10/31: The Candidate’s Spouse on the Campaign Trail

Presidential candidates willingly step into the political spotlight, but their spouses are, sometimes, reluctant participants.  What is the role of a candidate’s spouse on the campaign trail?  Historically, how important have they been?  Veteran news correspondent Bonnie Angelo discusses this topic with the Marist Poll’s John Sparks.

Bonnie Angelo, author of "First Families: The Impact of the White House on Their Lives" and "First Mothers: The Women Who Shaped the Presidents" (courtesy HarperCollins).

Listen to Part 1 of the Interview:


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John Sparks

Bonnie, we’re in the throes of a presidential election. We read and see a lot about the candidates, but do the candidates’ wives play any significant role in the campaign?

Bonnie Angelo

I would say that the candidates’ wives in this day and age play a very significant role.  A candidate’s wife can be a tremendous help, or she can be a disaster.  If she says the wrong thing at the right time, it can haunt her.  So, she’s playing a very important role because people expect a candidate’s wife, the person who wants to be First Lady, live in the White House, be a public figure around the world, she’s got to have something more than just average sorts background.  So, I think that the candidate’s wives are going to be examined more closely.  Each election, they’re going to be examined more closely than they were before.  They’ve got to be public figures, and they’ve got to understand it from the start.

John Sparks

Is it the press who is responsible for this attention on the wives?  I recall when Jackie Kennedy became the media darling, but she really did not like the campaign, did she?

Bonnie Angelo

Oh, Jackie hated it.  She hated the whole scene of politics.  She wanted the White House, and she did beautiful things with the White House, but she did not want to live up to the part where you have to shake a lot of hands, be in boring meetings, be on display whether you want to be or not.  She didn’t really like that; she wanted it on her own terms.  She pretty well managed that, too.

John Sparks

Well, that takes me to leaping to Hillary Clinton.  She actively campaigned for her husband Bill, and then of course, four years ago, she was a candidate.  Now, I think it’s fair to say that with the Clinton’s, either Hillary or Bill, that most folks are not on the fence.  They either really like them, or they don’t.  But I’m just curious, was Bill an asset or a liability in Hillary’s run against Obama four years ago?

Bonnie Angelo

I think he was an asset.  I think he took great pains not to overshadow her.  He did a lot of things on her behalf, speeches and that kind of thing, in a way that did not attract that much attention.  I believe that he was truly supportive, and I think that both of them thought how exciting it would have been for the each of them to have been President of the United States.  It would be historic, and they had a great sense of history.  So, I think that he kept his place very nicely, shall we say.

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John Sparks

Sure.  Now, I recall back in 1998 when Hillary is campaigning for Bill on his first run.  She made a comment during the campaign that she would not be the kind of woman that would be at home baking cookies, and that prompted Family Circle magazine, they sponsored this cookie bakeoff between Hillary and Barbara Bush, and certainly got a lot of press, but did that have any impact on the election at all?

Bonnie Angelo

I don’t think it had any impact on the election.  I think the election was going to go the way it would, but it did not help because once she was doing was demeaning the role of the average American housewife, and I think that they could see that it was like they were being kind of scoffed at for baking cookies.  Now, she should have handled that smoother.  Would have done it had she stopped to think.  One of the problems for candidates, there’s no time to stop and think.  A question comes flying at you, and you answer it, and you think, “Oh, I wish I hadn’t said that,”  but she couldn’t take it back.  But, I don’t think that helped her at all.

John Sparks

You know in thinking about things that one might want to take back, in 2004, John Kerry’s wife, Teresa Heinz, made a comment about Laura Bush.  She said that Laura had never really held a real job.  That hurt her I think, and then also the fact that Teresa Heinz had also been a Republican before she married John Kerry, but was she really a factor in the outcome of that election in 2004?

Bonnie Angelo

No, I think the handwriting was already on the wall on that.  I don’t think she helped, not at all.  Maybe, she cased some vote, but I don’t think the outcome would have been any different.  It was  not, shall we say she had not thought it through what she was saying, because you can’t insult somebody in a rather personal way, the way she seemed to insult Laura Bush. Not a wise thing to say, she never put her foot wrong again after that, but you have to be very, very, I should say, the candidate’s wife has got to be very, very careful where she makes — gives opinions.

John Sparks

In summing up, what would you say is the primary thing a candidate’s wife should remember about her role during a campaign?

Bonnie Angelo

I think she could remember that she is out there to help his cause, not in any way trying to overshadow him, and I think they don’t instinctively, but they must bear that in mind that to be very careful not to say anything, to be so well versed in the issues that she would not say anything that could be used against him, and to be supportive of him without being a doormat.

John Sparks

Bonnie, it’s always a pleasure to talk to you.  I appreciate your time this afternoon.

