Hillary Clinton ranks as greatest first lady

Hillary Clinton ranks as greatest first lady in American history.

Okay, let me go ahead and state the obvious, the delay by the Siena survey and other rankings to make such an open declaration only reveals how pompous this process sometimes is.  History will declare Hillary Clinton as the greatest first lady ever.  No one else, including the historians’ favorite, Eleanor Roosevelt, even comes close.

Now, none of this has anything to do with politics.  Nor is this about popularity.  If it were the latter, Laura Bush would steal the show, at least for now.  In January, 2005 Laura Bush garnered the highest approval rating of any first lady since such surveys were taken.  But history makes judgments on what people do, not what they are or how they are liked.  Whether or not you like the politics or personality of Hillary Clinton matters little. The fact is that no other First Lady ever served in the cabinet, let alone in such a pivotal and policy making role as Secretary of State.   And while Eleanor was U.N. Ambassador and had her own radio show on ABC, neither she nor any of the others, were ever elected to the Senate, or the House, or anything else other than PTA president, for that matter.  And no other First Lady ever came this close to the presidency itself.

Consider Hillary’s spectacular presidential run.  In the recent marathon contest with Barack Obama she carried six of the top seven richest electoral states in the nation, California, New York, Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida and Michigan.  The only major state she lost was Illinois, Obama’s home.  Considering the modern primary system, especially in the Democrat Party with its super delegates, the Clinton-Obama contest was as close as it gets.

Indeed, in 1993, the Siena Research Institution polled 102 colleges and universities.  They asked for a ranking of the first ladies and found Eleanor Roosevelt number one and Hillary Clinton second.  When Siena produced their own list they inexplicably ignored their poll and placed Clinton as number five.  In December, 2008, after her presidential run they moved her up to fourth, behind Eleanor Roosevelt, Abigail Adams and, tsk, tsk, Jacqueline Kennedy.

I chuckle about Mrs. Kennedy, because she was indeed a great First Lady, who redecorated the White House, but to rank her above Sarah Childress Polk, who practically put her man in office, or Edith Bolling Wilson, who arguably WAS the president for a period of time, or Rosalynn Carter who sat in on cabinet meetings, shows that historians, like common folk, can be just ordinary star struck fans.

Now, the Siena Research Institution is a growing force among historians and it has had some creative organizers behind it, with a desire to make history fun and interesting.  So I am all for them.  And they will argue that we must wait to rank Hillary number one until she is finished.  But they rank other living first ladies as they live out their lives.  And they are ranking Hillary even now, although, number four.

Here is my own subjective list.  I have added Sarah Childress Polk, who was the “Hillary” of her era but is largely ignored by historians who are apparently unaware of her spectacular role in the rise of her husband’s career.  “Daughter,” President Andrew Jackson once said to the young, ambitious Sarah, “I will get you into the White House if it’s the last thing I do.”  Jackson, who hailed from the same Tennessee homeland, helped promote her marriage to her childhood friend, the reluctant public servant, James K. Polk. Sarah lit a fire under the man that took him all the way.

Now Eleanor Roosevelt is surely near the top of anyone’s list.  But to give you an idea of how complicated her role was and just how tenuous her power could be, there is a scene in my book, All the Presidents’ Children, where Eleanor is begging her daughter, Anna, for a spot on the President’s upcoming trip to Yalta where he will meet with Churchill and Stalin.  No can do, says Anna to her own mother, taking orders from her father.  Anna was a powerful White House super aide in the President’s last year.

And historians who neglect the role of Edith Bolling Wilson, who attended her presidential husband after his stroke, lack an understanding of how powerful the role of a doorkeeper can be.  We know her claim that she did not make “a single decision,” other than what he would see and why, that admission in itself should rank her among the most powerful and important first ladies in history.  It was a power that Hillary Clinton, Eleanor Roosevelt and Rosalynn Carter never had.

Finally, I travailed over where to place Jacqueline Kennedy and Nancy Reagan.  Kennedy was our modern first lady, a transition to a new age.  In many ways she “owned” the White House and still does.  She was the first to make a systematic study of children of the presidents.  There is so much to commend her performance.  But Nancy Reagan, in taking on the most critical issue of her time, drugs, and in playing an influential role in the staffing of the White House, and in her close relationship with her husband, influencing policy and doing all of this for eight years, she barely squeezed Jacqueline, the trend setting, first lady curator and historian, out of my top ten.

Doug Wead’s ranking of the top ten First Ladies in American history

1. Hillary Rodham Clinton

2. Eleanor Roosevelt

3. Abigail Adams

4. Edith Bolling Wilson

5. Rosalynn Carter

6. Dolley Madison

7. Sarah Childress Polk

8. Barbara Bush

9. Betty Ford

10. Nancy Reagan

Finally, it is obviously way too early to compare Michelle Obama to other first ladies but as the first African America to rule from the East Wing she is surely headed for the history books.  Here are some interesting, related  links…

The Clintons as parents.

Michelle Obama as mom.

Presidents’ daughters.

Posted in Presidential History Tagged: Abigail Adams, Barbara Bush, Betty Ford, Dolley Madison, Edith Bolling Wilson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Hillary Clinton, Nancy Reagan, Ranking the first ladies, Rosalynn Carter, Sarah Childress Polk, Siena Research Institute

About Doug Wead
Doug Wead is our presidential historian and frequent guest blogger here on CLC. You can see more of his work here: Doug Wead's Blog

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