Friday, April 8, 2016

When first ladies meet:

An awkward post-election White House tradition 

Jacqueline Kennedy and Mamie Eisenhower were all smiles for the incoming first lady’s first visit to the White House, but it was a strained affair.

Mamie Eisenhower hated moving out of the White House. She loved the perks and the power, surely. But with her husband having served overseas through World War II, what she really relished was the companionship. Never had she spent so much time with Ike as she did during their eight years at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

It was no surprise, then, that the outgoing first lady resented her successor.

Mamie’s husband was being replaced by a Democrat, and her own role was being assumed by a woman she sneeringly referred to as “the college girl.” Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy’s beauty, her modern touch, and her youthful, cutting-edge style would soon eclipse Mrs. Eisenhower’s frumpy shirtwaist dresses, pearl chokers and short bangs.

In November 1960, the press clamored to find out when the incoming first lady would get her private tour of the White House. Jackie was pregnant — and due in a matter of days. But Mamie seemed to be biding her time. On Nov. 22, the Kennedys’ vivacious social secretary, Letitia Baldrige, told reporters, “The invitation has not been extended yet, but we hope it will be.”

It’s a transition that happens once or twice a decade. While the public is riveted by what Lady Bird Johnson called “the great quadrennial American pageant” — the handover of power in the ceremonial swearing-in at the west front of the Capitol — a quieter tradition takes place weeks earlier: A face-to-face meeting between the first ladies, as one shows off the home she is about to hand off to the other.

Through these personal tours, they sometimes develop lasting friendships. “I’m not sure we would call the relationship among first ladies a sisterhood,” says Rosalynn Carter. “We all know we have a lot in common, though.”

But the stress that any of us endure during a big move can be heightened by political tensions, generational divides and the glare of the spotlight. “No matter who follows you, you know they didn’t deserve to be there,” Betty Ford once said.

“We all know we have a lot in common”: A 1991 gathering at the opening of the Ronald Reagan presidential library: Lady Bird Johnson, Nancy Reagan, Pat Nixon, Barbara Bush, Rosalynn Carter and Betty Ford. 

The visit can be complicated even when the two families are seemingly on the same team. Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush had such a frosty relationship during her tenure that the vice president’s wife had barely set foot in the White House family quarters over those eight years. The official tour that Barbara received in 1989 was, by most accounts, brief and unsatisfying — a mere nine days before the Bushes were to move in.

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