Laura Bush: Bitch or Victim?

The May 9 Wall Street Journal reports that President Bush is scrambling to find $30 million for the “Save America’s Treasures” program, which subsidizes local historic preservation. Dubya had initially proposed terminating the program, which had been embraced by Hillary Clinton when she was first lady. But now Hillary’s successor has embraced the program, too, and so Bush is trying to persuade Congress to let it live. This appears to be the first documented instance in which Laura Bush has influenced federal policy-making. It is therefore the first bit of evidence for the news media to weigh as it considers whether Laura Bush is a bitch or a victim.

In putting the choice so starkly, Chatterbox intends no disrespect toward Mrs. Bush, who seems from a distance to be a nice and reasonably well-adjusted person. Rather, Chatterbox is recognizing the press’s unattractive tendency to caricature and pigeonhole first ladies. We start with the fact that fulfilling the hoary role of unpaid hostess/mother figure to a modern nation is inherently stressful. Judith Shulevitz, Margaret Talbot, and Mrs. Chatterbox (here and here) have all described vividly the ways in which the office of first lady has become a torture chamber. All three writers recommend that the anachronistic tradition of making the president’s wife “first lady,” as opposed to letting her enjoy a separate and private existence, be done away with. (Actually, Shulevitz recommends that the government provide the first ladies tranquilizers free of charge, but she’s being Swiftian.) Within the wider press corps, too, there’s a similar consensus that the first lady tradition doesn’t jibe with contemporary life. Most reporters aren’t permitted to say so, however, because that would be “editorializing.” But neither are they permitted to show deference to the first ladies themselves because that would be buying into an anti-feminist value system. So what they do is pummel, behind a transparently insincere veil of deference, whoever happens to be first lady at the time. (British tabloids do something similar with the royals, though in that case the veil is now threadbare, and the inevitable collapse of the archaic institution seems closer at hand.) The accepted method to beat up first ladies is to categorize them as bitches or victims.

First ladies who respond to the stress of being first lady by becoming ever so slightly more cranky or assertive than would otherwise be the case get tagged bitches. (The term itself, and similarly harsh ones like “harpy” and “Lady Macbeth,” are taboo, but the concepts are not. The same goes for “victim.”) Thus Nancy Reagan and, to a lesser extent, Rosalynn Carter. When reporters used to call Rosalynn a “steel magnolia,” that was code for “bitch.” First ladies who have (Hillary Clinton) or develop (Eleanor Roosevelt) ambitious social-policy agendas of their own also wind up in the bitch column. As the accompanying historical chart shows, during the past quarter century there has been a marked trend away from victims and toward bitches. Chatterbox sees this as mild progress, though best of all would be for the whole demeaning process to disappear.

Victims had a long run starting in the late 1940s. Indeed, even Eleanor Roosevelt, a championship bitch, started out a victim crippled by low self-esteem and jealous rage toward her husband’s lover, Lucy Mercer. (This is all retrospective pigeonholing, since little of this was widely known during her lifetime.) There followed the shy Bess Truman (probably the happiest of the victims), the alcoholic Mamie Eisenhower, and the whispery and vulnerable Jackie Kennedy, whose husband victimized her by committing serial adultery and, ultimately, getting assassinated. When Jackie married the aging Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis for the money and security he could give her, she morphed into a bitch. After Onassis’ death, though, the twice-widowed Jackie O. once again took her first husband’s name and re-established herself as a victim, albeit an unusually glamorous one. Lady Bird was a victim by virtue of the simple fact that she married the most overbearing man to occupy the White House during the 20th century (with the exception of Teddy Roosevelt). Pat Nixon was the greatest victim of the post-war era, and probably the greatest victim since Mary Todd Lincoln, marking perhaps the only similarity between America’s worst and greatest presidents. Pat despised being a politician’s wife; Dick promised he’d give it up; and then he made her first lady, subjecting her to national disgrace in the bargain. Betty Ford was initially viewed as a jolly bitch, assertive and modern in a 1970s sort of way, and only later emerged as an addict/victim. Barbara Bush was, and remains, beloved as a warm and motherly victim who watched her hair turn prematurely white and suffered depression in silence (too risky for a politician’s wife to seek treatment). Though there’s a significant minority that maintains that Barbara is really an under-the-radar “rhymes with rich” (which is how she once described Geraldine Ferraro).

Laura Bush’s power play on historic preservation tilts her toward the bitch column, but only very slightly because tradition dictates that first ladies are supposed to promote girly causes like literacy and beautification. Indeed, if they don’t, they risk being labeled as bitches! As a former librarian, Laura is likely to be viewed by the public more as bespectacled victim than bitch (though this stereotype doesn’t have much allure for Chatterbox, who in his time has encountered more than a few tyrannical librarians). Suffering through Dubya’s extended adolescence, which officially ended on his 40th birthday, and unofficially continues unabated, would seem to qualify Laura as victim, as does her endurance of whatever degree of substance abuse the president engaged in during that period. On the other hand, Laura’s rumored insistence that the drinking Dubya straighten up and fly right or else she’d leave him makes her look like a fierce mama bear, which, however admirable, may translate for some into “bitch.” On yet another hand, unless Chatterbox has somehow missed them, no anecdotes have thus far emerged about the first lady throwing any kind of hissy fit–a crucial prerequisite to winning the badge of “bitch.” At the same time, “the first lady is a bitch” stories are much easier for journalists to write than “the first lady is a victim” stories because the latter usually require a tearful sit-down interview with the victim herself. So expect at least a scattering of bitch stories about Laura Bush, even if history’s final judgment is that she’s really a victim.

Photograph of Laura and George Bush on the Slate Table of Contents by Larry Downing/Reuters.