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Why I Hate First Ladies

By Richard Reeves

LOS ANGELES -- I hate first ladies. Well, not personally. I mean I hate the idea of first ladydom. And I will hate the first, first gentleman, too.

Why should I care what Laura Bush thinks? Who elected her?

Benjamin Franklin, leaving the Constitutional Convention in 1787, was asked, "Well, Doctor, what have we got -- a republic or a monarchy?"

"A republic, if you can keep it," answered the great man.

I'd like to keep it. Republics need citizens and representatives. Spouses are not mentioned in the document Franklin helped write.

What set me off this time was Rudy Giuliani telling Barbara Walters, a real first lady, that if he is elected president, he will let his wife sit in on Cabinet meetings. C'mon, Jimmy Carter did that, and look where it got him -- and us.

(Mrs. Giuliani, Judith Nathan, incidentally, is a smart lady who can do no wrong with me. She won me over last Christmas, when The New York Times reported that she had given her husband a copy of my book, "President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination.")

I believe in family, marriage and pillow talk, although I do think that no one ever knows what is really going on in a marriage, even if you're in it. What I don't like in American politics is the exploitation of family and assertions of "family values."

The reason we talk about family values so much is that we don't have them. Americans are the only people I know who raise their children to leave the nest. Face it: We value individualism and freedom over family, tribe or personal obligation. In countries with real family values, India or Italy, for example, people don't have to talk about it all the time.

There is, of course, nothing new about spouse-power in the White House. Abigail Adams was there to tell her husband, John, not to forget the ladies. Dolley Madison saved Gilbert Stuart's painting of George Washington and important state papers when British troops set fire to the White House in 1814.

Edith Wilson executed the only successful coup d'etat in American history, governing secretly after her husband, Woodrow Wilson, suffered a debilitating stroke in 1919. Eleanor Roosevelt was Eleanor Roosevelt, God bless her. Nancy Reagan worked in private -- pillow talk -- to take positions outside President Reagan's comfort zone and to try to make him stop listening to aides who had agendas she believed were different from those of her guy, Ronnie. Hillary Clinton screwed up chances to get universal health care while her husband was president in 1991.

So it goes. But it shouldn't always be that way. A spouse or a brother or children are inevitably part of any presidency, but I prefer the ones who deal with that at home. They obviously have the president's ear and can act as the chief's eyes and ears in places he can't go. Their most valuable contribution is quiet counsel involving personnel. Wives (and husbands) have a nose for smelling disloyalty and usually have only one constituency, the president. That's good.

What's bad is the monarchy Franklin feared so long ago. The Clintons introduced the two-for-one presidency -- not a good idea. Many of Bill Clinton's men and women kept truth away from the boss because they were afraid to cross the queen. If we want a queen, we should choose Helen Mirren.

For the moment, the 2008 presidential campaign debate is too first-spouse heavy. Judith Nathan will be answering questions now instead of her husband, the candidate. Pundits are defining John Edwards' candidacy by the tragic reappearance of Elizabeth Edwards' cancer. Mitt Romney will have to defend or persuasively explain the old Mormon tradition of polygamy.

Then there is the prince consort himself, former President Bill Clinton. Hillary, in my mind, has redeemed and totally validated herself by being elected twice to represent New York state in the halls of the republic. But others are convinced (foolishly) that she takes orders from her mate. I doubt that. Advice is not orders, and there is no candidate who would not take Bill's counsel if offered.

A spouse's place in public policy should be inside the White House, or working on their own lives and careers, like Cherie Blair or Dennis Thatcher in England -- or Stockard Channing in "The West Wing." We have, as Lyndon Johnson said when the going got real rough, only one president at the time. Let the president be the president, and forget about the relatives, always a mixed bunch.

Copyright 2007 Universal Press Syndicate

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