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They are mostly on monogrammed stationery and handwritten, though a few are typed, and there are some store-bought cards here and there. They are filled with a smattering of reflections on national policy but mostly the safer topics of husbands and children, diets and dinners, joy and loss. They are exchanged between correspondents who may agree on everything and also those who disagree on so many things. They often have “Do Not Respond,” or some similar phrase, scribbled in the corner, because they all know how obligations can pile up in this most exclusive of jobs.
They are notes between modern first ladies, ranging from Jackie Kennedy to Michelle Obama — a handful of women who are the only ones who know what it really means to play that role. “Presidents are members of the world’s most selective fraternity, and the first ladies are members of the world’s most elite sorority,” says Kate Andersen Brower, author of the new book “First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies.”
A former reporter for Bloomberg News, Andersen Brower was drawn to the subject after covering Michelle Obama and seeing how the first lady was at once so visible and so guarded. What she found was a club, of sorts, of women who studied and consulted each other before they took the job and kept in touch afterward.
Much of her material comes from correspondence between the first ladies themselves, which she found in “boring-looking” folders in presidential libraries of their husbands, where she was sometimes the first visitor to request the material.
There was a lot of superficial banter, along with social niceties, in those folders.
Barbara Bush to Lady Bird Johnson after Johnson’s yearly gift of Texas pralines:
“Only someone who lived in the White House would know that, although the food is the best in the world, the cupboard is bare in the upstairs kitchen.”
Lady Bird Johnson to Laura Bush, who had inquired about Johnson’s health in her later years:
“I don’t even buy green bananas anymore.”
Barbara Bush to Betty Ford:
Bush sent Ford a politically-themed Hallmark card for one birthday that read: “We started out to get a signature for each of your birthdays and before we knew it – It turned into a petition drive. You are now eligible to run for office in 23 states!!” It was signed, “You’ll always be First Lady to us! Happy Birthday, with Respect and Love, Barbara B.”
And then there were the letters to Pat Nixon, written on her 81st birthday after the former chief usher of the White House quietly alerted all the first ladies that Nixon was in very poor health. (She would die months later.)
There were surprising kindnesses and even friendships across parties and ideologies.
Jackie Kennedy to Pat Nixon:
After the man defeated by her husband in 1960 was elected president in 1968, Mrs. Kennedy sent a handwritten note 23 blocks south from her apartment at 1040 Fifth Ave. to the Nixons’ apartment at 810 Fifth Ave. Kennedy congratulated Nixon, adding, “You are such a close family that I know you will be able to be happy in spite of the pressure and the absence of privacy.”
Pat Nixon to Jackie Kennedy:
After turning down several invitations for Lady Bird Johnson to return with her children to the White House for a visit, Pat Nixon wrote to extend the same invitation in 1971, promising that the event (on the occasion of the unveiling of John F. Kennedy’s White House portrait) would be kept entirely “private.”
To Nixon’s surprise, Kennedy accepted, and Jackie, John Jr. and Caroline spent a full, secret day at the White House, including a dinner in the family quarters with the Nixons and their daughters.
Afterward, there were thank-you notes. From an adolescent John on his monogrammed stationery: “I can never thank you more for showing us the White House. I really liked everything about it. You were so nice to show us everything, I don’t think I could remember much about the White House but it was really nice seeing it all again. I really loved the dogs, they were so funny. As soon as I came home my dogs kept on sniffing me. Maybe they remember the White House.” And from a teenage Caroline on her hot-pink version: “It was so nice to see it all again.”
Jackie Kennedy also thanked Pat Nixon: “Can you imagine the gift you gave us to return to the White House privately with my little ones when they were still young enough to rediscover their childhood? A day I always dreaded turned out to be one of the most precious ones I have spent with my children. May God bless you all. Most gratefully, Jackie.”
Jackie Kennedy and Lady Bird Johnson:
Kennedy also kept up a correspondence, and a close bond, with Johnson, who was with her on the day her husband was assassinated in Dallas, in Johnson’s home state.
