Review

Hidden Power: Presidential Marriages That Shaped Our Recent History

by Kati Marton

Read an Excerpt



Its officeholder is unelected, its colloquial title is unofficial,
and its current occupant is expected to fulfill for the entire
nation a wide array of roles both symbolic and concrete --- and
sometimes in conflict with each other. Yet the U. S. women who have
been called First Lady during the last century have each managed to
put a highly personal stamp on their role of a lifetime as well as
to often wield tremendous influence on their husbands, and thus the
country --- even if the voting public has never really known.

   

In this insightful and revealing work, Marton profiles 11 selected
presidential couples of the 20th century, from the Wilsons to
Clintons (and a brief epilogue on the current Bushes), into
chapters detailing the impact and influences of the First Ladies.
Eschewing straight biography in favor of illuminating the inner
workings of their nuptial and political partnerships while in
residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Marton reintroduces us to
women whose historically accepted public image only tells a
fraction of their true story.

   

What's most interesting are the wildly varying attitudes the women
had toward being First Lady and what they chose to do with their
position. While some chose an active role for themselves and even
helped to very publicly shape policy (Eleanor Roosevelt, Hillary
Clinton), others exerted their influences more behind the scenes
(Rosalynn Carter, Edith Wilson), used it as a pulpit to advance
causes of their own interest (Lady Bird Johnson, Jackie Kennedy),
solidly supported their husband (Barbara Bush, Nancy Reagan), and
even hated or disdained their roles (Bess Truman, Pat Nixon). In
one amazing case that only came to light long after, Edith Wilson
literally ran the country at one point while Woodrow lay gravely
ill, making important decisions and casting a protective shroud of
secrecy (and drawing a physical curtain) that kept reporters,
legislators, and even much of the White House staff in the dark in
a carefully orchestrated cover-up --- something that could never be
duplicated in today's mass media climate.

   

Other anecdotes are enlightening and entertaining: Rosalynn
Carter's efforts to sit in on Cabinet meetings; The Roosevelts
completely separate and entirely unromantic, yet hugely productive
terms; Kennedy's spin doctoring and myth making in the wake of her
husband's assassination; Lady Bird Johnson's rock-solid shoulder
for her much larger husband to lean on; Hillary Clinton's very
public embarrassments and setbacks when the harsh realities of the
"two for the price of one" campaign promise set in.

   

Marton's most heartbreaking chapter, though, chronicles the sad
case of Pat Nixon. Tossed aside by a cold, paranoid husband whose
only true love was politics, the once vivacious young woman became
a withdrawn, bitter shell of her former self, suffering silently in
her loneliness and desolation. And of course, times have changed
mightily since Bess Truman thought that a political wife's role in
public was limited to "sit beside her husband and be silent and be
sure her hat is on straight."

   

If readers take away one theme from HIDDEN POWER, it is that while
a U. S. president hears advice, direction, compliments, and
criticisms from his Cabinet, advisors, and members of both the
Congress and his party, it is usually his wife who commands his ear
the most --- the person a "heartbeat away from the presidency" in
more intimate terms than just Constitutional succession.

   

"Nobody knows the president better than his wife," Nancy Reagan
once opined, perhaps while charting out Ronnie's public appearance
with the help of her astrologer. While some of these marriages
thrived at the White House or reached new levels previously
unimaginable, none were ever even nearly the same after
Inauguration Day.












Reviewed by Bob Ruggiero on January 22, 2011

Hidden Power: Presidential Marriages That Shaped Our Recent History
by Kati Marton

  • Publication Date: September 18, 2001
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon
  • ISBN-10: 0375401067
  • ISBN-13: 9780375401060