fleeson wrote, “Americans, once they had elected a President, have always tended, barring catastrophes, to protect their investment. […] Curiously, they are generally less kind to his wife. Human nature breaks out all over as she takes her prominent place in the White House goldfish bowl.” Former presidents warrant media coverage when they meet outside of the White House grounds, and of proportional importance and yet garnering less attention altogether, is the way that former first ladies have formed an elite circle of their own. Alongside the Old Boys’ Club is an equally tenured network of Former First Ladies.

Two remarkable first ladies who served the nation consecutively from 1963–1974 also happened to be born in the same year. A remarkable year of wonder, 1912 welcomed Claudia Alton Taylor, nicknamed Lady Bird, and Thelma Catherine Ryan, nicknamed Pat, into the world. Lady Bird married President Lyndon B. Johnson, while Pat would support Richard M. Nixon through some of the most public and painful political scandals in American history. Not only were these first ladies both born in the same year, but they also preferred to be called by their more approachable nicknames, had mothers who passed away early on in childhood, received marriage proposals from their husbands on the first date, were loving mothers to two daughters each and absolutely bore the scrutiny and public disapproval of their husbands’ presidencies without fail.

Lady Bird Johnson revitalized the relevance of the role of first lady during her time in office by calling the country to action in beautifying Washington D.C. and the nation’s highways. Pat Nixon, who cared deeply about doing the most from a young age, worked tirelessly to promote volunteerism, established herself as one of the most-traveled first ladies and also purchased objects of fine art for the White House, pioneering large renovations of the China Room, Red Room, Blue Room and Green Room.

Official Portrait of Nancy Reagan in the Red Room, 1981.
First Lady Pat Nixon unveils her changes to the White House Green Room, 1971.
First Lady Pat Nixon in the White House Red Room with White House curator Clem Conger. Mrs. Nixon recently oversaw a redecoration of the Red Room. 1971.

Johnson and Nixon understood the difficult position that the treatment of their husbands put one another in more than any presidential family that closely came before and after them. The two women joined together for telling tucked away moments in White House history: for example, Nixon and Johnson unveiled a White House acquisition of James Madison’s 1816 portrait in 1970, and Nixon joined Johnson at the dedication of the LBJ Library and Museum in Texas the following year.

Another tender friendship bloomed unexpectedly during the presidential transition between Laura Bush and Michelle Obama, which might have been pleasantly shocking if any other woman besides Michelle was involved, considering that Barack Obama ran counter to Bush’s legacy. Laura Bush invited Michelle to the White House on two separate occasions– once to give a tour for just the two of them and then again with Michelle’s daughters and mother. On the morning of her husband’s inauguration, Michelle gifted a leather-bound notebook inscribed with a Louis L’Amour quote: “There will come a time when you believe everything is finished. Yet that will be the beginning.” She included a pen engraved with the inauguration date so that Bush could begin writing down her life story; the resulting memoir, Spoken from the Heart, became standard reading for Michelle Obama’s East Wing staff.

In a show of reaching across the aisle and respecting tradition, Barbara Bush sent Melania Trump a warm welcome letter into “the First Ladies very exclusive club,” which stood in contrast to her personal politics and highlighted her sense of grace because Barbara did not vote for Melania’s husband, whom she thought was “greedy, selfish and ugly.” She offered Melania the same advice she gave Hillary Clinton in 1992: “Living in the White House is a joy, and their only job is to make you happy.”

Laura Bush had originally intended to be the author of another congratulatory letter, this one addressed to Bill Clinton, husband of Democratic nominee and former first lady Hillary Clinton. In this address, she had planned to joke, “We can’t wait to initiate you.”

Of course, first ladies have not always been genial or decorous. They are only human. In the 1960s, Jackie Kennedy attacked Pat Nixon’s spending habits; Betty Ford upstaged Nancy Reagan during the 1976 Republican Convention; and Hillary Clinton fueled rumors of an alleged affair involving George H.W. Bush in 1992, to which Barbara Bush responded in kind with a counterattack of her own. What their interactions and legacies show is that alongside their husbands, these women were not as gentle or demure as one might believe (although they certainly were in the right circumstances). First ladies can be mudslingers, political masterminds, gossips, diplomats, friends or enemies, as well as women of their own accord.

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