Soon-to-be First Lady Michelle Obama turns 45 this weekend, and you have to say her husband’s given her a hell of a birthday present. Michelle’s no-nonsense style, grace, commitment to being a mother and fist-bumping skills have already put her in the running for the title of coolest First Lady since Jackie-O. And the gays? We love her.
First Ladies have always had a special relationship with the gay & lesbian community, and it’s more than just a love of pill box hats and pearls that connect them to us; many have spoken out or reflected on our issues, even while their husband’s sit silently by.
As Michelle prepares to take on the conflicting roles of a non-political figure of state, advocate for do-good causes and mother, she’s probably looking back at previous women who’ve held the position and trying to figure out just what sort of First Lady she’d like to be. We have a hunch that Mrs. O will reshape the office as much as her husband is likely to remake his, but if she’s going to have any chance of becoming a popular drag queen role, she’s going to have to make her mark. Let’s take a look at the nice old white biddies who have come before her and see how they did it.
Mary Todd Lincoln
The first First lady to have any gay appeal whatsoever is Mary Todd, who, as Sufjan Stevens put it, “went insane, but for very good reasons.” Sorry, Dolley Madison, better luck next time! Beyond the long-standing speculations that husband Abe enjoyed the company of men (Brief diversion: The whole basis for this rumor is that he wrote affectionate flowery letters to his roommate, whose bed he shared—though both of these thing were fairly common for Victorian men to do. Judging people by current cultural standards may be fun, but it makes for misleading history), Mary Todd was incredibly into the arts and was basically the most popular girl in Springfield when Lincoln first met her.
In the White House, she had the nickname ‘the hellcat’ for her temper and wit, lavishly redecorated the executive mansion with Victorian bric-a-brac (infuriating her husband) and befriended a former slave, Elizabeth Keckly, who after a falling out with the First Lady, wrote one of the nation’s first tell-alls, Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty years a slave, and four years in the White House.
Lesson for Michelle: The Keckly book scandal centered on Mary Todd’s lavish expenses, which were inappropriate in wartime. Michelle faces similar challenges, with the country at war and the economy in ruins. She would be wise to fight off similar criticisms by keeping renovations and personal style modest, though considering the fact that she’s comfortable wearing J.Crew, this is hardly a problem. Also, avoid laudanum.
Barack Obama‘s presidency keeps drawing allusions to that of FDR, but it’s doubtful Michelle will be confused with Eleanor anytime soon. For one thing, Michelle is not bisexual, so far as we know. Eleanor’s relationship with reporter Lorena Hickok is well documented, (she once wrote Hicock, “I want to put my arms around you & kiss you at the corner of your mouth.”), but if anything, it was FDR’s fault that Eleanor looked for love elsewhere. An affair with his secretary in 1918 irreparably damaged their relationship and while the couple, both political powerhouses, continued to care for each other throughout Franklin’s life, Eleanor forged her own path.
Lesson for Michelle: The demands of politics were both the wedge and the uniting force behind FDR & Eleanor’s relationship. Like Eleanor, Michelle is outspoken and has her own life outside of her husband, but the First Couple will have to work hard to keep their relationship alive with the demands of the nation hanging over them.
In a contest for most iconic First Lady, Jackie-O wins hands down. She transformed the White House into a showplace for style and the arts, rescued it from years of tacky remodels and established that its furnishing belonged to the nation, rather than to its occupants. She managed to be Euro chic and democratic at the same time, by opening the White House to all, through tours, television appearances and publications, deftly deflecting any criticism in the process.
But all of this pales in comparison to the way she reacted to her husband’s assassination. More than any government official could, her grace and calm held a shocked and bereaved nation together.
Lesson for Michelle: If there is one First Lady Michelle reminds us of the most, it’s Jackie-O. They both are young and vital people who will be raising children in a hot box and they both have tremendous personal grace. Michelle could take a cue from Jackie in terms of style. Don’t be afraid to make the White House a chic place to be, girl! More importantly, Jackie’s decision to make the White House the People’s House is a fantastic template for the next First Lady, whose husband’s mantra is transparency and personal involvement in politics. Americans are going to rethink energy usage and environmental sustainability in their own homes these next few years. Michelle, by transforming the White House into a green and sustainable place, can show the way.
