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First Ladies and the Press: The Unfinished Partnership for the Media Age.

First Ladies and the Press: The Unfinished Partnership for the Media Age. By Maurine H. Beasley. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2005. 335 pp.

With a prescient tone, Maurine H. Beasley cautions the reader to handle the role of first lady carefully, as it may be a training ground for future presidents. This book gives the reader a comprehensive look at the love-hate relationship that first ladies have endured with the press, which has often limited their sphere of influence by imposing stereotypical ideas of what an American woman should be.

Exquisitely written, First Ladies and the Press begins with Eleanor Roosevelt's relationship with the "newspaper girls." In Chapter 2, Beasley reviews the public and private spheres that first ladies have had to carefully manage. Chapter 3 explores Jackie Kennedy and her deft construction of Camelot. First Ladies Lady Bird Johnson and Par Nixon as noncontroversial helpmates is the subject of Chapter 4. Chapter 5 examines the feminism exhibited by Rosalynn Carter and Betty Ford, while the following chapter demonstrates how Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush were both hindered and helped with attempts at image making. Hillary Rodham Clinton's polarizing effect in the media is addressed in Chapter 7, while Chapter 8 describes the press's portrayal of Laura Bush's nurturing persona after September 11, 2001. Beasley concludes by reviewing some of the most significant women in politics and how the press has covered them; she then contemplates the press coverage of potential female presidential candidates and how the press first needs to get the coverage of a first lady--or gentleman--in step with the modern political partnerships of our times.

Eleanor Roosevelt gave a voice to the office of the first lady long before the celebrity-crazed culture of today. Roosevelt had an instinct about the type of information the public craved, and she was right: the public had an almost insatiable curiosity about the first family. She held the first press conference of any first lady and, by doing so, raised the profile of the office and the role of women. As Beasley so aptly observes, "Eleanor Roosevelt's lengthy presence in the White House still casts a long shadow over those who have followed her" (p. 25).

The brief review of first ladies and their relationships with the press notes that these women "found" themselves in the public eye, even though it was their husband who was elected to office. The press scrutinized Mrs. Washington and grappled with what to call the president's wife, settling on "Lady Washington." Although Abigail Adams was forthright and Dolly Madison exhibited social graces, Elizabeth Monroe apparently stayed away from Washington as much as she could, and Louisa Adams retreated from the public eye because of ill health.

In the 1960s, Jackie Kennedy's media savvy construction of Camelot presented an idealized look at American family life with her attractive, young family. Beasley's e-mail correspondence with Letitia Baldrige, who served as social secretary to Mrs. Kennedy, offers fresh insights. Lady Bird Johnson and Pat Nixon as political helpmates were sharp contrasts to the sophisticated, worldly Jackie Kennedy. These first ladies largely perpetuated the "prevailing wife culture" (p. 89), although Johnson's efforts at promoting beautification brought her recognition. Beasley notes that both Betty Ford and Rosalynn Carter were ranked higher than their husbands for their White House performances. Nancy Reagan, however, observed that she had "won the unpopularity contest hands down" (p. 172). Although Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush were contrasts in style, they were expert image makers during their time in the White House. Barbara Bush's image as a "no-nonsense wife and mother" (p. 193) appealed to many in the American public. Hillary Rodham Clinton as a media polarizer achieved "firsts" as a first lady that were both "emblematic of achievements for women and fraught with embarrassment" (p. 201). The final chapter speculates that a male presidential spouse might be called simply that--spouse--and that the "White House Office of the First Lady" could be renamed the "Office of the Spouse" (p. 257).

First Ladies and the Press would be a great text for courses in journalism, politics, and women's studies. Among its strengths is that it chronicles the tension that the press has shown in its coverage of women as they have achieved more public power. The volume is more than a look at first ladies in the press. It also puts the press on notice that the media coverage of the first spouse--who soon may not be a woman--must change to reflect the expanding role of women and power in the United States.

--Nichola D. Gutgold

Pennsylvania State University, Lehigh Valley Campus
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Author:Gutgold, Nichola D.
Publication:Presidential Studies Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2007
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