The public and private first ladies

Expectations vs. realities on PBS


October 25, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

One of the many election-related headlines last week involved Teresa Heinz Kerry, wife of Democratic candidate John Kerry, who questioned whether Laura Bush had ever had "a real job."

Heinz Kerry, who quickly apologized when reminded that the president's wife had been a public school teacher and librarian for 10 years, made the remark during an interview for a PBS program to be aired tonight: The First Lady: Public Expectations, Private Lives.

Conducted by Margaret Warner, senior correspondent for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, and Susan Page, of USA Today, parts of the interview were published last week by both USA Today and The NewsHour.

Now viewers can explore more deeply the role --idealized and actual -- played by presidential spouses in tonight's hour-long report from MacNeil/Lehrer Productions. Its timely and provocative premise is presented in a voiceover near the beginning of the program: "Today, no one ideal can capture the complexities of modern society, so should we expect that in a first lady?" (Heinz Kerry's controversial comment was not included in the tape provided for review; the tape was still being editing, according to PBS.)

The experts asked to weigh in on the matter range from Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barbara Bush, to journalist Katha Pollitt (The Nation) and historian Gil Troy (McGill University).

Troy responds to the narrator's question: "The gap between who Americans want to be and what they actually are is one that's very problematic for the first lady. Her life is rooted in the complicated realities of modern America, and yet for those four or eight years, there's a kind of demand that the first lady be perfect and the first family be this kind of ideal Father Knows Best family, rather than a more Simpsons-like family."

The style and substance of first ladies extending back to Eleanor Roosevelt are reviewed. The survey, though presented in a breezy manner, nevertheless has sociological bite. Viewers are reminded of John Kennedy's concern about the aristocratic persona of his wife, Jacqueline, suggested by his remark that she embodied "too much status and not enough quo."

Most compelling is the testimony from former first ladies themselves. Clinton acknowledges her retreat from thinking she could publicly be a full partner with her husband once she experienced the fierce resistance to her efforts to lead on health care reform. "I continued to work very hard on being involved in a wealth of issues, but doing it in a way that, you know, was more traditional," she says.

Barbara Bush said she shaped her image to avoid controversy.

Despite its strong points, The First Lady also has flaws. One of the silliest is the choice of Stockard Channing as host. "I'm Stockard Channing," she says. "I'm not a real first lady, of course, but I am First Lady Abigail Bartlet of The West Wing, so I do have some on-the-job experience."

Does PBS truly think that we have become so brain dead that we won't watch a show about first ladies on the eve of an election without a make-believe first lady to greet us at the top of the program?


What: The First Lady: Public Expectations, Private Lives.

Where: WETA, Channel 26.

When: Tonight at 11. (It also airs Wednesday at 9 p.m. on MPT, Channels 22 and 67).

In brief: A savvy look at the changing role of first lady.

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