9/22: The Political Climate Leading Up To the Midterm Elections

September 22, 2010 by  
Filed under Bonnie Angelo, Featured, National, Politics

Will a record number of incumbents go down in defeat in this November’s midterm elections?  Will Republicans regain control of the Senate?  What impact will the Tea Party have on the election?  Will its candidates who won primary victories over Republicans be able defeat Democrats in the general election?  Is President Obama in trouble?  Veteran news correspondent Bonnie Angelo discusses the upcoming election with the Marist Poll’s John Sparks.

Bonnie Angelo, author of "First Families: The Impact of the White House on Their Lives" and "First Mothers: The Women Who Shaped the Presidents" (courtesy HarperCollins).

Bonnie Angelo, author of "First Families: The Impact of the White House on Their Lives" and "First Mothers: The Women Who Shaped the Presidents" (courtesy HarperCollins).

Listen to Part 1:


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John Sparks
Bonnie, the latest New York Times poll tells us there is a widespread dissatisfaction with President Obama and Congress.  We’re on the eve of the midterm elections, and typically I think of those as a time when the party out of power makes gains against the party in power.  Many times I think of it as a referendum on the President if his party has the majority in Congress. But based on the primaries that have led up to this November, it doesn’t seem that simple as it was in years past.  What do you think is going on?

Bonnie Angelo
Well, I think there’s a general sourness that sort of permeates this country right now.  Don’t know exactly why.  Things are not going badly, but there is a tendency, I think, to just be negative without even knowing why, and I think that’s what they… If they were opposed by people, then you’d get a more accurate fix on how the voters felt about it. But, I think this is just a way of saying, “Oh, we don’t like what you’re doing,” and that goes for anybody.  I mean there’s neither side that’s getting pluses.

John Sparks
Yes, I was going to say that it seems to indicate that folks want the current crop of representatives thrown out whether they’re a Democrat or a Republican.

Bonnie Angelo
That’s right.  That’s right.

John Sparks
Do you think that we’ll see a record number of incumbents actually losing their seats?

Bonnie Angelo
We’ve got quite a little bit of time to deal with, well some time, time enough, a little bit, for things to gel. I do believe that some people who grumble, when it comes close to just really going in the booth, may be saying, “But this fellow or this woman is better than the other one.”  And so…  but we may have a low turnout.

John Sparks
You know these Tea Party candidates who have prevailed in some of the Republican primaries this year, do you think that their victories reflect a disenchantment with President Obama and the Democrats or more of a disenchantment with the Republican Party and its candidates?

Bonnie Angelo
I have a feeling that it’s reflecting, as you’re saying, disenchantment with the whole swath of politics. There’s something that’s –maybe people see it up close too much now, because politics is –when you see too much of it, it can kind of turn you sour on it, and that may be part of it. They’ve had too much of it.

John Sparks
Well, you think President Obama is in trouble?

Bonnie Angelo
No.  I don’t. I think there’s nobody… You can… It’s easy to knock somebody when there’s not anybody else on the scene.  If there was somebody else really catching on, then you might think. But on the other hand, this is just a halfway mark. He’s got… He would have time to do many things between now and the real election.

John Sparks
Do you think…

Bonnie Angelo
But, where’s the face that’s really coming in to overpower him?  That’s what’s hard to find.

John Sparks
Do you think that the Republicans have any chance at all of regaining the Senate in November?

Bonnie Angelo
That will be a hard one for them because there’s quite a great discrepancy in the numbers now, much more than in some times.  I think a lot of it really depends on how they conduct their campaigns.  I don’t believe that really negative campaigning goes over so well in this country now.  Perhaps, I’m saying that because I don’t like negative campaigning. I think you ought to be excited for somebody, if possible, or, at least, choose one over the other for what he or she stands for.  I feel that the negative campaigning doesn’t help anybody.

Listen to Part 2:


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John Sparks
So what do you think of the Tea Party? Is it another third party like we’ve seen over the years, or do you think it stands a chance of changing our two-party structure?

Bonnie Angelo
You know, I think the Tea Party is a fascinating phenomenon.  We’ve had, as you said, over the years, groups that come in and have an impact on the scene, but this one — this group is enormous, and it seems to be catching hold in all parts of the country, not just in say the South or the Farm Belt or whatever. It seems to be reaching out in a way that their issues are what’s bothering the American people. Now whether they can do anything about those issues, I’m not sure.  I feel that they by and large have too negative an approach to politics.  I think politics are best served by good people getting into the game and trying to say what they want to do rather than just attacking their opposition.

John Sparks
There’s quite a difference between a primary election and a general election. We’ve seen, I believe, in eight races since last spring where a Tea Party nominee has prevailed in a Republican primary, but what sort of chance do you give these Tea Party nominees against Democrats in November?

