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First Women: The Grace and Power of America's Modern First Ladies Paperback – January 17, 2017
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“[A] gossipy, but surprisingly deep, look at the women who help and sometimes overshadow their powerful husbands.” (USA Today)
Praise for The Residence:”The tell-all The Residence, featuring intimate anecdotes collected from past and current White House staff members, is absolutely delicious.” (The Washington Post)
“A juicy new book. . . . A touching story.” (The Daily Beast)
“A highly readable . . . deep look at the women who help and sometimes overshadow their powerful husbands.” (USA Today)
“A revealing look at America’s first ladies, shining a spotlight on both their friendships and feuds.” (The Today Show)
“Superbly reported. . . . A fascinating backstage account of the world’s most famous residence.” (Judy Woodruff, anchor, PBS NewsHour and former White House Correspondent for NBC News)
“One of those rare books that is both elegant portraiture and highly readable, important White House history. The anecdotes are fresh and the analysis cogent. The stories about Kennedy, Reagan, Clinton, and Obama are irresistible. Highly recommended!” (Douglas Brinkley, editor of The Reagan Diaries)
From the Back Cover
One of the most underestimated—and demanding—positions in the world, the first lady of the United States must be many things: an inspiring leader with a forward-thinking agenda of her own; a savvy politician, skilled at navigating the treacherous rapids of Washington; a wife and mother operating under constant scrutiny; and an able CEO responsible for the smooth operation of the White House residence. Now, as she did in her smash #1 bestseller The Residence, former White House correspondent Kate Andersen Brower draws on a wide array of untapped, candid sources—from residence staff and social secretaries to friends and political advisers to the former first ladies themselves—to tell the stories of the ten remarkable women who have defined the role since 1960.
Brower offers new insights into this privileged group of women. The stories she shares range from the heartwarming to the shocking and tragic, exploring everything from their friendships with other first ladies to their public and private relationships with their husbands. She also presents a new portrait of one of the most-watched first ladies of all time, Hillary Clinton.
Candid and illuminating, this first group biography of the modern first ladies provides a compelling glimpse at life upstairs and downstairs at the world’s most powerful address.
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At first Brower appears to want to make readers think that the First Ladies have some special relationship because of the role they shared, however, that theme doesn't really work. In fact, the only two first ladies who seemed to have developed a true friendship were Lady Bird Johnson and Betty Ford. Rosalind Carter remained bitter for a while after her husband's defeat and even was somewhat resentful because Hillary Clinton did not ask her anything about health care although that had been Rosalind's major effort has first lady. Nancy Reagan doesn't seem to have cared much for any of them with the possible exception of Jackie Kennedy Onassis (snob appeal, maybe?) There is one photograph of several of the women at an event which tells all. The five or six others appear to be talking to each other but Mrs. Reagan is at the end of the table and is turned completely away. The expression on her face says, more or less, "when will this purgatory end"?
All in all, the book is interesting as a sidelight into the lives of these women who have tried to fufill the role as best they could. Some more successfully than others. Some tidbits are fascinating. Laura Bush has an image of the perfect southern lady who never loses her cool but evidently there were times when she could make her displeasure known, especially toward a staff member who kept losing the keys to her daughter's car. Pat Nixon was much liked and admired by her staff as was Barbara Bush.
The only real criticism I have of the book is its organization. Brower skips around and repeats herself at times. Perhaps organizing it chronologically completely would have made for a more cohesive story.
In my opinion, this entire narrative reads like pages and pages of notes that someone has jotted down and published, prior to the editing process or prior to even formatting the story into a cohesive outline. Brower begins the introduction with a story of Hillary Clinton and Jackie Kennedy and later repeats the exact phrasing of this same story in a subsequent chapter. It's odd. The chapters in general are long-winded and only vaguely connected to their titles ("motherhood" for instance is the heading for one chapter but naturally, this topic is covered throughout the book, so this subdivision means little in the context of the entire thread) and because it's written out of order, the author is forced to constantly use last names and descriptions ("Amy's nanny," "Jack's doctor") repeatedly, even when writing about someone who's already been discussed.
Had my opinion been solicited (which I know is comical, given that the author is a NY Times #1 Best Seller), I would have definitely suggested putting it in chronological order. I know that many research accounts use examples of common themes from all of their subjects to illustrate the chosen category, but this writing bounces so all over the place that the author would've done better to start with Jackie and tell the story from her forward, interweaving the ladies' relationships with one another into the tale as the years progress. As it's written, we start with Jackie yachting with Hillary and circle back so many times to Pat Nixon, Betty Ford, Rosalynn Cater, and Lady Bird Johnson, that I'm constantly having to pause and remember, ok: Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama. It's hard to keep it all straight as a younger person (even one who knows all the presidents in order from Washington) who didn't live through most of these years. The book, as a whole, feels extremely chaotic.
That being said, there is obviously interesting information about the women within these pages. You just have to mine through quite a bit of rough-edged stone to get to these precious jewels. I definitely believe the author's account as I think she is a credible source who clearly did her homework, and it does make the women come alive in a sense that one might not ordinarily understand. I do wonder though what the ladies think - or would think - of some of this information coming to light. Betty Ford comes off the best in my opinion while Nancy Reagan seems somewhat cold and borderline pathetic, and the others, (save Hillary Clinton who is really her own category, apart from "first lady," and the Bush ladies, who have personal philosophies barring them from complaining or self-pity) read like tragic figures, generally ruined by the role.
I'm not saying not to read this book... give it a shot, just understand that you have to focus and sift through some repetitive information to receive the benefits of the best parts. I personally wish it had been condensed and gone through another pass at editing, but I do commend Brower on bringing this story to our collective attention.
Interestingly, each former First Lady has her own style. The transition from administration to administration can be fraught with anxiety, concern and nervousness or with reassurance and calmness that all will be taken care of. There is also the stress of subtle hostility between the old administration and the new administration. These ladies come to the White House as supporters of their husbands and as veterans of intense campaigning, sometimes to the detriment of their families. However in all cases, the focus of these plucky individuals has always been the welfare of their husbands and their children. Some have taken it upon themselves to personally see that those surrounding the President are unquestionably loyal and trustworthy. It has not been beyond some of these ladies to see that those who didn’t “muster up” were relieved of their positions.
I found this novel to be informative and very interesting. It gives a true perspective as to the lives these families live under very stressful circumstances.
I purchased a Kindle copy of this book from Amazon.com. No review positive or otherwise was required – all opinions are my own.