At the White House farewell ceremony following Richard Nixon's resignation in August 1974, the new first lady, Betty Ford, was standing next to the outgoing Pat Nixon. Mrs. Ford tried to ease the terrible awkwardness of the moment with a casual remark about the red carpet that had been rolled across the lawn to the waiting helicopter. Mrs. Nixon replied, ''You'll see so many of those, you'll get to hate them.''
As Margaret Truman explains in her fascinating new book, ''First Ladies,'' the position of first lady has never been easy. It ''remains undefined, frequently misunderstood, and subject to political attacks far nastier in some ways than any President has ever faced,'' she writes.
A first lady must balance the roles of wife, presidential adviser, White House manager, and public figure. And she must do all this while the American people critique everything from her causes to her clothes.
Truman, the daughter of Harry and Bess Truman and thus a former White House occupant, is an ideal author for a history of first ladies. She decided to write the book after meeting with three starkly different first ladies - Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter, and Nancy Reagan - at the funeral of her mother. The result, prepared with the help of interviews with several wives of presidents, is a mixture of analysis and storytelling, often gossipy but never catty.
Truman argues that a first lady's first responsibility should be her husband. She must give him a haven from politics and keep him from working himself to exhaustion. She must help set the tone for his administration and, if necessary, use her talents to compensate for his shortcomings. Grace Coolidge, wife of cold fish Calvin Coolidge, embraced so many visitors that she jokingly called herself the ''National Hugger.''
In public, Truman argues, a first lady must bridge ''the murky gap between presidential dignity and democratic accessibility.''
Early in Ronald Reagan's first term, Nancy Reagan's fondness for designer clothing gave her a disastrous queenly image. She shed that image in dramatic fashion, dressing as a bag lady and singing ''Second Hand Rose'' to an astonished press corps. Only Jackie Kennedy, superbly elegant yet down-to-earth enough to complain that the title ''first lady'' made her sound like a saddle horse, fully bridged that gap. Kennedy and Ladybird Johnson receive special praise from Truman for their ability to be supporti ve wives and successful public figures simultaneously.
As for more activist first ladies such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Rodham Clinton, Truman is careful to state that a first lady should have the freedom to pursue whatever projects she chooses. Yet Truman believes that Roosevelt's relentless lobbying of her husband to back her causes only made them both miserable.
Clinton, she suggests, will be a happier and more successful first lady when she achieves a better balance between her ceremonial and policy roles. Asked by Truman to name her most pleasurable moments as first lady, Clinton named Congress's passage of the Brady Bill and the assault weapons ban, a response that few first ladies besides Eleanor Roosevelt would empathize with.
The chief pleasure of ''First Ladies'' is the stories, which range from slapstick to heartwarming. Florence Harding assigns her Secret Service agent to keep Warren Harding's mistress out of the White House. Pat Nixon arranges a secret visit for Jackie Kennedy to see the official portraits of Jackie and John Kennedy because Jackie says she can't bear a public visit to the White House. There are plenty more.
''First Ladies'' is a wonderfully generous look at the women who, often against their wishes, took on what Truman calls ''the world's second toughest job.''
FIRST LADIES: AN INTIMATE GROUP PORTRAIT
OF WHITE HOUSE WIVES
By Margaret Truman
368 pp., $25
Dad often referred to her as his helper. As senator he said he never made a report or a speech without her editing it. In her early interviews Bess did not try to conceal her contributions. When Harry Truman ran for vice president, she told a reporter she would help him write his speeches ''because we've done that for so long, it's a habit.'' The following year another reporter asked her if she had ever held a job: ''I've been in politics for more than twenty-five years,'' she said.
- From 'First Ladies'