Why do we like First Ladies?

Recently I have noticed that in my social circle (consisting of almost all president Obama supporters), the conversation frequently turns to Michelle Obama. Praising her for her intelligence, looks, grace, poise, and sense of humor seems to be the one thing that people can agree upon and thus avoid the more disagreeable topic of how disappointing her husband has been.

I have noticed that the wives of presidents are almost always seen as being more humane, thoughtful, sensible, even smarter than their husbands. Starting from 1960, Jackie Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson, Pat Nixon, Betty Ford, Rosalyn Carter, Nancy Reagan, and Laura Bush were all viewed generally favorably, even by those who strongly opposed their husbands’ policies. Some of the people who absolutely hated George W. Bush even suspected that Laura was maybe secretly on their side, at least as far as some policies were concerned.

The only first ladies who did not receive general acclaim were Barbara Bush and Hillary Clinton and even then the criticisms were muted. It is true that there have been some absurdly vicious attacks on Michele Obama that seem to be a spillover from the hysterical and irrational hatred of Barack Obama as the usurper of the presidency, but apart from the crazies, she is generally viewed positively.

Why do we have such a favorable impression of First Ladies? We really have no reason to think that they are any better than their husbands. I am not saying that they are not. For all I know, they may be admirable people, every single one. What I am curious about is why we think so when we have so little evidence to believe it. Why aren’t they treated as simply neutral background?

Part of the reason for their generally favorable image may be that they can pick and chose what issues they want to publicly work on and naturally will choose popular and uncontroversial ones such as mental health, alcoholism, obesity, urban beautification, and literacy.

But perhaps the main reason we want to believe that they are good people is that we need the illusion of someone the equivalent of the British Queen, a relatively uncontroversial national figurehead whose positive personal qualities we can admire and talk about without rancor, while ignoring the negative ones.


  1. slc1 says

    Maybe I missed something but I don’t recall negative feelings about Barbara Bush being widespread. I do agree that Ms. Clinton generated a lot of negativity but that was because she was far more political then the others.

  2. magistramarla says

    I always have and still do greatly admire Hillary Clinton precisely because she is so political. Hillary has always appeared to be her husband’s political and intellectual equal, as Michelle Obama appears to be, and I admire that.
    Planting flowers and reading to children, while admirable and needed, simply does not inspire me as much as a First Lady who actually participates in issues that mean something to our society.

  3. coragyps says

    The vitriol directed toward Ms Clinton was (and still is) actually pretty astonishing here in the South. The dittohead crowd called her lesbian, fat, and anything else that they thought sounded like an insult, even focussing on her more than on Bill, the actual, y’know, candidate for office in ’92 and ’96.

  4. Stacy says

    From what I’ve read, the same sort of animus was directed at Eleanor Roosevelt, back in the day.

  5. mnb0 says

    We Dutch don’t care about our first ladies (wives of our prime ministers). I couldn’t name one of the last thirty years at gunpoint. Maybe it’s because we already have a queen.

  6. glenmorangie10 says

    I am Canadian. I can’t remember what Stephen Harper’s wife looks like. Or her opinions on important social matters. Or her name.

  7. Sunny says

    I think it is a peculiarity of the American Presidential system. Although I wonder whether such is the case in other countries (for example, in South America) with Presidential systems as well. I also wonder whether the Americans would care very much about the First “Husband” if the President were female.

    Another relevant aspect of the Presidential system is that the executive (the President) is directly elected unlike in Parliamentary systems. Hence, the electorate seems to feel a more direct connection to the executive.

    You are right; I don’t remember the last time I heard anything about Harper’s wife, his children or his pets (if has any).

  8. says

    I think Hiliary Clinton was not the best of all time. in fact, I think she had an agenda the entire time. It took her husband, who I still like even though hes not the most morally straight guy, to find a way into the spotlight. She took her shot and for her it worked. Go figure.

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