WHAT role should a presidential wife play? The increasing recognition of women's values, the role of television, and simple common sense are such that it is becoming accepted that when United States voters elect a president, they also choose a presidential wife. As this country developed, one of the salient differences between it as a new nation and any older nation was the refreshing honesty, the desire to serve, and the utter devotion of the wives who lived in the White House. Imagine: Through almost 200 years, no real scandal attaches itself to the wives of our presidents. Nor in any case, as with some royal marriages, is there a question of a forced marriage. As we read through the history of these wives, it is a case of boy meets girl and love leads to marriage. In a few cases the ``boy'' is a little older than the ``girl,'' but the marriage is a happy one nevertheless. There is no more refreshing page on the devotion of a group to its country than that of wives of US presidents.
In studying their history, I established certain criteria, narrowing these to apply to the periods that these ladies functioned as hostesses at the Executive Mansion or the White House as came to be called during Theodore Roosevelt's presidency. I used the following criteria:
Role as representative of our country
Coordination with the president
Soon I advanced a step further and decided to use a numerical system of five points for each criterion, with a rating of 1 (low) to 5 (high).
Conditions, of course, have changed over the years. During the early decades, there was not the same opportunity for the international stance that exists today. Sometimes traumatic political events made it impossible for a first lady to rise to her full potential.
At first I rated them all myself up to and including Mrs. Reagan. But then, after I had by chance asked some friends for their opinions, I decided to have a group of 30 persons rate the group from Eleanor Roosevelt to Nancy Reagan. I tried to get a representative group of Republican and Democrats and of men and women, limiting the group to people who had seen the wives on television and had read about them.
From Eleanor Roosevelt on, the presidential wives enter a new era - probably due to television and to the increasing tendency to treat women as equal to men. The wife of the president is expected to appear well on TV and to speak well and express her thoughts rationally. She is expected to play a part in civic projects. With the expanding role of the US on the international scene, she must be ready to be a worthy representative of her country. She is expected to work in harmony with her husband and, of course, to be an efficient administrator; she will have to oversee an office of 20 people or more if special problems arise. When the kingmakers decide on a candidate, the wife is a definite part of the decision.
In the early days there was an undue emphasis on the social aspects of the White House, on catering to the needs of the purely Washington society; in the last 50 years the emphasis has been on more serious matters.
All in all, the US can be proud of the wives who have graced the White House. A few have been a trifle flighty and have worried too much about the social scene. However, all have been hard workers and have sought to bring credit to the presidency. A few have been too ill to function as White House hostess, leaving that aspect of the job to another member of the family.
Martha Washington never lived in the White House. In trying to assess the values of the White House ladies, I have rated the others in order:
Abigail Smith Adams 25
Sarah Childress Polk 25
Lou Henry Hoover 24
Dolley Payne Todd Madison 23
Elizabeth Kortright Monroe 22
From Eleanor Roosevelt on, the following are on top:
Nancy Davis Reagan 26
Anna Eleanor Roosevelt 25
Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy 24
Claudia Taylor Johnson 22
Rosalynn Smith Carter 21
The differences are minuscule. One could say that a pattern has been set. When we elect a president, we really elect a team, almost a duumvirate.
Peter Sammartino is founder, president emeritus, and chancellor of Fairleigh Dickinson University in Rutherford, N.J.