Selections from the popular yearlong C-SPAN series exploring the lives of the first ladies, each offering conversational, somewhat truncated viewpoints by various historians.
C-SPAN history consultant and author Richard Norton Smith and moderator and senior manager Swain paired up to create the TV endeavor; this book is the severely edited version. Each first lady appears in an official picture circa her husband’s presidential era, and two historians take turns delineating her biography, not necessarily chronologically. A final word from each briefly discusses the lady’s “legacy.” Due to the need to preserve verbatim the historians’ remarks, the editing makes for clunky, disjointed reading, with the effect—more or less intentional—of a conversation rather than a history text. However, each historian offers a depth to his or her subject that helps flesh out these fairly mythical figures who inhabited the White House and give a sense of where she came from and what was truly important to her. These ladies were thrust into a national role, and how they used it to grow is fascinating: Abigail Adams was a prolific and significant writer of letters that provide enormous insight into the Revolution and early national period; savvy entertainer Dolley Madison had to “pinch-hit” as hostess in widower Thomas Jefferson’s administration, laying the important connections she would need for her husband’s subsequent presidency; Sarah Polk was unusually well-educated in her mid-1800s era and served as her husband’s “genuine political partner” (the couple was also the first to be photographed); Lucretia Garfield was the first to keep a diary of her White House days and not to destroy her papers. Several were second wives, most had children, and many lost children, while all were “helpmates” in some fashion. Among the contributing historians are Edith Gelles, Gail Sheehy and David Maraniss.
Though presented in a stilted fashion, all the portraits are rendered with sympathy and detail.