Johnson to Kennedy at the opening of the John F. Kennedy Library in 1979:
“This has to be both a proud day and an emotionally exhausting day for you. … Do remember that there are so many people wishing you happiness and contentment. Count me among them.”
Jackie Kennedy called Lady Bird Johnson after President Johnson’s death in 1973, and Johnson wrote to thank her for her call: “These have been emotion-packed days, but there is still a feeling of insulation from the deep sadness I am sure must come. You know all too well how the responsibilities come crowding in.”
Then, when Kennedy was diagnosed with cancer in 1994, Johnson wrote: “Do know that you have an army of friends — known and unknown — who care very much about you.”
The women supported each others’ causes.
Former first ladies, from left, Rosalynn Carter, Barbara Bush, Betty Ford, Nancy Reagan and Hillary Rodham Clinton attend a gala saluting Betty Ford and the Betty Ford Center, Jan. 17, 2003, in Indian Wells, Calif. (Photo: Reed Saxon/AP)
Johnson donated thousands of dollars to the Betty Ford Center, which treats addiction, and wrote to Ford: “Not long ago I came across a mutual friend of ours who told me quite straight-forwardly that she decided to face up to a drinking problem and to overcome it. She is so much more fun to be around these days!”
Johnson to Nancy Reagan after the Reagans went public about President Reagan’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis: “It will be a comfort to others whose families have been afflicted, to know that it is no respecter of fame or importance.”
There are also examples in the letters of the first ladies, current and former, using their clout.
Johnson wrote directly to President Clinton asking him to pardon her friend, Texas banker Ruben Johnson, who had been convicted of bank fraud. “To use an old-fashioned word, Ruben is very much a gentleman,” she wrote. His was one of many pardons issued as Clinton left office.
Barbara Bush and Betty Ford worked together to help a young Soviet girl whom Ford had brought to Bush’s attention. “I do not know if there is hope for little Diana Mowsesjan, but I will forward to the appropriate office with the hope that maybe there can be,” Bush wrote in 1990. (Andersen Brower says she could find no record of what help was sought for the girl, or what became of the request.)
And sometimes there are examples of how some secrets are stronger than even the sorority.
Lady Bird Johnson brought her grown daughters to the White House on the occasion of the dedication of an LBJ memorial in Washington, and Betty Ford showed them around the private quarters. Photos released later showed that there was a small, black suitcase at the edge of the Ford’s bed, packed and ready for Ford’s departure to the hospital for a mastectomy. That news would not be made public until later that day, and during their time together Ford didn’t mention it.
The next day, Johnson wrote: “You were so calm and hospitable to us last Friday that it shocked the four of us even more than the rest of the nation when we heard the news that you had gone to the hospital. All of our collective mouths dropped. We were dumbfounded.”
Says Andersen Brower: “If anyone would have understood the need to change the schedule, it would have been another first lady. But Betty Ford didn’t say a word.”
The notes Andersen Brower most wants to read are those that started her on this book in the first place — those from Michelle Obama. But those likely won’t be public until this administration ends and there is a Presidential Library to put them in. Andersen Brower expects that Michelle Obama’s deepest bond with another first lady will be revealed to be with Laura Bush, despite the very different ideologies of their husbands.
After the 2008 election, Michelle Obama’s chief of staff sat with Laura Bush’s for hours, Andersen Brower writes, and “Michelle’s staff was given what amounted to a blueprint, as Laura’s staff told them what missteps they had made along the way, which parties and luncheons were important, and which could be safely skipped.”
Andersen Brower quotes Michelle Obama as saying at a conference last year: “It has made my transition to this office so much easier having somebody like Laura and her team. It’s that kind of sharing that prevents us from re-creating the wheel, allows us to build on the things that are already working so that the country gains as we transition from one party,” and one first lady, “to the next.”