Advice from first lady to first lady

Published Jan. 18, 2001|Updated Sept. 7, 2005

Dear Laura,

Forgive my familiarity, but starting Saturday we're members of the same tiny sorority, of women who know what it's like to occupy the crown jewel of the federal prison system at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

You're probably thinking that you and I have nothing in common. According to Monday's New York Times, you're Mamie Eisenhower reincarnated, and this is not (to say the least) the rep I've earned in eight years in the White House. But I thought I'd leave you a note anyway, offering what little advice I can.

I honestly hope you get away with the Little-Woman gambit. You're very, very good at it, and that hide-in-plain-sight strategy is probably the only prayer you have of passing the next four years with even a morsel of privacy. Can you believe it took me almost eight years to figure that out? I congratulate you for understanding from the git that trying to modernize the role of first lady is a doomed enterprise. Just wear the freakin' costume when you have to, and get on with your life behind the scenes.

Well, you already know a lot about this hell from being a governor's wife. Choosing Christmas cards in February, giving the world's blandest speeches, wearing those clothes.

You can't win here, honey, so don't even try. Someone somewhere is going to be saying something brutal about your looks, your hair, your legs, your suits, 24-seven. But do muzzle _ or better yet, ditch _ your designer, dear. Whatsisname, Faircloth? There he was dishing to the Times about the awful purple suit you wore when you came to see me at the White House, and about your "more hourglass figure," and about how he'd "like the overall silhouette to be a little more subtle, contemporary." Trust me, babe, a guy who calls you a fat hick in the newspaper of record is a guy you want to dump. Better talents will be busting to make your clothes, and even (if you're clever) to give them to you free. That's one of the perks, and you should run with it.

The main thing: I know your line is I-don't-do-policy and all that. It's a smart way to play it. But I sure hope you don't mean it. From here on in, you are the only person on the planet who has your husband's best interest at heart, and your job is to watch his back. Yeah, I know, your husband is surrounded by fierce loyalists, and blah blah blah. But when Karl Rove and Dick Cheney are fighting for alpha-dog status, stalking each other through the Oval Office with their daggers out, do you really think they're going to care if George gets nicked? Uh-uh. From now on your guy is a package, a thing, an object the whole world wants to use.

And it's all very well to think that your role can be confined to pillow talk _ I'll just weigh in on early Head Start some night when we're eating off trays in the family quarters _ but it really doesn't work that way. This is what no one gets about the job. The coverage always emphasizes the different ways Nancy Reagan did it, or Barbara Bush did it, or Rosalynn Carter did it. Reporters waste a lot of time trying to figure out: Is she really pro-choice? Did she have a role in persuading him to intervene in Fredonia? And all of that coverage is wrong. Every first lady does the same job, which is: Instill fear, early and often. It's not about promoting her own causes. It's about being there to tip the scales when POTUS is too overwhelmed to see his own interest clearly. It's about slapping down the ambitious, picking off the indiscreet, spotting the self-promoter. The sooner all those hacks and courtiers start to think of you as She Who Must Be Obeyed, the better the job you're doing. Throw a few early, strategic hissy fits. Convene a symbolic firing squad the first time someone blabs to Woodward. (You know what Voltaire said: You need to kill an admiral from time to time, to encourage the others.) You want to be a generic terror.

Some couples do the tag-team more consciously than others (your in-laws come to mind as pretty slick practitioners of this game), and in some, the wife has to pick up the slack on her own initiative (think Nancy Reagan and, for different reasons, yours truly). If your husband's the man I think he is (um, how do I say this tactfully?), you'll probably have to be something of a self-starter. But you seem to have the brains and the spine for it.

I don't envy you. Fencing with Trent Lott looks like summer vacation to me, after eight years in the White House. But I wish you luck with it.

Sincerely, HRC

Marjorie Williams is a columnist for the Washington Post.

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