Gay marriage has jumped out of the closet on to the front page. Everyone from the President of the U.S. to retired four star general Colin Powell is embracing the issue, now supported by most Americans. Still, a few people like former First Lady Laura Bush appear to be conflicted. This week Mrs. Bush, who publicly supported gay marriage, now objects to appearing in an ad that carries her words of support.
Presidents often disappoint, but first ladies rarely do. I became a student (and secret admirer) of first ladies after writing biographies of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (1978), Nancy Reagan (1991) and Barbara and Laura Bush (2004). Through years of research and reporting I’ve watched these unelected women enhance the presidencies of their spouses through deed and demeanor. They all seem to do it with style and grace and as a result they usually become even more popular than their beleaguered husbands (Lady Bird Johnson, Betty Ford and Michelle Obama).
These warrior goddesses stand stalwart in the face of their husbands’ scandals (Pat Nixon and Watergate; Nancy Reagan and Iran Contra; Hillary Clinton and Monica Lewinsky). They protect their young (Jacqueline Kennedy); they beautify their environment (Lady Bird Johnson) and they do good for others, even after leaving the White House. (The Betty Ford Clinic provides treatment for alcoholism; the Barbara Bush Foundation raises money for literacy; Rosalynn Carter travels the world for the Carter Center to promote mental health, and at the age of 91 Nancy Reagan still campaigns for expanded stem cell research.)
As first ladies these women stay above the political fray, avoid divisive muck, and glide like swans across ponds of public good will. Most write commercially successful memoirs of their days in the White House, where they became beatified, and as the wives of former presidents they continue burnishing their husbands’ legacies as well as their own.
For the most part first ladies seldom falter, which is why it was disappointing to read about the wife of a self-described “compassionate conservative” former president fumble on an issue of equal rights.
A group known as Respect for Marriage Coalition had launched a $1 million multi-media campaign last week that featured President Obama, former Vice President Dick Cheney, former Secretary of State Colin Powell and Mrs. Bush in their own words expressing support for the marriage rights of all committed couples. The group had taken what Laura Bush had said on the subject to Larry King on television: “When couples are committed to each other and love each other, then they ought to have, I think, the same sort of rights that everyone has.”
The former first lady’s words had reassured many who recalled with dismay her husband’s hard line on homosexuality. As Governor of Texas, George W. Bush said he supported the state’s law against sodomy “as a symbolic gesture of traditional values.” He opposed hate crimes legislation that would have protected gays. He also opposed gay adoption and gay marriage, and as President he proposed a constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex unions.
Granted, Laura Bush did not oppose her husband until after he had left the White House and would not have to pay the consequence of her words, but that seems to be in the tradition of Bush wives. Barbara Bush also waited until her husband, an ardent foe of abortion for twelve years, was no longer president before she declared publicly that abortion should be a “personal choice” and that she was pro-choice.
A year after Laura Bush’s 2010 interview on CNN, her daughter, Barbara Bush, taped a video for the Human Rights Campaign, now a sponsor of the Marriage Coalition. To date the former first lady’s daughter has not withdrawn her support for gay rights, but when Mrs. Bush saw her support in the Coalition’s television ad last week she immediately directed her spokeswoman to contact the media to say that the former first lady “did not approve of her inclusion in this advertisement nor is she associated with the group that made the ad in any way.”
The Coalition, comprised of 80 civil rights, family, health, labor, business, student, LGBT and women’s organizations, withdrew the ad in deference to Mrs. Bush and issued a statement, explaining they had used public comments from American leaders of both political parties who had expressed their support for civil marriage. “We appreciate Mrs. Bush’s previous comments but are sorry she didn’t want to be included in an ad.”
One can only wonder why the former first lady chose to backtrack on an issue that is supported by most Americans, who believe that marrying the person you love is a fundamental freedom and Constitutional right for everyone, including gays and lesbians. Polls show that a majority of the country believes that continuing to deny gays and lesbians the freedom to marry constitutes discrimination, and those who personally oppose marriage equality accept that it is likely to become a reality within the next decade. Even Congress has jumped on board. Bills were introduced in the Senate and the House this month to change the definition of “spouse” in the U.S. Code so that same-sex married service members can get equal benefits.
