This article was published online on April 20, 2021.
Of the many images that lingered after the January inauguration of President Joe Biden—the twinkling hand gestures of the poet Amanda Gorman, the rakish eyebrow-waggling of the second daughter, Ella Emhoff—one of the more subtly significant was the scene of Doug Emhoff trying to figure out which side of his wife, Vice President Kamala Harris, to stand on. As the first and second couples moved to ascend the Capitol steps, Emhoff stood to her left; changed his mind and dashed to her right; then sort of bobbled, hesitating, before settling at her left. In an otherwise scripted and sober ceremony, the shuffle injected a spontaneous note as the second gentleman sought his place—not sure quite what that place was.
Welcome to the club, any number of women might have told him. Emhoff joined a long line of female political spouses who have struggled, in a larger sense, to figure out where they should be and what they should do. With a key difference: For wives, the choices have almost always elicited harrumphing from some quarter or another—as the ruckus over Dr. Jill Biden’s use of her well-earned honorific served to remind us. Emhoff’s little side step of uncertainty got raves. “It’s just so cute!” exclaimed Jessica Jones, a viewer who entertainingly narrated the viral moment on TikTok. And she’s right—it was.
As our vision of high-level political partnership gets a reboot (the first-ever first lady who’s not giving up her career, the first-ever second gentleman), it seems a good time to recall just how undefined the role of unelected spouse has been. We tend to date a modern shift to 1992, when Bill Clinton proposed a two-for-the-price-of-one presidency with Hillary. But the unpaid behind-the-scenes partner has been with us a long time, and the deal has never been straightforwardly feminist, as two new biographies of first ladies reveal.
In Lady Bird Johnson: Hiding in Plain Sight, Julia Sweig argues that for all her mid-century Betty Crocker flip curls, Bird (as her husband called her) had a “disarmingly modern” partnership with the president. She worked hard to be a “fully engaged participant” in Lyndon B. Johnson’s career, and while his biographers have rarely emphasized her centrality, Johnson himself certainly did. As did she: “Our presidency,” Lady Bird called it. In The Triumph of Nancy Reagan, the Washington Post columnist Karen Tumulty likewise invokes a teammate without whom her spouse would never have been governor of California, much less president of the United States. Tumulty makes the case that over the course of Ronald’s political career, Nancy “grew to understand her power.” Wielding their clout, the two first ladies could hardly be a greater study in contrasts—even as they shared a priority: vigilantly protecting their spouse above all, but also their own access and influence.
Born in 1912 and 1921, respectively, Lady Bird and Nancy both belonged to a generation sandwiched between two feminist movements. Both had lively, unconventional mothers who supported women’s suffrage—and yet both girls grew up during a time when second billing (or none) was a wife’s lot, even in the most collaborative marital enterprises. Young Claudia Alta Taylor, nicknamed Lady Bird by a nanny (or playmate—exactly who isn’t certain), was 5 when she lost her mother. The adventurous and well-read Minnie Taylor died after a fall while pregnant. Lady Bird—the youngest child and only daughter of a wealthy East Texas businessman—took refuge, Sweig writes, in a rich “inner life that taught her how to take emotional sustenance from nature and books.” An excellent student, she earned a history degree in 1933 from the University of Texas at Austin, in an era when only a small percentage of women graduated from college; she then spent a year completing a journalism degree. Lyndon Johnson, an up-and-coming congressional staffer, instantly sized her up as the sort of smart, capable partner who would push him and expand his prospects. He proposed at the end of their first date, then launched a full-court press until she yielded after 10 weeks. “The wife, your wife, is the most important asset you’ll have,” he declared.
For her part, Lady Bird discovered that marriage promised her broader horizons than the teaching job she had envisioned. With her family’s money as a seed investment, she helped build an empire of Texas media and business holdings. She also used her inheritance to finance Lyndon’s successful bid for a House seat in 1937 and, in the years following, helped cultivate what she termed “our political machine.” During World War II, when LBJ was on active duty in the Pacific, she ran his congressional office. After he ascended to the Senate in 1948, she became a force in the Senate Wives Club, a group of spouses who exercised a sort of soft power in postwar Washington’s political life. The city was well stocked with influential women. At a time when the National Press Club barred female reporters, the Women’s National Press Club provided a home for the city’s contingent. An extraordinary group of Black women helped propel the civil-rights movement. In this busy milieu, Lady Bird was, she said, “so happy being the wife of the senator from Texas.”