Bonnie Angelo
Not much. I just…  I think that they’re — they are too negative in their approach to politics to be –to cut much into a more positive kind of outlook that’s defined on the Democratic side. It might not be any better than the others, but I think they tend to be more activist, more positive.  Of course, we’ve got activist negatives as well.  It’s…  This is going to be a very interesting one.  We haven’t had a phenomenon like this in quite a long time, so it’s not just a passing — it seems to be not just a passing fancy. That… when they get closer to the voting, maybe some of these others who have been grumbling will come back to their native home either with the mainstream Republicans or with the — with their Democrats of whichever stripe they like. I believe that will be the case. But if not, we’re really seeing something deeply different and, I think, quite divisive in this country.

Listen to Part 3:


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John Sparks
I know you’ve heard like I have about that 11th Commandment that Republicans used to talk about, and that was that they would not talk ill of another Republican during a primary campaign. Well, that’s out the window now, and I’m just wondering: Do Republicans need to bury the hatchet and unify now in order to be a viable force in November against Democrats?  And will they?  Will the… Will these Tea Party folks get the backing of the moderate Republicans?

Bonnie Angelo
Well, or would the Tea Party folks give their backing to moderate Republicans?  I don’t think you have to put them in the leading position where it’s almost an exception that they’re going to be the major factor in this election.  Although, it’s hard to tell in this country what’s rippling just below the surface.  The people that we hear and know are out there with a message and a commitment, but there’s an awful lot of Americans who just quietly sit back, many of which of whom will not vote in an off-year election, you know.  You almost need a president at the top of the ticket.

John Sparks
You know, I think it’s interesting that President Obama based his presidential campaign on change and now it’s the Tea Party members within the ranks of Republicans who are calling for change within the ranks of their own party.  Has change become everyone’s mantra these days?

Bonnie Angelo
Yes.  I think Americans like the idea of change I think, and so it’s a word that’s resonating now.  I think this — the Tea Party runs the risk of being seen as too much change or either perhaps too – I don’t want to say vicious, but maybe too harsh in its change. I think we’re not a country right now that likes to be at razors’ edge with the — on issues.

John Sparks
Were you surprised at the outcome of some of the primaries? I’m thinking like Mike Castle losing to Christine O’Donnell in Delaware and Rick Lazio losing to Carl Paladino in New York. Did that surprise you?

Bonnie Angelo
Yes. Yes.  Both of them surprised me.  I thought because I haven’t really been out to watch these competitors on the stump, which is, you know, you get a whole different feeling than when you just read about people, but I think that there might be a sleeper group of voters out across the country that just says, “Well let’s do something different.  I don’t like what’s been happening.” But whether they will really turn out, it’s going to be a very interesting off year election. Some of them are not.  But this one I believe will be compelling and might point the way to a much bigger sort of change in this country.

Listen to Part 4:

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John Sparks
We have certainly witnessed over the past few years what I call an increasing polarization certainly between Republicans and Democrats, this acrimony that’s so predominant on the Hill, but now we’re seeing what appears to be a polarization within certainly the Republican Party.  What affect is this having on how government is able to operate?

Bonnie Angelo
I think the — this concept of a government that has both parties able to come together, giving up a little bit on each — from each of them to come together to hammer out programs that are maybe centrist or, maybe, middle ground in terms of where they land politically, I’m not sure we’re going to be able to have that now.  Part of it, I think, is the media. These… The extremists are able to get much more media time than their numbers would have in the past, at any rate, suggested because they — you know the media likes something that stirs up the viewer…

John Sparks
Drama.

Bonnie Angelo
…and I think that have an effect on this.

John Sparks
I think of that drama and controversy the media thrives on, and I think we’ve had some characters, if you will, that have grown up out of this. I think of the Limbaughs of the world…

Bonnie Angelo
Yes.

John Sparks
…that I think are really entertainers, but they’re playing with rather serious subject matter and seem like they want to stir up the pond a little bit just for the sake of the drama and the devices that…

Bonnie Angelo
I think you’re right, but I think when you say “Rush Limbaugh,” I believe he indeed stirs up the… He, of course, has been doing that for a number of years, but it’s taken awhile for him to get seen and listened to on the major political stage and this –and now he really can demand it.  I think he doesn’t like the idea of coming together, finding a middle way. I think that there’s an attitude in this country that loves to be on the edges.

John Sparks
Jim Wright, the former House Speaker, told me one time that when he was first elected that Democrats and Republicans across the aisle from one another had a great deal of respect for one another, but they also genuinely liked one another…

Bonnie Angelo
Yes.

John Sparks
…and nothing could be further from the truth today.  And, I’m just wondering the dissention, the controversy that has spread with some of the radio talk shows like, I’m going to use Limbaugh again as an example, have we…

Bonnie Angelo
He’s the one that really turned it that way more than any other single person into…

John Sparks
True.

