A better look at first ladies

Elise T. Chisolm

June 04, 1991|By Elise T. Chisolm

LOOKING FOR some good summer reading? Want a biography that has weight and substance? Well, try a new book, ''First Ladies'' Volume II; Presidents' Wives and Their Power, 1961-1990'' by Carl Sferrazza Anthony.

I finished ''Nancy Reagan: The Unauthorized Biography'' in April, then in May I finished ''First Ladies.''

There are biographies and ''trashographies'' and the Kitty Kelley book is the latter.

In one sense I am comparing apples and oranges, or apples and sour grapes with these two books.

Anthony's book is a historical, chronological and fascinating account from Jackie Kennedy to Barbara Bush, while the Kelley book is tabloid sleaze and innuendo.

I guess historically we will assume from all reports that Nancy was formidable and not a popular first lady, and indeed the Carl Anthony book touches on this.

Anthony, a serious biographer, has given us some previously unused source material, and he is a little kinder and gentler than Kitty Kelley.

''First Ladies'' gives Nancy credit for her war against drugs; for softening her husband's policy toward the Soviet Union and for making him more aware of the ramifications of the Iran-contra scandal.

I talked to Carl Anthony by phone, and he said, ''Kitty Kelley dwelt exclusively with the negatives about Nancy Reagan, I am a little more even-handed, I think . . . At least my footnotes are scrupulous compared to the Kelley book.''

Anthony made some interesting comparisons.

He said that Jackie Kennedy could be compared to Abigail Adams, whom he profiled in ''First Ladies, 1789 to 1961.''

''They both had a sense of the aesthete, they were both intellectuals and they were moved by ideas.

''I could compare Lady Bird Johnson with Dolly Madison. Both were social politicians. Lady Bird, like Dolly, used her social graces. And Dolly, like Lady Bird, was a great asset to her husband. Lady Bird fought harder for civil rights than most people know. I like to compare Pat Nixon to Grace Coolidge -- they had no need to beheadliners . . . Actually, we just never got to see the real Pat Nixon,'' the biographer added.

He says Rosalynn Carter and Eleanor Roosevelt both had great political power over their husbands in terms of issues.

When asked to compare Nancy Reagan to one of her predecessors, he mentioned Edith Wilson -- ''Both worked on canny instincts and were moved by the metaphysical.''

And Barbara Bush? I asked.

''Well, she has some of the fine qualities of Bess Truman.''

Anthony writes that the Sixties made great changes in the roles of first ladies. The growth of feminism in the latter part of the decade influenced them -- they had to pick out an agenda separate from their husbands'. Then television increased recognition of the wives and placed them in the public eye constantly.

He gives us details on Jackie Kennedy restoring the White House, Lady Bird beautifying America, Betty Ford's fight for the ERA.

Driving through a few states recently, I remembered that the wonderful wild flowers along the highway were Mrs. Johnson's idea.

The author thinks that Pat Nixon was grossly misunderstood and was caught in the cross fire of the Vietnam war and Watergate.

He tells me that she used her first Thanksgiving in the White House to practice her belief in community by organizing a public meal for 225 senior citizens who had no families. Later, she got national women's clubs to foster similar dinners nationwide.

When you finish Carl Anthony's book you will realize just how strong these women were and are.

The Kelley book left me depressed. Anthony's book will leave you wondering why some of the first ladies' faces aren't on Mount Rushmore.

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