So happy was she—and so aware of how her husband would chafe at a subordinate role—that when John F. Kennedy drafted LBJ as his running mate in 1960, she made the case for not accepting. But like his other advisers, she bowed to the inevitability of saying yes and fully entered into the campaign. The former majority leader’s power shrank while Lady Bird’s official ambit expanded to include public appearances, both on the campaign trail, where she stood in for a pregnant Jackie Kennedy, and as second lady. In the stunned aftermath of the Kennedy assassination, she sought out Jackie: “I tried to express something of how we felt. I said, ‘Oh, Mrs. Kennedy, you know we never even wanted to be Vice President and now, dear God, it’s come to this.’ ”
It is startling to realize that, for the 14 months from November 1963 to January 1965, Lady Bird Johnson effectively was the vice president. LBJ, serving out JFK’s term, did not have a VP. Both Johnsons knew they had to “seize the momentum of the national tragedy” and rapidly push through a progressive agenda, which soon became known as the Great Society. Particularly involved in the War on Poverty, Lady Bird braved the consequences of the entire mission: The first presidential wife to act as a true surrogate, she made a whistle-stop tour of the South during the 1964 contest—not just his advocate, but his protector. “Let me take the tough ones,” she said, shouldering what was “arguably the hardest, most thankless, and personally riskiest task” of the campaign, Sweig writes, given the hate and outrage among many white southerners after the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
Still, tandem toil was one thing; staking out too much terrain for herself was another. In her East Wing policy shop, Lady Bird began to build a portfolio of environmental policies, working with Interior Secretary Stewart Udall. She brought Jane Jacobs to the White House, and conferred with other urban planners and environmental thinkers. But forswearing potentially polarizing talk of urban renewal and land stewardship, Lady Bird spoke of “beautification,” though she had mixed feelings about the word. “I’ll never forgive Lyndon’s boys for turning my environmental agenda into a beautification project,” she said. “But I went ahead and talked about wildflowers so as not to scare anybody, because I knew if the people came to love wildflowers they’d have to eventually care about the land that grew ’em.”
And behind her rightful insistence on we lay a more painful bargain. Lyndon Johnson belonged to a generation of men who regarded sex as a perk of power. Like any number of female Kennedys, like Coretta Scott King, like the Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, and like others then (and since), Lady Bird suffered the humiliation of her husband’s flagrant infidelity. Sweig posits that she coped with the insecurity by making herself “increasingly indispensable.” LBJ struggled with depression—Lady Bird called it the “Valley of the Black Pig,” quoting Yeats—and more so as the Vietnam War took an immense psychological toll. She shored up his self-doubt and rallied his spirits—and her own. (Who else was going to take care of her? So she swam laps and hiked.) She listened, and she empathized with his agonized decisions. She shared his belief in American exceptionalism and defended his policies, digging in as protesters challenged the escalation of the war.
For Nancy Reagan, we meant a combative us-against-them partnership that betrayed a different kind of insecurity, Tumulty’s biography suggests. Nancy’s mother, Edie Davis, was a stage actor whose glamorous social life included Spencer Tracy and Mary Martin. Worldly and colorful, even late in life, Edie was not above using a word like cocksucker (in this case, to describe Barry Goldwater). She and Nancy’s feckless biological father had effectively separated before their daughter was born; in early girlhood, Nancy was lodged with an aunt and uncle while her mother sought gigs. Nancy longed for a more conventional home life. “I always wanted someone to take care of me, someone I could take care of,” she said, a yearning fulfilled when she met Ronnie, in 1949. “I had a career when I got married and very gladly gave it up,” she later explained, referring to her own brief foray into acting. “I think a woman’s real happiness and fulfillment is found in her home.”
But Nancy had no appetite for cozy calm in the White House. Unlike her conflict-averse husband, she played the ruthless enforcer, conducting feuds and engineering firings. Her motivation was not to expand her own portfolio: She wanted only to promote her husband’s “well-being and success,” ferociously tending him and his image. Tumulty calls theirs an “epic love” story, an observation confirmed by the eyewitness accounts of many. But one might also diagnose a codependent partnership between two people who felt abandoned in childhood—Reagan’s father was an alcoholic—and formed a profoundly anxious attachment. They hated to spend nights apart, and famously (or infamously) called each other Mommie and Daddy. Ronnie affirmed her through flirtatious quips and love letters; her love language was acts of service, chief among them the act of protection.