Bonnie Angelo
…the talk shows into a much more mean-spirited attack shows more than we’d ever known before.

John Sparks
Yes, and has this mean spiritedness…

Bonnie Angelo
Yes.

John Sparks
…now transferred to the very people that are being elected and sent to the hilltop?

Bonnie Angelo
I remember having heard many times political people saying, “Well, you know once the election’s over, once the votes are cast, then we just — we go back, and we can be friends together again,” and they’d have lunch together and blah, blah, blah.  Well, I don’t think that’s the case now, and I think part of it, maybe much of it, is a result of a very mean-spirited attitude that has come into our television talk shows.  We did not have that say 15 years ago.

Listen to Part 5:


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John Sparks
What would it take to turn things around?

Bonnie Angelo
That’s an excellent question, and I don’t think anybody has an answer.   It would take a leader or multiple leaders with a great sense of reaching out once the votes were cast, and they won their positions, to reach out and find some compromises, to reach out and find some greater friends on the other side. That used to be the way it was done.  It has lost that mode of friendship and of trying not to be brutally harsh. I don’t know.  It plays so well on television, you know, to be really tough. I’m not sure whether we can put that horse back in the stall.

John Sparks
There’s been a lot of criticism about the media concentrating on the horse race. There you have drama and conflict also. Is it an inescapable trap that we’ve fallen into in covering elections because of all this technology and the way it’s changed the way elections are covered?

Bonnie Angelo
Well, of course the technology has made it so much more apparent how the horse race aspect is. There’s so many more avenues that can be galloped down.  But, let’s remember way back in 1960, there was with Nixon and Kennedy, there was a lot of harsh in the background kind of action then too.  I think maybe perhaps it didn’t get seen as much, or it did not get the exposure on television because, one, television really was nothing back then, and now, that’s the way people make their mark on television is to be just push the borders as far as you can.

John Sparks
You recall back in 1994, the Contract with America and when the Republicans gained a majority in the House and the Senate.  Do you foresee something like this happening with this evolvement of Tea Party?

Bonnie Angelo
You know, that’s an issue that I think everybody that’s interested in politics is wondering.  How is this going to play out?

John Sparks
You know we’re six weeks away from the November election.  I want to project even further and look in your crystal ball and tell me what we’re going to see two years down the road when we vie again for the highest office in the land?

Bonnie Angelo
I just don’t think you can project that far now because we are in such a – - we’re of the moment to such a degree.

John Sparks
Is there anything else that you’d like to add?

Bonnie Angelo
I’ve been interested in, as we see this campaign unroll, that the role that women play is much more crucial than it has ever been before.  Women have been making greater progress in participation for the last couple of decades, but now there’s so many of them that are on the cutting edge of being candidates who are not just taken seriously but can affect the whole kind of tenor of the election, and some of them are very tough.  We’re not talking about women candidates with this soft rock-the-baby kind of attitude, they can be as tough out there as any male competitor.  I think that is a very different thing.

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Bonnie Angelo

August 27, 2010 by  
Filed under Bonnie Angelo

Bonnie Angelo is the author of First Families: The Impact of the White House on Their Lives and First Mothers: The Women Who Shaped the Presidents.

Bonnie Angelo

Bonnie Angelo

In Ms. Angelo’s more than 25 year career with Time Magazine, she has covered the White House and other current events, both, domestically and internationally.

First Ladies’ Footsteps: An Interview

April 16, 2009 by  
Filed under Bonnie Angelo, Featured, National, Politics

She’s covered every first lady since Mamie Eisenhower.  Now, former White House correspondent and author, Bonnie Angelo, shares her views about Michelle Obama with The Marist Poll’s John Sparks.  Read the transcript of the full interview below.

Bonnie Angelo, author of "First Families: The Impact of the White House on Their Lives" and "First Mothers: The Women Who Shaped the Presidents" (courtesy HarperCollins).

Bonnie Angelo, author of "First Families: The Impact of the White House on Their Lives" and "First Mothers: The Women Who Shaped the Presidents" (courtesy HarperCollins).

John Sparks
Bonnie, I want to start out by talking about Michelle Obama.  How would you rate Michelle and the job she’s doing as first lady?

Listen to Part 1 of the Interview:

Bonnie Angelo
I’m trying to think of how you’d say she’s a ten-plus.  She hit the ground running.  She knew what she wanted to do and instantly without any break in time set about doing it, which was to reach out to many, many more kinds of people, and then we’ve had the opportunity in these recent days to see her absolutely a star on the world stage.  Every move she made, the London newspapers just wrote and wrote about.  Now they’re on the Continent, and I’m sure there will be the same kind of coverage.  But she simply swamped the 20 Nation Summit with her presence and her activities.