Beyond inspiring Betty Ford Bingo Night both at home and abroad, Betty Ford was the closest thing the White House has ever had to a true counterculture presence. She spoke sympathetically about marijuana use, candidly about abortion and fervently about women’s rights– and her husband was a Republican!
Of course, it’s Betty Ford’s battle with alcohol and the creation of the Betty Ford Center that first comes to mind when people think of Betty, who’s still kicking at 90. Sure, the Betty Ford Center’s the final chapter of every Hollywood starlet’s self-made drama, but its creation helped the country understand that alcoholism is a real disease, as well as inspire gay bingo nights.
Lesson for Michelle: Be open and honest. Even though Betty spoke her mind, her approval ratings never dipped below 75%, higher than her husband’s. People respect honesty and openness.
While people are still arguing over Reagan’s response to the AIDS crisis, Nancy famously took time to meet gay men who were suffering from AIDS-related Karposi’s sarcoma. Like Jackie, Nancy made such an indelible mark on the nation’s psyche that she need only be mentioned by first name to be recognized. She suffered from Out-of-Touch Shopaholic Syndrome and critics lambasted her for her expensive dresses and on-call astrologer Joan Quigley. Your editor remembers being in 5th grade and a nice man coming in to talk to the class. The presenter pulled out a plexiglass sealed case filled with every kind of drug imaginable and explained what each one looked like and its effects and when Mom asked what we learned at school that day, I told her all about the differences between crack and angel dust, all thanks to Nancy’s “Just Say No” campaign.
Lesson for Michelle: Don’t be too Hollywood. We expect First Ladies to be charming and gracious, but when they start to believe their own fairy-tale princess act, they just wind up seeming hopelessly out of touch with reality.
The Frau Blucher (neigh!) of First Ladies, Barbara Bush was the closest thing the White House has had to a resident diesel dyke. While we respect that she publicly said that she thought Geraldine Ferraro was something that “rhymes with rich,” we still can’t over the fact that she said that watching news of the Iraq war and “seeing body bags” would be something she wouldn’t want to “waste my beautiful mind” on and that, for displaced residents of Katrina, living in Houston was “working very well for them.” Fuck you, lady. She also reared our soon-to-be-gone-forever President, so basically, she’s unforgivable.
Lesson for Michelle: If Malia and Sasha get out of line, threaten them that you’ll have Barbara Bush come over to babysit.
Billed as a “two-for-one” special, Hillary & Bill came into the White House with the promise of restoring Camelot, but ultimately brought all of the scandal without any of the style. Wags liked to say that Hillary was a lesbian because she was politically-minded and wanted a seat at the policy table, but after her disastrous attempt at health care reform blew-up in her face, she began focusing on less controversial children’s health issues. Hillary in many ways was her own worst enemy– other first ladies had tackled important issues before, but Hillary’s abrasive style could turn-off even her most ardent supporters.
Ironically, it was her husband’s affair with intern Monica Lewinsky that put Hillary’s image on the road to recovery. While she once joked that she was not the heroine of Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man,” she did just that and the nation began to realize what a dick we had collectively been to Mrs. Clinton. Hillary worked to soften her image and garner mainstream appeal throughout her Presidential campaign, but discovered her populist voice too late in a process she presumed to have in the bag. Still a political animal, Hillary is unique among first ladies in perusing a political career distinct from her husband’s, and she’s been as strong an advocate of gay & lesbian rights as you can expect of a mainstream Dem these days.
Lesson for Michelle: You’re Barack’s partner, but stay far far away from policy discussions. And if you do have political ambitions, we’ll probably elect you.
As much as we hate her husband, Laura Welch Bush has managed to get in good with the gay community, having publicly opposed the Federal Marriage Amendment which would outlaw gay marriage and saying “”I don’t think it should be used as a campaign tool, obviously…It requires a lot of sensitivity to just talk about the issue – a lot of sensitivity.” Everyone knows she’s smarter than her husband and her silence as he’s flushed the country down the toilet has made her an enigmatic cipher. In 2003, Tony Kushner penned the beginnings of a play, Only We Who Guard The Mystery Shall Be Unhappy, that featured the First Lady, a former school teacher, reading books to a classroom of dead Iraqi children. Unless her rumored book deal changes the game, her legacy is likely to be a nation collectively asking, “Why nice lady, why oh why did you marry that man?”
Lesson for Michelle: If you’re really, really boring and smile a lot, people will leave you alone.