Monday, May 23


First Lady Laura Bush's reaction to the incessant heckling she encountered yesterday during her visit to Middle East Holy Sites is in keeping with how this woman of poise, class, courage, and substance invariably deals with vexing issues in her role as this nation's First Lady. One must applaud her for this. But you have to wonder how our First Lady and those who preceded her have managed to engage their roles so faithfully and tirelessly on behalf of the country when they're not even remunerated for their hard work and the countlesws difficulties they experience.

The term "First Lady" may have been first applied to Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of Abraham Lincoln, our nation's 16th president (although she preferred to be called "Mrs. President," as had been the fashion); and she was thoroughly tested in that role, as have all First Ladies been mightly tested.

Mary Todd Lincoln was thrilled to become First Lady, a term that had recently entered the American lexicon to describe the President's partner. Mary held elegant buffet dinners, invited intellectuals and literary figures to the White House, and welcomed visitors and guests to her Thursday night receptions and spring and winter receptions. She balanced her social role with an interest in public affairs, reading political journals and newspapers, attending congressional debates, and advising her husband on administration appointments. But even as the public began to regard her as "First Lady," she referred to herself as "Mrs. President." Regardless of which term was used, as her husband assumed his duties under the toughest of circumstances, Mary Lincoln endured hardship simply by being the First Lady.

By the time the Civil War had broken out, criticism of the President and his spouse had become acceptable, and a new fleet of female journalists, focused on the most famous woman in the nation. Articles about Mary Lincoln were plentiful, detailing her spending sprees, her coarse, western ways, and her role as a Southern spy. Despite the latter charge, Mary was committed to the preservation of the Union and showed her support by housing troops in the East Room, ministering to sick and wounded soldiers, and twice refusing to leave Washington, D.C., when the capital was under threat of invasion.

But reporters ignored her courage and caring, often because Mary chose to keep such actions private. Instead, journalists focused on the high costs of her clothes, her frequent New York shopping binges, her trips to the shore, and her expensive redecoration of the White House. At a time when many American families were reeling from financial deprivation because husbands, fathers, and sons were going to war, Mary's lavish lifestyle and indiscriminate spending seemed offensive. When many of these same Americans were experiencing the loss of those same husbands, fathers, and sons, her excursions and activities seemed frivolous and callous.

As a result, when Mary Todd Lincoln mourned the death of her son Willie, few Americans offered their sympathy. She received few condolences and endured rumors that she had beaten her children. Even before she became First Lady, Mary had been sensitive to criticism; after the death of Willie, an already insecure Mary Lincoln had a nervous breakdown and began to suffer from severe depression. She sought solace by consulting mediums who promised contact with her dead son. She even held a seance in the White House.

Despite her grief and the rumormongering, Mary Lincoln rallied and involved herself in the prosecution of the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln shared military secrets with her, and Mary, like many others, encouraged the President to replace the slow and passive General George McClellan. When France's Prince Bonaparte visited the United States, Mary spoke with him in perfect French.

SOURCE: "American" Web site.

POSTSCRIPT: Do read this on Laura Bush's "true grit." HAT TIP: "Lucianne".