Eleanor Roosevelt was history to me, Bess Truman was largely absent from view — and intended it to be that way. I remember Mamie Eisenhower mainly for her bangs and her recipe for fudge. Jackie Kennedy was memorable to me as a cultured person who could make Americans care about what the White House looked like, and taught us that it wouldn’t hurt us a bit to exercise a little taste. Pat Nixon was a stand by your man woman, for a man who, try as he might, couldn’t return her devotion. However, it wasn’t until Betty Ford that I started really paying attention to First Ladies.
Out of what seemed like nowhere there was a First Lady who told us outright she was dealing with breast cancer treatments. Most male politicians couldn’t seem to get the word “breast” into their public vocabulary. Betty Ford didn’t waffle or euphemize — she didn’t “have cancer,” she had “breast cancer.” She admitted her tribulations and troubles, and she did it with the support of a loving husband. It’s no accident her portrait by Cuban artist Felix de Cossio shows us the dancer and model, proud and poised. It was no accident the Fords and the Carters became friends. Two American families, two love stories, played out on television as they held hands, patted shoulders, gave hugs.
Nancy Reagan, by all accounts, was a tiger in defense of her husband, his smiles in her presence signaled their relationship, one that would be tested by the trauma of his decline and destruction by Alzheimer’s. Whatever we might think of her politics it’s impossible to question their relationship, right to the tragic end. George and Barbara Bush followed, another family complete with dogs — one of whom wrote a book (?) — and again, politics aside, the White House reflected a strong mutual relationship. The Clinton’s were more tumultuous, mostly a problem on his part than a question of the relationship on hers. Interestingly, those who sang along to “Stand By Your Man,” changed their tune when it came to a Democratic president. But — they’re still married, and they both appear just as absorbed by their grandchildren as every other “haul the pictures out of the wallet” grandparents in the country.
George W. Bush’s portrait in the National Gallery shows a relaxed man in a blue double pocket shirt; Laura Bush’s portrait is more formal, including a book in hand, reminding us of her literacy program advocacy. Even more interesting is their pose at the National Gallery. She’s holding his arm, he’s leaning toward her. They look a little “stiff,” as though after the photo session is finished they’d very much like to go home and make popcorn. Amble through the photos of them, notice in how many he has his arm around her, notice in other shots how many times they touch each other’s faces. Notice in how many photos George W. has his arm around someone — everyone — Michelle Obama included. Again, ignoring the politics for a moment, the portrait painters and photographers show us a couple that lives, loves, argues, makes up, holds hands and gives hugs.
And now the Obamas have their portraits in the National Gallery, CSPAN recorded their National Gallery portraits unveiling and it’s worth a look. Here’s a hint: Watch the video all the way to the end. There’s a moment after the posing for photographs (with the same sense of awkwardness hinted at during the George and Laura Bush unveilings) when we see the Obamas leave the stage. Mrs. Obama begins to exit the stage, Mr. Obama pauses a moment, looking at her portrait, just long enough to make it obvious he’s enamored of the portrait subject — it’s a moment, then he quickly strides over to leave with her. Once more, leaving politics out of it, for eight years we were treated to a love story.