Surely Laura Bush, a former librarian, who as First Lady frequently posed for photographs reading to children, knows the folk tale of Chicken Little, who believes the sky is falling when an acorn drops on her head. Terrified, she decides she must tell the King and on her journey to the castle she meets a goose, a hen and a turkey– Goosey Lucy, Henny Penny and Turkey Lurkey. Within moments they are cornered by a fox–Foxy Loxy–who threatens to eat them. In the happily-ever-after version only Goosey Lucy escapes. The morale, we are told, is not to be a chicken but to have the courage to stand up–a quality found in most first ladies.
When Caroline Kennedy endorsed Barak Obama in 2008 as her father’s rightful heir she laid upon him the mantle of Camelot, and the enduring mystique of John F. Kennedy, who, according to polls, continues to be America’s most beloved president. Comparisons between the 35th and 44th presidents have been inevitable, and while there are striking similarities between the two men, there are also distinguishing differences.
Both rose to the nation’s highest office as junior U.S. Senators with scant legislative achievements to their credit. The man from Massachusetts served three terms in the House of Representatives before he won his Senate seat in 1952 and began campaigning for national office, running for Vice President in 1956 and for President in 1960. Obama, a state legislator in Illinois for seven years, began his run for the White House shortly after being elected to the Senate. Both men broke the barriers of bigotry to reach the highest office in the land–Kennedy as the first Roman Catholic; Obama as the first African American.
Erudite Ivy Leaguers, each seemed blessed with the gift of prose. Kennedy wrote three books, and won a Pulitzer Prize for Profiles in Courage; Obama made millions writing his best-selling memoir, Dreams from My Father. As a Boston scion and Harvard graduate, JFK. always smarted at being rejected for a seat on the Harvard Board of Overseers; Obama left Harvard with the distinction of having been the first person of color to be elected president of the Harvard Law Review.
Both men possessed extraordinary talents for oratory and inspired their generations with the poetry of hope–”the thing,” Emily Dickinson described, “with feathers that perches in the soul.” Their messages resounded for a nation grown restless after eight years of a Republican administration. Each man came to the presidency with their party in control of Congress, and each used that power to effect sweeping change. Kennedy introduced the most comprehensive and far-reaching civil rights bill, which was not passed on his watch, but became law under his successor. Obama signed the Affordable Care Act of 2010 which reformed health care to provide insurance for all Americans. Kennedy ordered federal departments and agencies to end discrimination against women in appointments and promotions; Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Act to provide fair pay in the work place. In addition, he succeeded in getting a measure passed to end discrimination against gays in the military.
Both Kennedy and Obama exuded a dash of glamour in their roles as Commander-in-Chief and became the darlings of Hollywood. As President, each brought to the White House a fashionable and accomplished First Lady, two adorable young children, and scene-stealing pets. Yet as beloved as each became, both men stirred ferocious passions and dangerous threats from extremists who accused them of treason.
As notable as their similarities are the differences which define and separate them. Kennedy grew up with immense wealth and the high expectations and powerful connections of his father, the former Ambassador to the Court of St. James, who was the 14th richest man in America in 1960, worth more than $400 million. Obama, a fatherless child, forged his way on the wings of a single working mother, who wandered the world and left her son to the loving care of her parents. As a young man he borrowed thousands of dollars to finance his education and was not able to repay his student loans until he was 43 years old.
Both elusive men, Kennedy and Obama cared mightily about their public image, not an insignificant concern for politicians. Kennedy, who worried about being portrayed as a rich man’s dilettante son, would not allow photographs inside Air Force One, saying it would look like a playboy’s luxury. Obama made sure cameras never caught him smoking cigarettes. Each understood the mesmerizing power of appearances and knew as the actor Melvyn Douglas says in the film Hud, “Little by little the look of the country changes just by looking at the men we admire.”
