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Who Should Be the Second Ladies of ‘The First Lady?’

As I mentioned in my interview with production designer Tony Fanning last month, I am a bit of nerd when it comes to Presidents. Not just as they’re portrayed in the movies (though I do pontificate on those from time to time!), but also in the general sense that, with only one or two or maybe three exceptions, all of our Presidents have been fascinating individuals to one degree or another. Even – and sometimes especially! – the bad ones.

But as Fanning noted, and as was expressed through Susanne Bier’s anthology miniseries The First Lady, the wives of these men were also often just as if not more interesting than their husbands. This first season, which is airing its finale tomorrow, focused on Michelle Obama, Betty Ford, and my personal favorite First Lady ever Eleanor Roosevelt, and while a potential second season is still up in the air, if Showtime does plan on future seasons, I’d like to suggest a few women who are more than worthy of the prestige TV drama treatment. And with all due respect to Mr. Fanning, Jacqueline Kennedy is not one of them. I think our culture has thoroughly covered her and I’m fine with Natalie Portman being the “definitive” portrayal for a least a while longer.

No, I think future episodes of this show would be better off telling the stories of:

Linda Cardellini Dedicating Herself to History Even in Mourning as Lucretia Garfield

James Garfield is one of the most tragic “What If?” stories in presidential history. His ascent was a true rags-to-riches tale, growing up in poverty and putting himself through college and law school. He served honorably for the Union in the Civil War and even made a significant contribution to the field of mathematics before becoming the Republican Party’s surprise “dark horse” nominee for President in 1880. Upon taking office, he set an ambitious agenda for technology investment, civil rights for African-Americans, and civil service reform… but he did not live to see those goals come to fruition.

Just four months into his only term, he was shot by a delusional weirdo who believed he was owed a Cabinet post and James died in agony several weeks later due to medical incompetence in treating his non-fatal wounds. This, of course, would be a harrowing story to retell, especially from the perspective of his poor wife Lucretia having to watch him suffer through an increasingly infected bullet wound. But during her short tenure as First Lady, Lucretia proved deeply interested in history and had laid out an ambitious plan to turn parts of the White House into a history museum and cultural center for Washington, D.C.

After her husband’s death, she dedicated herself to preserving her husband’s written correspondence and speeches and turned her Ohio residence into the James A. Garfield National Historic Site. In other words, Lucretia invented the modern presidential library. Who better to showcase the history of First Ladies in a second season than the one who pioneered preserving the legacies of First Families? Think of it like Bran the Broken being selected as king, only everyone doesn’t hate it this time.

Kirsten Dunst Enacting an Oddly Inspiring Conspiracy and Coverup as Edith Wilson

Okay, so just to get this out of the way, Woodrow Wilson was a despicable racist (not just by today’s standards, but even by the standards of the 1910’s) and his post-war foreign policy decisions were a major contributor to the eventual outbreak of World War II. I am not interested in a TV show rehabilitating his legacy. But I continue to be surprised at how few people know that his second wife, First Lady Edith Wilson, was in all but name our first woman President. 

Let me explain: Woodrow suffered a stroke in 1919 which left him permanently disabled. Since what would become the 25th Amendment wouldn’t even be proposed for another forty years, let alone ratified, his closest advisors feared the political fallout of his Vice President Thomas Marshall assuming the duties of his Commander-in-Chief while he was incapacitated but not actually deceased, especially since the Democrats had recently lost control of the U.S. Senate. So, Edith and the President’s personal physician instead conspired with his Cabinet to keep Woodrow’s physical and mental condition hidden from the public. She secretly ran her husband’s affairs for the remaining eighteen months of his second term. No one was allowed to see him without her permission, all White House correspondence went through her personally, and no decisions were made by her husband without her involvement.

