First Ladies and Their Husbands
Last week’s New York Times Magazine featured an essay on the Obamas’ marriage.
“It’s modern,” announced the cover.
Well, yes and no.
I have been writing about three presidential couples: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt; Woodrow and Ellen Wilson; Woodrow and Edith Wilson.
The Obamas are not so very different from their White House predecessors of a hundred years ago.
Michelle Obama speaks out on health care reform, mulls over Supreme Court nominees, and consults with her husband on personnel and public opinion.
Ellen Wilson lobbied for urban renewal (the first First Lady to work with Congress on legislation). She advised her husband on his Cabinet choices. And she prompted him to socialize with members of the opposite party, and arranged for him to meet a Democratic leader whose support would prove crucial during the nominating convention.
“The Obamas mix politics and romance in a way that no first couple quite have before,” according to the New York Times.
After Ellen Wilson’d death, Woodrow Wilson met and married Edith Galt, a Washington widow. Their courtship and marriage was widely reported in the press. A few months after the wedding, reporters noted that the Wilsons were “still on their honeymoon.”
Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt were, like the Obamas, like “a pair of heads of state,” each with their own constituencies and concerns.
Then, as now, reporters wrote about “First Marriages,” usually in glowing terms. Michelle Obama is different in this regard: “The image of a flawless relationship is ‘the last thing that we want to project,’” she said.
She wants the “ups and downs” in their marriage to be on the record, to “help young couples … realize that good marriages take work.”
I want to put the ups and downs of those three other marriages on the record, too. Eleanor Roosevelt and Ellen Wilson had to reconcile with husbands who were drawn to other women. ER and Edith Wilson had to cope with husbands who were disabled.
Each woman was able to meet these challenges in part because she saw her husband’s work as larger than either of them. Michelle clearly has the same attitude.
That’s neither modern nor traditional. It’s necessary.