by Kitty Kelley
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.
Cross-posted from Huffington Post
Nancy Reagan: The Unauthorized Biography has been released as an ebook by Simon & Schuster.
#1 New York Times Bestseller
The fastest selling biography in publishing history at the time of its release in hard cover.
“Beyond the adoring gaze…Nancy Reagan, or ‘Mrs. President,’ as her staffers called her, ruled the White House with a Gucci-clad fist.” –Maureen Dowd
by Kitty Kelley
My heartiest congratulations to Nancy Reagan today [July 6, 2011] as she celebrates her 90th birthday. You might think I would be (or should be) the last person to offer such a salute to the former First Lady. After all, I never voted for her husband, or supported any of his policies. To the contrary, I incensed him no end a few years ago when I wrote Nancy Reagan: The Unauthorized Biography.
Still, I salute longevity, and I applaud the fortitude of Mrs. Reagan to soldier on, despite her battles with breast cancer, a broken pelvis, and painful arthritis, plus the death of her beloved husband after a wrenching slide into Alzheimer’s. My father, who voted for Ronald Reagan every chance he got, lived to be 98 years old and showed me the tensile strength it takes to reach a venerable age. It’s no small accomplishment. Bette Davis was right: Old age is not for sissies.
Momentum is difficult without the buoyancy of youth; high hopes diminish with sickness and disease, and the optimism to forge ahead wilts with the loss of loved ones. Few people have the guts, the good luck and the genes to live long and productive lives. Since most of us won’t reach the age of ninety I think such a birthday is an occasion to celebrate. So I commend Nancy Reagan, and fully expect her to break the tape at 100 as Willard Scott hoists a Smuckers jar in her honor.
At the time I wrote Mrs. Reagan’s biography in 1991 she was still shaving her age by a couple of years, a harmless vanity for a former starlet. When she turned 69, reporters asked how old she was, and she coyly replied: “I still haven’t made up my mind.” They had to ask because they did not have access to her birth certificate. The document had been placed under court seal years ago in Chicago following Nancy’s adoption by her step-father Loyal Davis.
Once I was able to obtain a copy of that birth certificate I saw the formidable force that was to become Nancy Reagan. By then only two entries remained accurate: her sex and her color. Everything else had been rewritten like a Hollywood script. Born Anne Frances Robbins on July 6, 1921, she changed her name, revised her date of birth, concealed her roots (Amity Street in Flushing, New York near the railroad tracks) and replaced her father, Kenneth S. Robbins, a salesman from Pittsfield, Massachusetts, with the prominent surgeon, Loyal Davis, her mother’s second husband.
Nancy was thirty years old when she married Ronald Reagan, and, as she said, “That’s when my life started.” Few historians would disagree that “Mommy,” as her husband called her, was the moving force behind his success. Without her, he would never have become President. During the White House years she soldiered him through everything from the assassination attempt to the scandal of Iran Contra. Behind the scenes she hired and fired his advisors, dictated to his staff and his cabinet, even tempered his foreign policy. Yes, she consulted astrologers, “borrowed” designer clothes, and was besotted by Hollywood glitz and glamour. But something splendid happened after she left the White House and her husband received his tragic diagnosis. She came out of the shadows to become an activist.
Performing her best public service, Nancy Reagan began campaigning for expanded stem cell research. In 2004 she put herself at odds with her party by opposing President George W. Bush’s restrictive policies, which limited federal funding to stem cell colonies created before August 2001. She then joined Michael J. Fox and helped raise $2 million for stem cell research into Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. In 2006 she lobbied members of congress to revive a bill to expand federal funding. In 2007, at the age of 86, looking frail but sounding firm, she continued speaking out. “There are so many diseases that can be cured or at least helped,” she said. “We have lost so much time already and I just really can’t bear to lose anymore.” In 2009 she praised President Obama for overturning the Bush policy. “We owe it to ourselves and our children to do everything in our power to find cures for these diseases.”
So I raise a glass to Nancy Reagan as she celebrates her 90th birthday and salute her for showing us how to play the last inning with style.
Cross-posted from wowOwow