This doesn’t even have to be some shallow “What a woman!” hashtag girlboss story, either. After all, most of the decisions made by the Wilson Administration that hamstrung the new League of Nations as well as the crackdowns on free expression under the “First Red Scare” were on her watch. Plus, we are still talking about a woman complicit in deceiving the American people regarding the condition of a man who became functionally incapable of carrying out the duties that they elected him to do. But that’s why Edith would be such a great character for The First Lady – the kind of ethical questions and consequences stemming from her place in history would make for terrific drama. 

Vera Farmiga Embodying the Tireless Mental Health Advocacy of Rosalynn Carter

It’s nice to see Jimmy Carter enjoying a positive historical re-evaluation while he’s still alive. Most Presidents who go through that kind of public rehabilitation, like Harry Truman, tragically experience it posthumously. But his wife Rosalynn deserves just as much of an upswing in the popular consciousness. 

When Jimmy first announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination, he was seen as, at best, a longshot and at worst a nonentity. Imagine if, say, Michael Bennet had ended up securing the 2020 Democratic nomination to get a sense of how shocking Jimmy’s ascent was in 1976. His eventual nomination over several better-known opponents can be attributed to a lot of things, one of them being Rosalynn personally campaigning for her husband on her own in 41 states. After moving into the White House, Rosalynn actually sat in on Cabinet meetings so she could give informed answers to policy questions asked to her during her frequent intra and international travels.

Oh, that’s another thing she did – Rosalynn took official trips abroad to represent the United States as a diplomatic envoy in Latin America and Southeast Asia. She worked so extensively that she set up her own office in the East Wing and Congress approved funding a support staff for her; unprecedented for a First Lady.

But it was her mental health advocacy that will undoubtedly be her legacy, and it should be a major focus of a second season of The First Lady. As a National Association of Mental Health board member and chair of the President’s Commission on Mental Health, she is the reason why Americans today aren’t ashamed of discussing their own mental health struggles or seeking treatment for them. Sadly, much like the upcoming conclusion of the Michelle Obama storyline of this season, Rosalynn’s story will also have to end in disappointment. Shortly after the Mental Health Systems Act was signed into law by her husband, which achieved nearly all of the policy objectives she had aimed for (she was only the second First Lady ever to testify in front of Congress, and it was to advocate for this very bill), Jimmy was defeated by former California Governor Ronald Reagan, who spent the next eight years undermining the law and bleeding out its funding until most of its provisions were rendered effectively useless. Just something to think about the next time a Republican politician tells you that “the real issue is mental health!” in reaction to the next mass shooting.

Which First Lady would you like to see explored in the next season of The First Lady? Let us know in the comments.

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Kellie
Kellie
10 days ago

I like your choices ! They all need or deserve in the cases of Rosalynn and Lucretia in getting some much deserved credit for things we take for granted now. Edith Wilson is a subject in history we need to understand better. I think her role hasn’t been fully covered or shown in the kind of detail it demands. If you haven’t read Hidden Power by Kati Marton it’s worth it . She covers several of the 20th century First Ladies including Edith Wilson, Eleanor Roosevelt and Rosalynn Carter . It’s from 2001 but it’s on Amazon. I take issue with the second Mrs Wilson having so much power when she was opposed to women’s suffrage. I think her time in that role of de facto president needs scrutiny.
I do wonder if some First Ladies like Abigail Adams and Mary Lincoln need more attention or not. I think Dolley Madison and Lady Bird Johnson certainly do but I very much like your choices and who could play them.

I haven’t watched all of the Showtime series yet but so far I am enjoying it. I think all three women did an incredible job each her challenge. Viola in playing a contemporary, Michelle in playing a woman of recent times who simply isn’t as well known in an odd way ( except for First Lady geeks like me) and Gillian Anderson in giving a fresh look at an often played or imitated First Lady icon .I have been highly impressed by Anderson. I know she’s an amazing actress but I wasn’t sure about her playing Eleanor. She has already exceeded my expectations.

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Written by Robert Hamer

Formerly an associate writer for recently-retired Award Circuit, Robert Hamer is a veteran who spends his time obsessing over movies and pop politics.

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