WASHINGTON — Not surprisingly, Barbara Bush said it most succinctly: “The first lady is going to be criticized no matter what she does.”
One needn't prod Michelle Obama for confirmation — or most any other first lady in history. There is no “just right” in this, shall we say, “Goldilockean Proviso.” Anything is either too much or too little.
A review of first lady comments posted on The National First Ladies' Library website (www.firstladies.org/biographies) further confirms the difficulties faced by the wives of presidents. Mrs. Obama is but the latest to the challenge. A common thread suggests that more than a few disliked the role but accepted it as a duty.
Mary Todd Lincoln, politically sophisticated and well read, left little to speculation: “I do not belong to the public; my character is wholly domestic, and the public have nothing to do with it.” Others further down the line were unapologetic in their contempt for the mixed blessing of first lady.
Thus, anyone who criticized Mrs. Obama for saying she sometimes fantasizes that she'll “walk right out the front door and just keep walking” doesn't know much about first lady history. They were invariably tough, smart women who sought to find a way to reconcile their own true selves with the demands of public expectation. Like Mrs. Obama, all longed for the privacy to just be oneself.
In recent years, as politics have become more broadly partisan and women have assumed more prominent roles, first ladies have become fairer game in the maelstrom we call the public square. Hillary Clinton infamously set off bonfires of inanities with her now innocuous-sounding remark that she was not “some little woman, standing by my man like Tammy Wynette.” Or that she wasn't one to stay home and bake cookies.
Au contraire, as it turns out. Hillary could teach Tammy a thing or two about family loyalty, and she was hardly the first to eschew the kitchen. Sarah Polk proclaimed in the mid-1880s: “If I get into the White House, I will neither keep house nor make butter.”