John Sparks
Which former first lady does she remind you most of?

Bonnie Angelo
Michelle is cutting a new pattern.  She reminds me of a cross-section of people.  There is a big slice of Eleanor Roosevelt who was very concerned with shining her light into the darkness of the forgotten people in this country during those depression years.  She’s partly Lady Bird Johnson wanting to make things more beautiful.  She set about planting a vegetable garden in the White House grounds, on the White House grounds.  That’s something that Lady Bird would’ve certainly approved of.  She was like Jackie Kennedy in that she has a great sense of fashion and doesn’t mind being ahead of the game on that.  So, she’s got a blend of many of the best attributes of several of our first ladies.

John Sparks
We took a recent poll, and we asked the respondents which of the following first ladies that they would like to see Michelle follow in the tradition of and mentioned Barbara Bush, Laura Bush, Hillary [Clinton], Jackie Kennedy, Nancy Reagan, and Eleanor Roosevelt. I’m just curious.  You covered all of these, well probably with the exception of Eleanor.  Would you like to see her follow in the tradition of one of these?

Bonnie Angelo
Well, no, not one of those necessarily because I think that list omits the most crucial person that she might be following, and that’s Lady Bird Johnson.  Lady Bird Johnson never set a foot wrong.  She never caused any problems in the White House, but she did things. Her beautification program across the country left lasting imprints that this nation still appreciates.  So how she could… She must be included on that list, and I would say that certainly Michelle would take a lot of comfort in what she could see that Lady Bird did.  On the others, of course, Eleanor Roosevelt would’ve been a great to her historic figure in that she shone her light on economically distressed families, on the woes that America was facing and needed to address. I think Michelle will not do as much of that, but I think she has already shown that, for example, she turned up on a Sunday morning with absolutely minimal, minimal press, maybe one reporter was allowed, working in a soup kitchen for the homeless here in Washington.  Now, none of the others have ever done that, and she did it with minimal publicity.  So, I think she has a very deep social conscience, and I see a lot of Eleanor Roosevelt in that. I think she also has a sense of style that has beguiled particularly on her trip to Europe.  Every time she sets foot out of their quarters, the British press is just falling all over to write about Michelle.  She has a sense of style like no other first lady since Jacqueline Kennedy.  She wears the clothes that are quite daring and very fashionable, very chic.  So, I think she can be compared to a number of the other first ladies, but certainly to the activists on the list.

John Sparks
Bonnie, you know most first ladies usually take on a project. You referred to Lady Bird and the beautification project.  With Laura Bush, it was literacy, Rosalynn Carter mental health, Hillary [Clinton] and healthcare, I suppose.  What does it say about a first lady when she chooses a project, and what does it say about what she might be willing to bite off?

Listen to Part 2:

Bonnie Angelo
Well, I think it shows her commitment to her new position. The first ladies must realize that they have enormous influence, not power, but influence, and certainly Michelle realized that from the campaign right on.  There are those who didn’t do it.  Nancy Reagan did minimal. Her concern was Ronald Reagan, making him happy. Her children never even visited the White House. I think after their first month there, I’m not sure that her own children, Patty and Ronald Jr., I’m not sure they were ever even in the White House again. They were totally irrelevant to the life of Nancy and Ronald Reagan.  There were others.  You mentioned Laura Bush and Barbara Bush. I mean remember Barbara Bush got us in – - got the country interested in literacy and reading. That was her project. She broke ground on that.  Laura really was just following in her footsteps on that. I certainly think Laura did a lot in that regard, but there was nothing original about it.

John Sparks
Let’s go back to Michelle for a moment.  Do you think that in the short time that she has been in the White House that she has changed or is in the process of changing the role of the first lady?

