Former first ladies, children share insight into life in the White House

Jordan Rudner

On his first night in the White House, just a week after President Nixon’s unprecedented resignation from office, Steven Ford, Gerald Ford’s then 18-year-old son, sneaked his stereo onto the roof of the White House so that he could blast Led Zeppelin. Former first lady Laura Bush would have made a different selection. Her daughter, Barbara Bush, said the 43rd president’s wife is more of a Bob Marley fan.

Jenna Bush Hager, Barbara Bush’s twin sister and daughter of President George W. Bush and Laura Bush, said her mother’s musical preferences serve as just one of the many sides to her personality the media rarely portrayed.

“I think people thought of our mom as kind of a cookie-cutter mother, because it’s much easier to see people as one-dimensional,” Hager said. “She’s a very strong lady. She just happens not to shout.”

Candid revelations about musical preferences were just a few of the personal anecdotes that surfaced at “The Enduring Legacies of America’s First Ladies,” an event hosted Friday by the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library. The event featured three generations of women in the Bush family as well as Steven Ford, Lynda Johnson Robb, President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s daughter and several former White House staffers.

Speakers examined the role of the first lady, a position that former Clinton press secretary Dee Dee Myers said changes with each new administration.

Ford said a major component of his mother’s legacy was the way she brought her personal struggles with breast cancer and alcoholism to public attention.

“The moment she raised her hand and said, ‘My name is Betty, and I’m an alcoholic,’ she changed the stereotypes about the nature of the disease,” Ford said.

Barbara Bush described one of her mother’s roles as “comforter-in-chief” in the days following 9/11.

Laura Bush said this role as comforter was instinctive.

“I myself wanted the comfort of my mother’s voice,” Laura Bush said. “I knew kids everywhere would want that.”

Although both Barbara Bush and Ford highlighted events specific to their mother’s personal lives and events that occurred during their husband’s administrations, certain aspects of the first lady position remain constant. Lisa Caputo, Hillary Clinton’s former press secretary, said Clinton took a very public role in working with her husband on his health care initiatives and welfare reform, but she was not the first first lady to work with policy issues.

“[Clinton] was the first first lady to have an office in the West Wing,” Caputo said. “We were very up front about the fact that she was going to play a policy role and be an advisor to her husband, but in reality, we look throughout history and practically all first ladies have had a role in influencing policy. It just wasn’t at the forefront.”

Printed on Friday, November 16, 2012 as: Presidents' families share insights on first lady's public, personal role