Both presidents tangled with corporate America and drew the ire of big business. Kennedy blasted the steel industry in 1962, saying their price increase was “unjustifiable and irresponsible.” Obama, a community organizer, championed the middle class, challenging Wall Street when he enacted financial regulatory reform, and demanded that the richest Americans to pay their full share of taxes.
Each had to find his way through military quagmires left by their predecessors. Kennedy was haunted by the Bay of Pigs invasion but carried the country through the Cuban Missile crisis. He later increased the number of US military advisers to South Vietnam to more than 16,000. Obama came to the White House determined to end the Iraq War which he did by December 2011. After sending 33,000 more U.S. soldiers to Afghanistan as part of a strategy to downsize the American commitment there, he vowed to end that war by 2014.
Politically, both men made judicious choices in their running mates, but Kennedy never gave Lyndon Baines Johnson the full partnership that Obama accorded to Joe Biden.
Kennedy left behind the Peace Corps, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the promise of a man on the moon within the decade. Obama’s legacy must be left to the historians of tomorrow but at the dawn of his second term, following an inauguration that coincided with the fiftieth anniversary of President Kennedy’s last year in office, it is reassuring to believe that each man dedicated his presidency to setting the country’s course true north.
(Photo: President Barack Obama looks at a portrait of John F. Kennedy by Aaron Shikler, taken by official White House photographer Pete Souza)
The jacket copy makes your mouth water with tantalizing promises of wealth, glamour and power. Even the title bespeaks upper-class gentility: American Lady: The Life of Susan Mary Alsop (Viking). This biography by Caroline de Margerie is the story of “the second lady of Camelot.” Many of us thought in the Kennedy administration that title belonged to the vice president’s wife, Lady Bird Johnson. While we’re never told who bestowed the honorific on Mrs. Alsop, we are assured that she is “an American aristocrat,” who “reigned over Georgetown society for four decades, her house a gathering place for everyone of importance, including John F. Kennedy, Katharine Graham and Robert McNamara.”
As someone who lives in Georgetown and enjoys reading about the myths of Camelot and American aristocrats, I could hardly wait to gobble up this book.
Perhaps the author, a member of the Conseil d’Etat, the highest administrative court in France, and once a diplomat, could not shake her silk stocking background long enough to probe beneath the surface. Or maybe she drew too close to Mrs. Alsop’s family, who gave her access to letters, papers and diaries that she barely quotes. Perhaps it was the author’s intercontinental collaboration with her sister, whom she credits with helping her complete the book. Then again, it might be the translation from French to English that makes this book (at 256 pages) read like biography lite.
“Slim” is the word de Margerie uses to describe Mrs. Alsop, an understatement for the stick-thin woman I met in Washington, D.C. (we went to the same Georgetown hairdresser). At 5’7” she was almost skeletal and appeared to weigh no more than 95 pounds, with blue-veined skin tissued over protruding bones. Even her son, William S. Patten, described his mother as “anorexic.” Yet her biographer chooses a polite characterization that is fathoms from the destructive disease of anorexia.
“Slim” seems to be the operative word for this book, whose euphemisms keep readers removed from knowing the woman whose life intersected with many charismatic figures of her era — Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Greta Garbo, Noel Coward, Edith Wharton, Brooke Astor, Ho Chi Minh, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy.
Susan Mary Jay Patten Alsop (1918-2004) was the great-great-great-granddaughter of John Jay, one of the Founding Fathers, who signed the Treaty of Paris in 1783 and became the first chief justice of the United States. Born into a revered American family, she declared she saw “no future in being an ordinary person.” She didn’t even like associating with ordinary people. According to her biographer, “She had always preferred lords to cowboys.”