For all her devotion (including, or especially, when he developed Alzheimer’s disease), Nancy emerges in the biography as a disruptive force, to put it mildly, in the political life they shared, particularly on staffing matters. She was quick to suspect that aides might be serving their own interests before his—and she wasn’t always wrong. When she called his campaign office early on, one operator said, “The bitch is on the phone again.” In the margins of my copy, I began tracking all the people she set herself against. “She doesn’t really like dealing with women,” White House Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver noted, in an understatement. My marginalia included “NR v Helene von Damm” (Reagan’s secretary in California, who rose to become a diplomat and considered Nancy a “schemer”), “NR v Betty Ford,” “NR v Barbara Bush,” “NR v Raisa Gorbachev” (“an instant loathing”), “NR v Barbara Sinatra.” Then again, she didn’t really like dealing with many men: “NR v Ed Meese,” “NR v William Clark,” “NR v James Watt,” “NR v Al Haig,” “NR v Pat Buchanan.” At varying times, she clashed with Ronnie’s children from his first marriage—Michael and Maureen—and with theirs, Patti and Ron. (“You had to be wary of her,” Ron said.) Some staffers, like James Baker, understood her influence and made a point of getting along. Deaver did, too—as deputy chief of staff in the governor’s office, he had been tasked with what his colleagues called the “Mommy Watch,” charged with keeping her away from others.
And then there was “NR v Donald Regan,” the White House chief of staff she managed to oust after much mutual combat. He exacted revenge with a bombshell memoir revealing the extent to which the White House schedule was dictated by astrology. Regan, it emerged, had been obliged to devise a color-coded calendar signaling “good days” (green) and “bad ones” (red) for trips and meetings—based on consultations Nancy conducted with a San Francisco stargazer. (There was also yellow, for “iffy” ones.) Astrology was a compulsion, and the attempted assassination of her husband traumatized her, understandably, leading to even more hypervigilance. “I’m so scared,” she said. “I cringe every time we step out of a car.” The irony, as Tumulty points out, is that in allowing the president’s schedule to be determined by an unseen stranger who would know his movements, she left him more exposed, not less.
Nancy’s wary nature did have its upsides, which Tumulty emphasizes. During Reagan’s second term, she saw the peril posed by the Iran-Contra scandal and hectored a stubbornly resistant Ronnie until, in a crucial speech to the American public, he admitted to the arms-for-hostages deal, and to his own mistake. Like Lady Bird, Nancy served as a mood regulator: She knew how well Reagan could perform when confident and relaxed, and her presence improved his performance. Tumulty credits her with appreciating the full potential of his powers of persuasion, and pushing him to negotiate with Mikhail Gorbachev to end the Cold War. As The Washington Post’s White House correspondent during the Reagan years, Lou Cannon, notes in a biography of the president, for all her talent for turmoil, Nancy “became a force for peace within the White House.”
Tumulty writes about the “power that comes with intimacy”—the influence of the companion who is there in moments public and private, high and low—and some of the most arresting scenes in both books capture drama unfolding in pajamas, or not even. On Election Night 1980, Nancy was taking a bath, not expecting the race to be called before the polls closed in California. Suddenly, it was. She wrapped a towel around herself and got Ronnie out of the shower; dripping, they both stood watching TV as the news sank in that he had won in a landslide. During the Vietnam War, Lady Bird woke to hear President Johnson talking to himself in the early-morning darkness. She recalled his sleepless musings in her diary: “I don’t want to get in a war and I don’t see any way out of it. I’ve got to call up 6,000 boys, make them leave their homes and their families.” She doubted that others understood “the depth of his pain.”
For all their differences, what Lady Bird and Nancy shared—and Michelle Obama later struck the same note—was an abiding concern for the president’s well-being and very life. They witnessed the mortal pressures on what Nancy called the “flesh-and-blood person.” Both kept close watch on sleep, diet, and mental and emotional states—a wifely role, you could say, but is it? Someday, a first gentleman will be called upon to match that care and dedication. The woman who becomes president will bear the usual burdens of the office, plus an added weight: In public life, men are not the lightning rod women are. They just aren’t. So let the man use his privilege to shield and protect the woman, an old role deployed for a modern purpose. If the current second gentleman, or a future first one, wants advice on how to do it, and how not to, he has plenty of history to consult.
This article appears in the May 2021 print edition with the headline “The Power of the First Lady.”