Bonnie Angelo
Yes, I do.  I think compare her to Laura Bush, who’s a very popular, likeable person and chose a very safe topic, activity to be on.  Who can be against literacy?  I mean really nobody.  But, Laura was very much the supporting person to her husband. They did practically nothing in a social way in the White House.  In eight years there, they had only eight state – - only six state dinners, which is really quite an incredible lack of understanding.  State dinners are not just where you show off your best silverware.  It’s where you’re creating a stage for your visitors from foreign countries. I think that they overlooked, didn’t understand that function.  So, I’m saying that Michelle is going back beyond them. Hillary, as first lady, got – - maybe stuck her neck out too far at the beginning when she really wanted to manage their healthcare initiative.  Now, she’s totally qualified. She’s much, much more qualified now than she was then of course, much, but she got burned by the criticism, because that effort didn’t go well.  So, she sort of retreated into being a more conventional person than she really was in her heart.  Once again, you go back to Lady Bird whose imprint is still across this whole nation. She did… She woke up the nation to both beautifying itself and preserving its historic places. People forget that aspect of her work.  But, nobody’s going to be against those, so she was – - it was safe, but she put energy and organization behind it; therefore, it has lasted all these years. Lady Bird’s work continues to this day. There’s not a thing you could point to from say Nancy Reagan who was a devoted wife to her husband.  She adored him as you know, but I can’t think of anything that Nancy Reagan did in the White House that was lasting. There was some little effort about, oh, a couple of projects but they were not – - they didn’t catch on. They were not crucial.  Her heart was not in it.  So, I think you can go back to Lady Bird.  You can then go back to Eleanor Roosevelt.  Now, remember that the first lady who followed Eleanor Roosevelt’s tenure, and Eleanor had broken ground to do things beyond any – - and got much criticism, much harsh criticism and even scoffing at her work, which was so important, shining her light on the dark corners of our country.  They would laugh about it.  Her enemies, and they were multiple, would laugh about it going down to coal mines.  She pointed out the terrible conditions that workers in this country must labor under for pitiful wages in many cases, so Eleanor Roosevelt’s got to be a basically White House saint on that. I think that Michelle is reaching out very much to African American projects to bring African Americans into the fold.  In London where they are not nearly, nearly as advanced in their racial adjustments as this country is, I was Bureau Chief over there for quite a long time – - for a time. In London, she went to a girls school, an inspirational thing. Those girls are never going to forget that.  She also did a number of other personal efforts to make people think particularly on that whole issue of bringing the black British into their – - more definitely into their society.  They’re way behind us on that.  I think that now she is on continental Europe, we’re going to see how it goes over there. I have no reason to think it will be other than the same outstanding success.  This is a woman of great ability. People forget that she was a Princeton graduate.  She was a Harvard Law graduate.  She was a person who could achieve just almost anything on her own merits.  She doesn’t get there from just being the wife of the president, and I think that is extremely important in this day and age when so many women are in the marketplace.

John Sparks
Bonnie, you covered, I think, every first lady in modern times since Mamie Eisenhower.

Listen to Part 3

Bonnie Angelo
I have basically, yes.

John Sparks
Of all of those that you knew and covered, who do you think was the strongest and who was the weakest?

Bonnie Angelo
Bess Truman was the weakest, no question in my mind.  She simply rejected any kind of function other than shaking hands at the mandatory tea receptions for ladies of standing.  She did… And everything she did she was grumpy about. When you read her books about their tenure, it’s really quite sad that she never saw… now they lived most of their time, which she much, much enjoyed, living across Pennsylvania Avenue in what is now and has been for many years, the president’s guest house. They lived there about three years because, possibly four, because the White House during that time was totally renovated, totally renovated, but she was delighted not to have to live in the White House. She had no sense of the role of the White House or what the White House could do, what it symbolizes for this country, which was very sad. You hate for somebody to gripe about all of their time as first lady when it is really such a – - it can be such an effective role for accomplishing things, so I put her as the most ineffective. I think the others you have to look at them for what they specifically do.  Rosalynn Carter certainly did a lot for mental health to make people aware, but it’s not a subject that you can get good photo opportunities out of, which is – - gets you in the newspapers and on television so that her choice of fields of subjects was extremely important, but it didn’t package very well.  Lady Bird’s, as we said, is important and lasting and it was packaged wonderfully and never caused… oh people sometimes grumbled about the money or whatever that Lady Bird was spending on her gardens, which was a shabby way to look at it.  She was a woman who was interested in the environment of this country, not just planting a rose bush here or there.  I think Hillary Clinton did not live up to her capabilities at all, which we saw fully developed in the Senate, but she was not that — she didn’t kind of work out her place in the White House as well as she could have because we saw what she could do as Senator and as what she’s doing as Secretary of State and also what a powerful candidate she was in the presidential campaign.  But Michelle Obama is just now – - we haven’t seen her in action for three months and she’s already done so much. Europe is just swooning over her.

John Sparks
What do you think is most important thing a first lady contributes?

Bonnie Angelo
I think a first lady should contribute concern for some big issue facing the whole country, not… I’m not saying political issue.  I’m specifically not saying that, but a big issue like the environment, which is what Lady Bird was really all about, saving our environment and our history.  Eleanor Roosevelt, you could see what her concern was, bringing the part of our country that was vanished almost into the darkness of poverty. Then, you get into the later times, now both of the Bush first ladies did a lot to emphasize literacy. I think that was admirable. I don’t think it probably connected that much to the nitty-gritty of black schools that are having such problems keeping their students. I don’t think it had any effect on that issue which is – - was – - is much graver than literacy per se.

John Sparks
Let’s talk about the influence that a first lady might have over her husband. Can you tell me of those that you covered who had the most influence over her husband and her husband’s actions?

