Dolly Madison, wife of the fourth president of the United States, James Madison, served as First Lady from 1809-1817. She is famous even now for her political savvy, social grace, and tireless hospitality.
For most of this nation’s history these last two attributes – social grace and hospitality in a First Lady – were considered icing on the cake. Nice if you can get them, but not in any way important. In fact, the term “First Lady” is itself something of an anachronism – it persists for reasons of tradition and the lack of something clearly better. Moreover in a time when women in many ways outstrip men, the very idea that the first function of a First Lady is to support her husband smacks of condescension.
But is it out of line or politically incorrect to insist that along with the privileges of being a First Lady, come responsibilities? Is it out of line or politically incorrect to insist that among these responsibilities is lightening the president’s load, making him better at what he does, supporting him politically as well as personally where he most needs it?
Not very First Lady is exemplary. In recent American history various First Ladies – Jacqueline Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson, Pat Nixon, Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush – had their different strengths and weaknesses. Some were memorably effective, others eminently forgettable. The point is that the best among them were those who complemented their husbands – and compensated for their weaknesses.
This brings me to Michelle Obama. She is in several ways a standout. She is consistently ranked among America’s most admired women. She has become an icon of style – her hair, her attire, and the shape of her body all objects to be emulated. And she has devoted herself to good causes, most prominently military families, healthy eating, and childhood obesity. Additionally, from all we can tell she and her husband are deeply devoted to each other, and to their two daughters, and to traditional family values. So what’s to complain about?
This brings me to what Ms. Obama is not. She is not a First Lady who compensates for her husband’s glaring political weakness – introversion, a deep reluctance to be social for the sake of political expediency. (See my earlier blog, “The High Price of Social Distance.”) I recognize that there is debate about how important it is for presents to be inter-personally skilled, to be ingratiating, and to extend themselves to other political players, at home and abroad. But my own position is now and has long been clear. (See my earlier book, The Political Presidency: Practice of Leadership.) I have always thought that given America’s political culture and structure, in order for presidents successfully to lead they would have to be personally as well as political persuasive. This has always been true and, given the exigencies of leadership in the 21st century, it is now even more powerful a point.
Trouble is that neither Barack nor Michelle Obama seems to understand this. They are now what they always were: outsiders in Washington, in spite of their having resided in the White House now for over five years. The president never was disposed to chew the fat with fellow politicians, or to play golf with other than his own buddies. And the First Lady never was disposed to play the role of Dolly Madison, to use the White House as a resource, to play the part of hostess, even if for the sole purpose of being politically as well as personally supportive of her husband.
What’s involved is a two step process. Step number one is for husband and wife, president and First Lady, to understand, to appreciate the political importance of being personally ingratiating, of making friends to influence people. Step number two is for husband and wife, president and First Lady, to do what needs to be done in order to make such ingratiation more likely, not less.
Given Barack Obama’s personal proclivities, Michelle Obama would have done well to take a page from Dolly Madison’s playbook – to play hostess from day one, gladly, frequently, to throw open the White House doors to friend and foe alike. This traditional feminine role is not in any way demeaning or dated. To the contrary, when self interest is at stake, it’s simply savvy to embrace it.
Note: Sometimes “Dolly” is spelled “Dolley.”