FIRST LADIES by Margaret Truman


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Gossipy and judgmental thumbnail sketches of First Ladies--not every one, but enough of them to wear the topic out entirely. Presidential daughter, biographer, and novelist Truman (Murder on the Potomac, 1994, etc.) is unabashedly opinionated about this famous job, which, one senses from this book, ought to be: Protect your man from the big, bad world; comfort him when you cannot; and don't cost him any votes. The women themselves come second. As Truman says, ""While I am heartily in favor of women achieving maximum opportunities and power, I doubt that the First Lady is the ideal symbolic vehicle for this ascent."" Not surprisingly, Nancy Reagan, who exemplifies the sort of loving ""protector"" Truman admires, comes in for gentler handling than does Eleanor Roosevelt, whose accomplishments, we are told, are to be weighed against her ""tragic limitations"" as a wife. Although Truman can be effusive in her praise (she calls Lady Bird Johnson the ""almost perfect First Lady""), she's not one to miss a good opportunity for sniping at her subjects, as when she serves up examples of Jacqueline Kennedy's ""visceral repugnance for average Americans."" One might almost take Truman for anti-elitist, did she not also say of Dolley Madison, the daughter of an unsuccessful businessman and a boardinghouse keeper, that ""there is nothing in her past to account for her combination of good taste and impeccable hospitality."" Still, inclined to find something good in each of these women, Truman might have been stumped to find a real loser had not her father, Harry S Truman, judged Warren Harding the worst president. And so Florence Harding turns out to be a ""mean-spirited"" woman with a ""d‚class‚ style, whining voice, and overbearing manner."" Well-known lives revisited from a perspective that is more convincingly insider than insightful.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1995
Page count: 512pp
Publisher: Random