Bonnie Angelo
I think Hillary Clinton had a great deal of influence because he respected her really first class brain and her sense of… I mean she was top of the class at Yale Law School. She was a person who had academic qualifications and had practiced in law. I think he respected her views on just about any subject that crossed their screen. I certainly know that Lyndon Johnson took a lot of his very thorny problems to Lady Bird, to talk to Lady Bird about, because he so held in high regard her good clear thinking, not publicly but he did that constantly.  I don’t know.  I didn’t get any sense of that with the Bush first ladies, but they certainly probably did more than perhaps seen publicly.  Barbara Bush is such a strong personality that I’m sure that any issue that was current during their tenure, their four-year tenure, that she would’ve weighed in without hesitation to talk about her view, give her views to her husband.  I think there’s no question about that.  Jackie Kennedy didn’t care really what John Kennedy was doing as president. She had no bent toward the political world, but she put a lasting legacy, her stamp on the White House with her very careful historically correct refurbishings and established it in a formal legal way that people could donate accepted gifts, not just any little knick-knack,to the White House if it passed muster.  So, she made people much more aware of the White House as a grand treasure of this country, and her stamp will be left on the White House for all years to come.  She also set a very high standard for just elegance, elegance. Now I don’t think she had any real care for the common folk. I don’t think that figured in her mentality at all.  She was a society girl who had wonderful taste, but I don’t think that she had any real compassion for the people who were struggling.

John Sparks
Bonnie, a minute ago you talked about Michelle and her credentials. She is a woman in her own right. She also has kids.  Do you think that she is changing how people view the balance between work and family?

Listen to Part 4:

Bonnie Angelo
Oh, I think that’s a wonderful issue because she is certainly concerned about it, and it’s plain that she could’ve had all kinds of appointments across the board with her background and with her knowledge of not just politics, but public policy, but she is steering a more cautious course of social issues, shining her light where there’s been not enough light shone. Now she’s not going to let those two little girls go unattended, and the best thing about that is that those two little girls and Michelle are seeing their father/husband more than they’ve ever been with him. When he was in the Senate, they were back in Chicago.  He would go for weekends, but mostly he was tied up in politics where the last two years before his election were campaign years.  So, they actually are going to have more of a family life in the White House than they have ever been able to have, and I think that is a wonderful set of circumstances. I think they both seem to be very well adjusted little girls, each of them seems — that seems to be. They’re bringing their beloved grandmother to live with them. That’s a good thing to do. It gives stability when as for this present trip to the Summit in London and then on to many different meetings across the Continental Europe, they’re away, but they are at home with their grandmother, and I think they now are… From the very first days, they made those little girls enjoy it. They had their friends in from the first night. They had a scavenger hunt the first — the night of the inauguration.  They think about them.  Both of them do really well in school. They’re both smart little girls. That doesn’t surprise anybody.  I think they are going to be really happy. I believe they’re going to have the best family life they’ve ever known.

John Sparks
Do you think that Michelle will influence fashion to the extent that Jackie did?

Bonnie Angelo
Not to that extent but, yes, she is going to influence it.  But Jackie was about fashion, and she was beautiful as a model is beautiful and spent enormous amounts on clothes, much more than was known at the time, and so she set a standard for fashion that we had never had before, and people still remember it.  She was so glamorous.  I think Michelle is going to have a more down to earth fashion because she has been a career woman, but I think that she’s always going to look very smart, and she obviously enjoys clothes, so I think… I think she’s going to say, “Look, you can be a mother. You can do all kinds of things, and you can still enjoy looking quite wonderful.”

John Sparks
You know I just realized, I did not ask you about Pat Nixon.  Tell me about Pat Nixon.

Listen to Part 5:

Bonnie Angelo
Oh, you know, that tells you something.  That tells you something pertinent that she was so overlooked as First Lady, and she was — had the abilities to do so much more than she was allowed to do.  But Nixon’s west wing cadre did not see any real particular value in the president’s wife, you know. They would use her for certain things, but they didn’t let Pat be Pat.  Now, I traveled with her on all of her trips that she did solo, and the first ones were for – - they sent her out much too early really to hotspots of poverty programs, and that was very difficult. She ran into jeering crowds. It was not a well thought through trip that her staff threw her out onto really early.  I was with her in Peru when she went down again solo, when they had that massive earthquake, and the United States came through with plane loads of goods and clothing, and she was down there on the mountain top with the local people. She also met with the president of Peru who had been very difficult with America in the months before she was – - came, and she smoothed things over to the degree that it was really noticed in diplomatic circles.  So, she had more talents than the president’s hard-eyed men were willing to see.  When I went to Africa with Pat Nixon, it was again, Pat was on her own.  We went to, I guess, three countries in black Africa on the western nations — Ghana, and Ivory Coast, and Liberia. She was a sensation. The streets were lined with people leaping and shouting and playing music, and she just blossomed. It was marvelous to see.  It was a tremendously successful trip.  I think when she was with him, she was just so cast in the little wife along side, you know. I don’t… When she was on her own, she blossomed into being Pat Ryan again, and I watched that on numerous trips. It was visible, and this strange coldness or stiffness with which he greeted her after some of those really tough trips on the — at a White House south lawn greeting, he was just — it was just very cold.  I remember coming back, the earthquake trip into Peru, which she had been a wonderful success worldwide, and she met up with him at the Grand Ole Opry where they were — it was supposed to be her birthday, well he forgot to introduce her, and Roy Acuff stepped in and very smoothly just did it.  But, he… But the president was supposed to. I mean, it was just a lack of appreciation for what she could have done, so I feel that that’s why we forgot to mention her in the first instance in this conversation is that she was not free to be Pat.