Born in Rome, Susan Mary, as she was called, grew up in South America, traveled in Europe, lived in Washington and New York, and summered in Maine. She graduated from the Foxcroft School, took a few courses at Barnard College and married at the age of 21 after meeting Bill Patten (Harvard, Class of 1932), nine years her senior. He was severely asthmatic, like her father, declared 4F and unfit for military service. So his mother-in-law, Mrs. Jay, got him hired by the U.S. State Department to work for Sumner Wells, undersecretary to Cordell Hull. Patten’s first assignment was Paris, where he and Susan Mary lived from 1945 to 1960, when he died of emphysema.
Susan Mary soon fell out of love with her “sickly but sweet” husband and became besotted with their close friend, Duff Cooper, the British ambassador to France (1890-1954), the great love of her life. Her biographer maintains that Bill Patten “never showed signs of torment or bother” over his wife’s affair, and Susan Mary “was convinced he did not know.” She gave birth to Cooper’s son in 1946 and kept the paternity secret from her husband. She finally told her son when he was 47 who his real father was.
Three months after Bill Patten Sr. died, his Harvard roommate, Joseph Alsop, proposed. A powerful (and pompous) political columnist, he was syndicated in over 300 newspapers. After the election of John F. Kennedy, Alsop decided he needed a hostess to entertain the president and first dady so he wrote to Susan Mary, saying they could become a part of history if she married him. He admitted he was homosexual, said he did not expect her to be in love with him and that she could take a lover at any time. Reckoning that her son and daughter needed a stepfather and she needed a place in Washington society, Susan Mary accepted. The marriage did not last, but their friendship endured to the end of their lives.
Following her separation from Alsop, she asked him for permission to continue using his name. At the age of 56 she became a writer and published her first book, To Marietta from Paris: 1945-1960, a compilation of her letters to her best friend, Marietta Peabody Fitzgerald Tree. She published three more books and then became a contributing editor to Architectural Digest for many years.
Toward the end of her life she was plagued by near blindness, drug addiction and alcoholism. She died at the age of 86 in the Georgetown house she had inherited from her mother. Her obituaries barely mentioned her career as a writer, celebrating her instead as a “socialite,” “hostess” and “Washington doyenne.” Most assuredly she would have been pleased by the social plaudits because her first priority as an American lady was maintaining her place in society. Readers accustomed to hearty biography will go away hungry from this little morsel, feeling deprived of the banquet promised on the book jacket.
A group of elite whistleblowers met in Washington, D.C. recently without making a sound. There was no media coverage of these men and women whose exploits have commandeered front page headlines, been heralded on “60 Minutes” and “Dateline,” and, not incidentally, helped enrich the U.S. Treasury by over $16 billion since 1986.
This particular group known as SWAT (Successful Whistleblowers Advocating Against Tax Payer Fraud) met to share and celebrate their stories of exposing fraudulent health care companies, dishonest manufacturers and nefarious pharmaceuticals. And yes, by blowing the whistle, they have made themselves and their attorneys very rich. “We know how to win and how lonely a job it is,” said James F. Alderson, a certified public accountant from Whitefish, Montana, whose lawsuit against Hospital Corporation of America, Inc. yielded the biggest single cash recovery ever for the U.S. government—more than $1.7 billion.
After 12 years of litigation Alderson received an award in excess of 20 million; the average whistleblower award is $100,000. Only one percent receives life-changing awards like the SWAT team I met. Yet these whistleblowers are not happy-go-lucky moguls, reveling in the wealth they earned by taking principled stands against fraud, abuse and corruption. “Most of us gave up years of our lives in litigation, and lost all we had to tell the truth,” said Bruce Boise, a former Ohio sales representative for Cephalon, Inc. who made $250,000 a year before he was fired. He lost his job when he refused to follow the company’s orders to convince doctors to prescribe the company’s drugs for unapproved or “off-label” uses. He reported the company to the FDA and launched a massive government investigation. Cephalon paid $425 million to settle the suit and Boise received a handsome percentage. But despite the multi-million dollar award he still feels ostracized from society.
