First Women

9780062439659_p0_v3_s192x300Who doesn’t indulge in a little gossip now and then?  Kate Andersen Brower reveals the secrets of “The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies” in  First Women.  When I heard about this book on a morning news show, I downloaded the ebook, read the sample, and was hooked.

Not a biography like Jean Baker’s Mary Todd Lincoln or a soulful memoir like Laura Bush’s Spoken From the Heart, Brower’s book focuses on a small group of first ladies of a generation, from Jacqueline Kennedy to Michelle Obama, and connects them by making comparisons on their experiences, backgrounds, husbands, and personalities. Not one to avoid the snide comment, Brower throws in a few from staffers, but most of her “reporting” is respectful, as she offers an inside look to their lives as political wives and mothers.  Whether the conclusions she draws in her commentary are accurate or not seems irrelevant.

When you read a People magazine story, you expect exaggeration and a little nudging of the truth, none of which takes away from the fun of reading it, so my expectations for First Women were low. Yet, despite the gossipy tone, Brower manages to tap into the real person behind each persona, as she recalls poignant moments in their lives – some public, some private.  Although Brower cites pages of references and primary sources for each chapter, including White House staffers, most of her conclusions are drawn from observation and letters.

Chapter titles add to the trade fiction feel: “The Good Wife,” Keep Calm and Carry on,” “Supporting Actors,” “The Political Wife.”  Citing the dislike of one woman for another (Michelle Obama for Hillary Clinton), or the unlikely bonding of two women (Laura Bush and Michelle Obama) in the chapter titled “Bad Blood,” seems petty  – but has caught the attention of the media more than other parts of the book.

The book is long, going through chapters with titles carrying each woman through the beginnings of her husband’s political career to the ultimate “prize” – the White House. Most of the information is public, as Brower recounts important moments in each presidency, but the private revelations offer new perspectives on each woman.  And the album of pictures at the back of the book is worth a look, if only to see them in their forgotten younger days.

Rosalynn Carter, who comes across well in Brower’s dissection, noted:

“First ladies are bound together by having had the experience of living in the White House and all that involves, but I’m not sure we would call the relationship among first ladies a sisterhood.  About the only time we are ever together is when a new presidential library is established or for a funeral.”


Related Reviews:

The Washington Wives’ Book Club

Children’s books – “by women named Gingrich, Cheney, and Biden. Could this be an election year?”

Doesn’t take much to have a children’s book published lately – writing talent is not a prerequisite. In Pamela Paul’s article for the New York Times Book Review – The Washington Wives’ Book Club – the list of new bestselling authors married to politicians has exploded. No royalties for these scribners – profits usually go to charities (hopefully not politically connected).  Their reward is a modicum of respectable literacy (until you read the book in some cases).

Famous Americans writing children’s books is not new; Teddy Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge wrote Hero Tales From American History six years before Roosevelt became President. Today, some politicians’ wives consider writing a children’s book a perk of position. Lynne Cheney, when wife of the former vice president, wrote six children’s books, all exploring American history. Unfortunately, they all carried a skewed political view – unlike the classic children’s series by Jean Fritz who added humor to Paul Revere, Benjamin Franklin, and other American heroes, without the didactic underpinnings.

Carole Geithner (wife of the current Treasury Secretary), has a new book, and notes “I want people to read the book for the topic (a teenage girl coping with her mother’s death from cancer)… rather than an extension of {my husband’s} persona.” If she were serious about standing on her own, she would use a pseudonym; singer Julie Andrews writes under her less-known married name – Julie Edwards.

Children may be tolerant literary critics, but they are discriminating.   They are grateful to anyone who will sit and read a story; remember President George W. Bush’s reading of “The Pet Goat”?  But for a child to ask for the story to be read again, it better be a good one.

When I taught a course on children’s literature, at least half the students in the class had the dream of writing the next Charlotte’s Web – and often proffered their drafts to me in high hopes of getting published.  But writing good children’s literature is not as easy as it seems.  Regardless of quality, for the politically inclined, getting a byline is easier.

Not everyone can write a good children’s book, but these days anyone can get one published.