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Our First Ladies are a National Treasure – Sunday Political Brunch—April 22, 2018

Sunday, April 22, 2018

 

I was sad to hear of former First Lady Barbara Bush’s passing this week at the age of 92. She was a remarkable woman and a political force in one of the nation’s most famous political dynasties. It made me think back on all the First Ladies who served in my lifetime, and their contributions to our country. Let’s wish them all a happy Mother’s Day in advance, and look at their legacies as we “brunch” this week:

“Beating Around the Bushes” – This is a family that, like the Kennedys, is now in its fourth consecutive generation in America politics. They are simply interwoven in the fabric of this country. Barbara Bush was the daughter-in-law to Senator Prescott Bush (R-CT); wife to President George H.W. Bush; mother to President George W. Bush and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, and grandma of Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush. The family dynasty is by no means over, with Jeb Bush still viable on the national stage, and his son George P., just getting his political sea legs.

“The Kennedy Kin” – Quite honestly, the only other woman in American history that can match Barbara Bush is Rose Kennedy. Rose was the wife of British Ambassador Joe Kennedy; mom of President John F. Kennedy, U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy and Senator Ted Kennedy; grandma of Rep. Joseph Kennedy II (D-MA); and great-grandmother of current Rep. Joe Kennedy, (D-MA). There were many other elected Kennedys, too, within each generation.

“Of Politics and Pain” – One of the things I found remarkable about Barbara Bush and Rose Kennedy was their compassion for others, despite great personal loss in their own lives. Rose Kennedy lost two children in World War II, and then two sons to assassination. Barbara Bush lost a daughter to leukemia at a very young age. And, many people forget that First Lady Jackie Kennedy lost two children before her husband’s assassination. The tremendous grief they must have endured, especially while living in the public spotlight, is unfathomable. Yet, they endured, and their contributions post-tragedy were remarkable. I remember once talking about this in a college lecture I delivered and someone said, “But these are incredibly rich and powerful families.” My response was, “Pain is pain; and grief is grief. I can’t imagine what it must be like to bury a child, whether you’re politically-powerful, rich, poor, or in the middle.”

“Covering Jackie’s Funeral” – One of my most enduring memories of being a reporter in Washington, DC, was covering the burial of Jackie Kennedy Onassis at Arlington National Cemetery. No press was allowed at the graveside service, but we could share a pool feed of the event. With all due respect, that is too sanitized for me, although I do think it was respectful of the family. So, I set up along the long driveway to the public entrance of the cemetery hours ahead of the funeral cortege. Suddenly I heard a man singing the most off-key, horrendous rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner. His singing was bad. Yet, he was waving a large American flag, and his passion and grief were palpable. When I interviewed him afterwards he was in tears, saying something to the effect of, “I came to this country from the West Indies. I never would have become what I have, without President Kennedy and his wife.” He was grief-stricken as the hearse carrying her casket passed us by. I’ll never forget him!

“Who’s My Favorite First Lady?” – It’s a tough call, but I am going to say Betty Ford. It’s interesting, some First Ladies are very politically active and outspoken (Hillary Clinton and Michele Obama), and some have been more quiet and reserved (Pay Nixon and Laura Bush). Some were clearly behind-the-scenes, influential political operatives (Eleanor Roosevelt and Nancy Reagan). But who had the longest imprint on America? I say Betty Ford. First, she dealt with breast cancer publicly and with candor (back then you couldn’t even say breast on TV). Then she dealt publicly with addiction. The openness and availability of non-judgmental substance abuse treatment in this county - for decades now - is all due to Betty Ford.

“Sometimes it’s the Small Things” – One of the more understated First Ladies in my lifetime was Lady Bird Johnson. While some of the others I mentioned here took on heavyweight issues such as health care reform, drug use, literacy, nutrition, and substance abuse treatment, some were forceful and effective on other issues. Lady Bird’s issue was highway beautification. You must remember the Interstate Highway System launched by President Eisenhower was still in its infancy through the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Lady Bird fought for limiting the number of billboards, and led a crackdown on littering. The fact that we can drive cross-country in such beauty is a testament to her passion and legacy.

“Why the Political Spouses Matter?” – I refer here to First Ladies, but more and more we are seeing First Gentlemen across the land. Folks, these are critical, important, and influential people. I’ve often felt sorry for political spouses, many of whom did not seek the spotlight, but were thrust on stage. But they are very crucial in our process, because they have the ear of a president, governor, senator, or all the way down to town council member. Political spouses can have great influence, and will say things to their partner that no one else will. When President George W. Bush told Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden to “bring it on” in 2001, when he got back to the White House quarters he says First Lady Laura Bush scolded him, saying in effect, “Are you crazy? What were you thinking?” In short, political partners matter!

Who was your favorite First Lady and why? Just click the comment button at www.MarkCurtisMedia.com.

Mark Curtis, Ed.D., is Chief Political Reporter for the five Nexstar Media TV stations serving the Mountain State

 

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