“All of us do. We’re looked on with disfavor and disgust by people who think we’re crazy or, even worse, greedy. There’s a stigma for telling the truth in a go-along-to-get along world,” he said.
“They call us ‘ratas’ [Spanish for rats],” said John W. Schilling, who with Alderson, filed suit under the False Claims Act against HCA, Inc., the nation’s largest for-profit healthcare provider, and developed the case that yielded the largest single cash recovery ever for the U.S. government. Despite their multi-million dollar awards, neither Schilling nor Alderson feels totally victorious. “How can you when there’s still so much fraud out there?” asked Alderson. “The only way to stop corporate corruption is to change the statute to make CEO’s go to jail for fraud. Right now they are immune.”
Explaining the basic mentality of corporate malfeasance, he said: “If companies can commit fraud for $100 and know they will only be fined $40, they still make a $60 profit…. The corporate integrity funds set aside to pay fines are part of their business plan.” His point is documented by the public record of Pfizer, whose total revenue from 2004-2008 was $245 billion. During the same period Pfizer paid $2.75 billion in fines.
The SWAT conference in Washington was organized by Alderson, and I accepted his invitation to address the whistleblowers over lunch. I felt honored to be among these individuals, who are either the most idealistic cynics I’ve ever met or the most cynical idealists. (The cynicism kicked in when someone mentioned one attendee who had cancelled at the last minute. “He got rear-ended,” said Alderson, “three weeks after his settlement.” All eyes looked up to the ceiling as everyone let out a long collective groan. “Yeah, well… let’s just hope it was an accident.”)
Most of the whistleblowers I met hailed from small towns with strong values. “I’m a devout Catholic,” said Schilling. “I was brought up by the nuns.”
“I’m a preacher’s kid,” said Walter W. Gauger, a former pharmacist who joined with George B. Hunt to sue Medco for prescription fraud. After 7 ½ years of litigation Medco settled for $155 million, the largest pharmaceutical fraud in the country.
There are two kinds of whistleblowers: Those “inside” are government employees. Those “outside” are non-government employees with knowledge of fraud or misbehavior of interest to the government (U.S. tax evasion, Medicare fraud, SEC violations, etc.) There are laws in 37 states to protect whistleblowers in the public and/or private sector but most attorneys acknowledge these laws are full of loopholes, poorly enforced and ineffective. There is no one comprehensive law that protects whistleblowers from suffering intense repercussions for telling the truth, even though their claims may be valid and their disclosures spare the public a great deal of pain and expense. The retaliation against whistleblowers, especially in the private sector, is severe. They are usually fired, losing all benefits while being blackballed in their industry. Company workers, once considered close friends, avoid them as do neighbors, even relatives. Their children are bullied at school and shunned by classmates. The isolation causes severe distress within the family, often leading to divorce, depression, distrust, and decline in physical health.
“I gained 70 pounds, developed diabetes and my husband left me,” said Janet Chandler, who sued Cook County Hospital in Chicago for forging data and failing to comply with federal human research regulations in a federally funded drug abuse study. As a young attorney Barack Obama worked on her case which went to the U.S. Supreme Court. “I won a 9-0 victory but got less than $1,000,000,” she said. “I spent the last three years co-founding a mentoring program for whistleblowers and getting my health back, and continue to work in public service as an advocate for women and children .”
Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle want to give federal whistleblowers better safeguards against retaliation when they report waste, fraud and corruption. Bills languishing in the House and the Senate would give them the right to a jury trial on retaliation claims—something they don’t get now. In addition, the legislation would lift the gag rules imposed by some national security agencies and strengthen rules against penalizing those who report wrong-doing to Congress.
As I left the SWAT luncheon, held a few blocks from the White House, I thought of the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life” and the bells that ring every time angels gets their wings. I fantasized about hearing whistles blowing every time someone stands up against fraud and corruption. A few hours after the luncheon the San Francisco Giants won the World Series, and the team received a call from the President inviting them to visit the White House. Sadly, the whistleblowers left Washington, virtually ignored.