The best U.S. first lady?

The Argument

May 23, 2004|By Theo Lippman Jr. | Theo Lippman Jr.,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Just before the Civil War, Harriet Lane brought grace and style to the White House - and left a major pediatric legacy.Who was the best first lady ever? A poll of academics by the Siena College Research Institute a decade ago concluded it was Eleanor Roosevelt. In his readable and comprehensive 2003 book based in part on the survey (Rating the First Ladies, Citadel Press, 374 pages, $22.95), John B. Roberts II wrote that she set the precedent for a first lady to have her own causes and constituencies - and then after the White House she became a significant influence on national and world affairs in her own right as an advocacy journalist and United Nations delegate.

Can't quarrel with that ranking, but my favorite first lady's contributions in her time in the White House and, especially, afterward put her right up there with Mrs. R. That is Harriet Lane, who resuscitated the White House as a social center at a crucial time, then later devoted much of her fortune to improving pediatrics as a medical specialty. One hundred years after her death, her name continues to nurture children's medicine, an accomplishment no other ex-first lady has come close to in impact, importance and continuity.

Ms. Lane was not rated at all in that 1993 poll, because she served in her bachelor uncle's White House rather than her husband's, which makes no sense. In an earlier poll of experts by Siena she was rated 28th, which is insulting. The 1988 Presidential Wives by Paul Boller Jr. mentioned her only once in passing. She does not even show up in the index of Margaret Truman's 1995 First Ladies.

Pediatricians are aware of her and probably more interested in her than journalists and historians.

Harriet Lane was James Buchanan's favorite niece. She was raised by him after she was orphaned. She served as his official White House hostess in the four years before the outbreak of the Civil War, which was surely the most difficult time in Washington's social history. But she performed well.

Important figures on the scene literally felt murderous about each other. The year Buchanan was elected, Southern Carolina Rep. Preston Brooks brutally caned Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner on the Senate floor. Sectional conflict was inevitable.

Few people expected the White House to be a social hub. A string of recent first ladies had been anti-social because of family tragedies, personal illness, personality or creed. Washington was still a raw little city.

But largely because of Harriet Lane, a 26-year-old beauty, who had been at her uncle's side when earlier in the decade he had served as U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James's, gaiety and style returned to and blossomed in the White House. Harriet herself had blossomed in England. There she had captivated the royal family and other prominent social tastemakers, and had acquired a dazzling social patina.

She often saw Queen Victoria and Prince Albert socially, she met Louis Napoleon and the empress of France; she socialized with Disraeli and Gladstone and Alfred Lord Tennyson, and had lunch with the Archbishop of Canterbury. "She was the Princess Diana of her day," Roberts writes. She was wooed by prominent older men, and drew more attention from young students at an Oxford degree-granting ceremony than the honorees.

She was the first first lady since Louisa Adams who knew the European capitals, and unlike her she delighted in being a social leader in the White House.

Harriet was able to converse on a broad range of issues, from politics to Paris gowns to American artists. She gave the artists a higher profile by inviting them to the White House, and she stood with them in seeking a national gallery. She was a trendsetter in fashion as well. Her attractive face and figure were well set off by the fashions of the day, which she modified to suit her own taste and sense of style.

She was said to have had some influence on some of her uncle's decisions. That may not be a plus for her, given Buchanan's low standing in historians' view. The latest appraisal is by Goucher's Jean H. Baker. She convincingly rips him to shreds, with gusto, in James Buchanan (Holt, 163 pages, $20).

Historian Roy Franklin Nichols wrote in The Disruption of American Democracy (AMS Press): "The social whirl was continuous. Many of the Congressmen and some of the Senators were men of little or no social background; and their introduction to the White House and the mansions of other social leaders impressed them. Some were awed and not quite sure of themselves in such new and glorious surroundings. These unaccustomed uncertainties might make them more amenable to suggestion than they were ordinarily, and if their wives were with them, the possible avenues of influence multiplied. Some great lady might accomplish much by adroit attention to the wife of an obscure Congressman. The White House was the center."

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