The First lady – First daughter tour: A repeat of history

  First lady Laura Bush and First daughter Jenna Bush will take to the airwaves next week to talk about their new joint venture, a children’s book entitled “Read All About it.”  Laura will sit in as guest host of the NBC Today Show.  Interviewing Jenna will be one of the segments.

It is not the first time a First lady teamed up with a First daughter.  After leaving the White House, Eleanor Roosevelt and daughter, Anna, co-hosted a national ABC radio program.  It was before the advent of television so it was a major production, with a large public audience. The program ran a year.

Throughout American history, daughters and daughter in laws have helped run the East Wing and some have been defacto First Ladies, a role that a Chelsea Clinton might assume if her mother became President.

Eleanor and Anna may have been the most powerful First lady-First daughter tandem in American history.  Theirs was a stormy and bitter relationship.  As a child Anna was more comfortable with a nanny or her grandmother.  In one famous incident, Eleanor put baby Anna in a wire contraption and hung her outside “to get fresh air.”  Neighbors threatened to call the Society for the prevention of cruelty to children.  According to one of her ex husband’s memoirs, an adult Anna still had nightmares from the days her mother tied her hands to the bedposts at night to keep her from masturbating.

As adults, Eleanor and Anna bonded in a touching moment when the First lady confided in her daughter and for the first time revealed the details of husband, Franklin’s double life, his affair with Lucy Rutherford.  But the relationship was ripped apart in the last year of the FDR presidency, when Anna rose to become her father’s most powerful aide, literally running the White House.  Her painful duties included running interference for her father’s ongoing meetings with Lucy.  He would die in her arms in Warm Springs, Georgia.

There is a pitiful scene in the book All the Presidents’ Children, when First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt pleads with her daughter to go to the Allied Summit in Yalta.  Churchill and Stalin would be there, it would be the last meeting of the world leaders.  But Anna, the powerful White House aide, had to decline.

The passing of Franklin Roosevelt sparked mixed emotions in the Mother-daughter.  They were still angry with his emotional abuse and yet they were in mourning over his death and all the time they had to keep up appearances and show proper public respect to him as a national icon.   Eleanor and Anna turned to each other to process these feelings and once more their relationship healed.  For one year, First lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, and First daughter, Anna Roosevelt, hosted their ABC radio network show. 

But history passes on.  A new president and new issues, momentous issues move to the front stage.  In those days a nuclear bomb was dropped, a war ended. And while presidents and their families know that they will pass from public consciousness, and they almost always welcome it, there is still a bit of a shock at the abrupt transition.  Eleanor, the First Lady, would linger in the wings the rest of her life, returning to play a public role from time to time. But Anna, First daughter, the once powerful White House aide, would disappear into the populous and soon be forgotten.

The tour of First lady, Laura Bush and First daughter, Jenna Bush is not without its political purpose.  The women in this family have always been more popular than the men and the men know it.  And so just as First lady Barbara Bush would often step to the front when polls showed her husband’s popularity waning, this First lady and First daughter do no harm by taking their show on the road.  It is good politics and it is an astute commercial enterprise.  Obamamania may soon be breaking upon the land and even if, a Republican wins and they are succeeded by their lifelong rival, John McCain, the days of silence are coming.  They will be welcome days for the Bush family.  So better get these sort of things done now.

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