John Sparks
Well it reminds also of one other person I did not ask you about, and this one was not really elected to the White House and was a very short term, but yet Betty Ford…

Bonnie Angelo
Betty Ford, yes.  Betty Ford was a breath of fresh air.  She came when the White House had been in its absolute dismal time coming up to the impeachment and the resignation, and the Fords came in, and they were so unaffected and straightforward and untarnished by any of the Nixon shenanigans, and she didn’t have very long to establish herself, but she brought a breath of openness and fresh air to the White House that was… and let me tell you one other thing she did that was really, really crucial. I remember the day so well. She had been making a speech to a great big group of women’s organizations out of one of Washington’s major hotels.  From that speech… now she stopped at the door because she and I had arranged that we would have our picture taken together there because I was doing a cover story for Time that week on the hard things that face first ladies.  Pat Nixon was in travail, well not just firstly, political-wise. Joan Kennedy had just gone to an alcoholic institution, and all of a sudden from that meeting that she very nicely addressed this large group, she went straight to the National Institutes of Health for a breast cancer operation. She let nobody know.  She was her own smiling self. I think the strength of her to do what she was supposed to do without letting on that she was facing a crisis in her life, to me, that was very impressive, and it showed that this person had great strength in her soul.

John Sparks
You know, you mention her name today and she’s been gone for quite awhile, but I equate it with the Betty Ford Center for…

Bonnie Angelo
Exactly.  She used…. now she had a tendency to alcoholism. She had that tendency in the White House. They always attributed it to taking — she had shoulder and difficulties that she had to take drugs for. They always attributed it to that, to the painkillers for her bad shoulders.  Well, it wasn’t really. It wasn’t, but that was the way it was.  So, when they got out of the White House, then, it got worse and when they retired to Colorado at that time, President Ford said to his beloved Betty, “We can’t go on like this. You have got to do something about this, Betty.  I will help you.  We will do anything, but you have got to do it yourself.”  And, when he just talked straight to her, she realized that she… and he said to her, “You’re strong and you’ve done other — everything. This you’ve got to do yourself,” so that’s when she went for treatment in the California establishment facility and was never afflicted with alcoholism again. But what happened from there, she realized she could turn it into a positive thing in her life, and she established the Betty Ford Clinic. She made alcoholism as a social problem something you talk about, something you deal with. She made a lasting imprint on who knows how many people across this country who were able to pull themselves out of an alcoholic habit for — by the inspiration of Betty Ford. So, I think she left a tremendous imprint.

John Sparks
Bonnie, I’m going to have to wrap things up, but I can’t do that without asking you one final question and that is that as you well know, and I do too, newspapers are folding, the television networks are closing bureaus and making deep cuts.  What kind of impact will this have on covering the first family which – - and the first lady, which of course was your expertise?

Bonnie Angelo
Well, I covered much more than that.  I did that, but I also covered politics and the White House. I covered the first ladies when they were news, which was a good way to do it.  I was not with them all the time, but a lot of them really made news, you know.

John Sparks
Sure.

Bonnie Angelo
I think it’s… You know my mind can’t even wrap itself around this problem because it requires a certain kind of coverage for their activities to make a national impact, and these women, almost all of them in the modern times, have done something major, have really left footprints on our society.  I don’t exactly… I know you can do it on all kinds of Internet outlets, and there are new ones coming along even as we speak, I just don’t think it’s quite the same as reading about it in your morning newspaper, but maybe that’s because I love my morning newspapers and my news magazines, yes.

John Sparks
So do I. So do I. Bonnie, it’s been a real pleasure talking with you. I really appreciate your time today.

Bonnie Angelo
Well, I love talking with you because this experience — these experiences, these women were great events in my life and in our history, and I’m just always happy to talk a little bit more about how they really were.

John Sparks
Well, thank you so much for your time.

** The views and opinions expressed in this and other interviews found on this site are expressly those of the speakers or authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Marist Poll.

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