Written by David M. Huff
The modern view of the president’s wife in American political life was intrinsically shaped by two extraordinary women: Eleanor Roosevelt and Jacqueline Kennedy. Astute, engaging, and well-educated, both women left an indelible imprint on the American cultural, social, and political consciousness. Eleanor championed social and humanitarian reform and Jacqueline taught a nation about culture and distinction by combining a unique sense fashion with a commitment to the preservation of the arts and humanities.
Although they were different stylistically, both First Ladies shared similar characteristics. Both Eleanor and Jacqueline were born into wealth and privilege. Each woman experienced an unsettled, turbulent, and lonely childhood. Both loved books, history, and leaned toward introspection. Eleanor’s mother died when she was eight and Jacqueline endured the tragic ordeal of divorce. In addition, both emerged as enlightened patricians, whose fundamental aims, motivations, and personal convictions differed from their contemporaries.
Moreover, Eleanor and Jacqueline married men who suffered not only from life-threatening illnesses (FDR was stricken with polio and JFK suffered from a failed back and Addison’s disease), but whose acts of infidelity served to crystallize a renewed sense of self-awareness and direction within each woman. Each was also private; neither wanted to live initially in the White House. Yet, both women summoned an inner resolve that enabled them to carve out a role, to create a voice, separate and distinct from their husband’s.
Notwithstanding common similarities, differences also existed between these two women. Eleanor displayed an eagerness to embrace Democratic politics and actively engaged with the press. A woman of considerable intelligence, perception, and personal conscience, she traveled throughout the country during the Great Depression delivering speeches and writing her own column, “My Day,” which was published five days a week. With insight and understanding, Eleanor wrote about the poor, the dispossessed, those who had been left behind in American society. She was Franklin Roosevelt’s “eyes and ears” in regard to the impact that FDR’s politics had on the American people.
On the other hand, Jacqueline preferred to avoid the contentious field of politics and the press. Underneath her soft-spoken voice, however, was a woman who possessed a depth of intelligence and a subtle wit along with a passionate conviction for the cultivation of the arts and humanities, particularly among youth. Her promotion of the arts inspired an attention to culture never before so visible at a national level. Eclectic and strong-minded, she promoted youth concerts to encourage the next generation of musicians, she felt that the White House rooms were furnished with pieces of furniture that lacked distinction and the history they should, in a place as special as the Executive Mansion. As a result, Mrs. Kennedy created The Fine Arts Committee with Henry Francis du Pont as the chairman.
Furthermore, she requested Congress to declare the White House an historic landmark, founded The White House Historical Association to protect, preserve, and provide public access to the rich history of the White House, wrote and edited the first White House guidebook, which was sold to tourists. The proceeds from the book were used to help finance her restoration of the White House with historic antiques. In addition, Mrs. Kennedy pushed for the creation of a National Cultural Arts Center (now known as the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts), urged President John F. Kennedy to create a national department of culture in America and advocated for the historic restoration of Lafayette Square and Pennsylvania Avenue. Mrs. Kennedy invited artists, writers, Shakespearean actors, ballet groups, musicians, opera singers, and poets to the White House, who spoke with politicians and statesmen.
Perhaps the greatest difference between these two First Ladies, however, came at the end of their husband’s administrations: Franklin slipped away from Eleanor as a result of a cerebral hemorrhage, while Jackie endured the horror of her husband’s brutal assassination.
Eleanor and Jackie were movers and shakers who played a critical role in the political, social, and cultural times in which they lived. Their extraordinary, yet turbulent lives, brought forth a determined, intriguing, and passionate curiosity that shaped their public persona and actions. Their lives brought meaning to the phrase that adversity builds character. Through tragedy and sorrow, these women learned to adapt, to endure, to develop a will of iron that enabled each woman to bear the burdens that fate dealt them with an uncommon grace. Rather than retreat, they rose to the occasion to create, to summon creative impulses that they saw within themselves and in turn, utilized them to benefit American society.
Eleanor and Jackie also represented an evolving change in the role that women played in politics. Instead of walking in their husband’s shadow, both women emerged with strong personalities who played an instrumental role not only in their husband’s presidencies, but also in shaping the hearts and minds, hopes and aspirations, of generations of Americans. As a result, the torch they lit provided a beacon for a more visible, independent, and substantive role for future First Ladies, such as Betty Ford, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Michelle Obama.
Such historic figures in a great civilization, such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Jacqueline Kennedy, can help to illuminate, cultivate, and to summon the reservoir of talent and individual ingenuity that resides within our people. In the American experience, we, as a nation, as a people, have shown that we can meet challenges head-on. Brave and passionate, steadfast and undeterred, we are a nation of pioneers, gifted with the priceless qualities of depth of personality and strength of character.
Eleanor and Jackie’s dedication to personal development and sense of obligation can best be summed up in a poem by Robert Frost, “Choose Something Like A Star.”
“….It asks a little of us here. It asks of us a certain height, so when at times the mob is swayed to
carry praise or blame too far, we may choose something like a star to stay our minds on and be staid.”
Bio: David M. Huff was born in Wheeling, West Virginia in 1968. A violist, I studied with the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra from 1983-1984. I attended the Interlochen Arts Festival and Interlochen Arts Academy from 1984-1986 and also participated in the Boston University Tanglewood Institute’s Youth Program during the summer of 1986. I earned a B.A. in History from West Virginia University and an M.A. in History/Research from West Virginia University. I work in Washington, D.C. as a Trademark/Litigation Specialist.