Amid the paroxysm of gasping that gripped the nation this week when Michelle Obama told "CBS This Morning" co-host Gayle King that she's not "some angry black woman," political pundits may have lost some historical perspective. Exhibit A: their breathless discussion of the ‘salacious' details in Jodi Kantor's recently released chronicle of the First Couple, The Obamas. It's understandable that everyone's a little giddy about the book — reports of lavish Alice in Wonderland fetes and simmering conflict between the First Lady and prominent White House staffers is for TV's talking heads what a weekend run on the out-of-town parents' liquor cabinet and a lunchroom break up is to middle schoolers. Liza Mundy, however, in her review of Kantor's book, puts the revelations about Michelle Obama in perspective. She writes,
In the annals of irregularities that first ladies have been justly or unjustly accused of, sparring with a chief of staff, particularly one as combative as Rahm Emanuel, hardly registers as shocking or unexpected.
Reports of contention with Emanuel hardly seem egregious because, well, with those dark circles around his eyes he looks like a Batman villain who cleverly infiltrated the White House in order to distribute school lunch vouchers for deep dish pizza with the aim of sabotaging Michelle Obama's efforts to fight childhood obesity. Mundy goes on to explain that more scandalous First Ladies have waded into the running current of American history and that Michelle Obama's boisterous tête-à-têtes with White House staffers are hardly the stuff of legendary gossip. In an effort, therefore, to recalibrate the national dialogue about the embattled First Lady, we've compiled a handy guide to some of the country's most gossiped about First Ladies, who, fairly or not, drew scandalized whispers from contemporary observers.
Julia Tyler, 1844-1845
At 54, John Tyler was the first president to marry while in office after his first wife, Letitia Tyler, died in 1842. His second wife, Julia Tyler, was only 24 when she became First Lady and immediately impressed on everyone how youthful and gorgeous she was compared to her Ichabod Crane-like husband by mass-distributing an engraving of her portrait. She also insisted on reminding John Tyler of his waning vitality by calling herself "The President's Bride" and promenaded around the capital in a super-fancy coach pulled by a team of eight matching white Arabian horses.
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SSarah Polk, 1845-1849
For those critics who threw I-wasn't-invited tantrums decrying the Roman decadence of the Obamas' Halloween party, Sarah Polk serves as the paragon of First Lady prudence. Though respected for her intelligence and charm, Polk was a devout Presbyterian and her White House parties were notoriously dry, mirthless affairs because she'd banned liquor and dancing.
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Mary Todd Lincoln, 1861-1865
Historians have pointed to Mary Todd Lincoln's lavish spending — she overspent her federal appropriation of 20,000 antebellum dollars by $6,000 on expensive clothes and a White House redecoration — as evidence of the severe depression, anxiety, and paranoia that most likely plagued the First Lady throughout her tenure. In addition to her supposed psychological afflictions, her years in the White House were dimmed by personal tragedy and unrelenting public criticism. She was reviled by Northerners because of her family's Confederate allegiance and accused by Southerners of being a traitor to the Confederacy for her marriage to Lincoln; in 1862 her son Willie died suddenly; and in 1863 she fell from a carriage and was summarily knocked unconscious. Oh, and her husband was brutally murdered while she was attending a play with him, probably thinking serenely to herself, "It's nice to get to the theater to forget about all the awful shit that's happened to me."
Eleanor Roosevelt, 1933-1945
During a tenure that was long even by monarchical standards (12 years and 1 month for anyone who also thinks math is for losers), Eleanor Roosevelt defied Southern Democrats by championing civil rights, wrote several newspaper and magazine columns, and held women-only press conferences. She also, according to scholars and the ornery grandmother from Wedding Crashers, scissored kind of a lot with reporter and close friend Lorena Hickok. When Roosevelt and Hickok's personal correspondence was made public, what had been considered a close, occasional spooning-after-a-few-bottles-of-wine relationship assumed more Sapphic dimensions with lines like this from the First Lady: "I want to put my arms around you & kiss you at the corner of your mouth." Just the corner? It seems like all you'd get with a corner kiss is, I don't know, crumbs? That little glaze of maple syrup that never goes away when you eat pancakes for breakfast? Ew (and maybe a little bit yum).
Jackie Kennedy, 1961-1963
Jackie Kennedy's time as First Lady has all the makings of a great gossip column — a husband who had an alleged affair with a movie star, glamorous appearances on television, and awesome clothes. Though she projected an image of "lovely inconsequence" — which historian Arthur Schlesinger says she feigned because she was a crafty lady — she often gave incisive assessments of political opponents her husband faced and sketched designs for her own clothes as First Lady that became so popular that her sense of fashion still seems like its own distinct brand.
Nancy Reagan, 1981-1989
After the 1981 assassination attempt on Ronald ‘Sturdiest Hairdo Ever' Reagan, Nancy Reagan assumed the role of her husband's protector, careful shepherding him through his duties as commander-in-chief with the help, according to jilted Chief of Staff William Safire's memoirs, of an astrologer. To be fair, I can't help sneaking a peek at the daily forecast and sometimes it proves insightful, comforting even, when I gaze into the chasm of a future eager to swallow me whole. Then I realize that the horoscopes are right under the comics and think, "God damn, I bet the 80's were a crazy time to be an adult."
National First Ladies Library [Official Site]
Jodie Kantor's New Book ‘The Obamas': Tensions Between Michelle and the White House and More [Daily Beast]