Lindsey Graham interview raises question: Do we need a first lady?

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a presidential hopeful, is a bachelor. Would he need a first lady? It's a question complicated by shifting views of what a first lady should be.

Andrew Harnik/AP
Michelle Obama gives a thumbs up to children who participated in events with the 'Let’s Move!' campaign Wednesday, June 3, after preparing food harvested from the White House Kitchen Garden in the East Room at the White House in Washington.

In an interview with the British tabloid The Daily Mail, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, one of the many contenders for the Republican presidential nomination, called attention to something that sets him apart from other presidential hopefuls: He’s not married.

When asked who his first lady would be, Senator Graham retorted: “Well, I’ve got a sister, she could play that role if necessary.” And then quickly joked, “We’ll have a rotating first lady.”

Polls suggest that Graham is not likely to become the next president. But his comments have raised questions about the necessity of a first lady.

To some, the role is more than just ceremonial.

“It’s a very important part of the presidency and it will always remain so,” says Susan Swain, co-president and co-chief executive officer of C-SPAN, and author of the book "First Ladies." “If you break bread with people, you are more apt to get work done. And we’re not just talking about state dinners here. The White House is an enormous tool in crafting policy and the work of the first lady has been a very important cog in that wheel.”

To others, choosing china sets and guest lists is a relic of a bygone age.

“That the position of first lady has become embarrassingly anachronistic is no big revelation,” Reid Cherlin, a former West Wing assistant press secretary, wrote in the New Republic.

Only six presidents were unmarried when taking the oath of office: Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson (D), Martin Van Buren (D), James Buchanan (D), Chester Arthur (R), and Grover Cleveland (D). Of the six, all but Cleveland remained single through their presidencies. Some enlisted friends or family to act as White House hostess. Jefferson asked Dolly Madison, the wife of his secretary of State, James Madison, to step in when he needed help "receiving ladies," and Buchanan enlisted his niece, Harriet Lane, who "filled the White House with gaiety and flowers," according to the White House website. [Editor's note: The original version of this paragraph was incorrect in stating the number of presidents who were unmarried when taking the oath of office.]

During the past century, the first lady has gradually taken on more of a political function. Some of the first lady trailblazers include Eleanor Roosevelt, who held press conferences where she made her political opinions known, and Lady Bird Johnson, whose solo journey across the South made columnist Max Freedom speculate that, "Perhaps this marks the emergence of women as central figures in a national contest instead of being on the edges of a campaign."

Nevertheless, the first lady’s duties remain completely undefined, and each has the choice to be as involved or uninvolved as she prefers. This lack of clarity and clearly defined tasks can often leave the first lady open to criticism. Laura Bush, for example, was deemed by a Siena College Research Institute survey to be the highest ranking first lady in the category: "could have done more while in office.”

As journalist Nicole Glass pointed out in a Huffington Post blog about Anita McBride, Mrs. Bush’s former chief of staff, "American first ladies are thrust into the spotlight, forced to take a position with no job description and no pay. Put on a stage without a script, the country's First Ladies are required to use their newfound influence to leave behind a legacy.”

In response, some observers have suggested that a more clearly defined role could help.

“Outlining and acknowledging the work that the presidential spouse is expected to do would help to mitigate the disproportionate criticism faced by any woman who occupies this office,” wrote Scarlet Neath for The Atlantic, while also noting that today, “the role of the presidential spouse is in need of another reboot.”

Michelle Obama was seen in some quarters as the woman to do this.

After 2008, "there were hopes that Michelle Obama’s political appeal and charisma would enable her to transform it into something that reflected the role of modern women as equal participants in the political process," writes Mr. Cherlin. “Surprisingly, though, her first move was to declare that she wanted to play it safe" – laying out a narrow agenda, he says.

Laura Bush herself has suggested that it may be time for a change.

When asked during a C-SPAN interview if first ladies should be paid, she replied that "the interesting question is not should they receive a salary, but should they be able to work for a salary at their job that they might have already had. I think that's what we'll have to come to terms with."

Mrs. Obama briefly flirted with the idea of keeping her job as a lawyer when her husband took office, though she ultimately decided against it. (Jill Biden, the wife of Vice President Joe Biden and a teacher at a community college, is the first second lady in history to continue working.)

In the early days of the United States, it was highly uncommon for women, let alone first ladies, to have an established career.  

“Society has advanced and people running for office are frequently from two-career families now,” says Ms. Swain.

“I think going forward the role is going to be challenged because of that.”

Still, Swain says the role of first lady is too important to be given to multiple “rotating first ladies,” as Graham alluded to.

“The rotating first ladies will be a challenge and he [the president] probably has other things to think about other than managing that aspect of his job,” she says. 

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