Monday, July 28, 2008

First Ladies by Margaret Truman

First Ladies: An Intimate Group Portrait of White House Wives by Margaret Truman is an interesting book about the women behind the most powerful men in our country.

Margaret Truman's authority as an author of White House and First Lady history is grounded not only by her degree in American History, but also her personal experience in the White House. Her father, Harry Truman served as Vice President under Franklin D. Roosevelt and later as President on his own right. Thus, Margaret had first hand experience living for several years with a First Lady, her mother Bess Truman.

My first thought when I picked up this book was that it would include biographical sketches of each First Lady and maybe a little of what life was like for her in the White House. I was in for a surprise.

While some biographical information is included in this book, it is by no means a biography of the 43 First Ladies (*The book was published during the Clinton administration, so while the count at the time was 42 Presidents the First Lady count includes second wives of Presidents). The best way to capture what this book is about is to use Harry Truman's quote from the beginning of the book, an obvious inspiration to his daughter, "I hope some day someone will take time to evaluate the true role of the wife of a President, and to assess the many burdens she has to bear and the contributions she makes." That is exactly what this book is about.

Throughout the book Margaret Truman highlights various First Ladies during their life in the White House and their relationship with the President, their husband. Very little information is given about their childhood and life proceeding the White House or life after the White House. As I said, it is not meant to be a biography.

I should note that Truman does not include every one of the First Ladies. I noticed that some of the lesser known ladies were not mentioned at all and a few were mentioned only in a passing. I was a little disappointed in this as the book didn't seem quite complete without a paragraph or chapter dedicated to each first lady, but that may be just my opinion.

One other note that is rather obvious to the reader from the very first chapter -- Harry Truman was a Democrat. Margaret Truman writes as a Democrat and she makes no apologies for her worldview.

A case in point: the set up of the chapters. For the first half of the book Truman's focus is mainly on Presidents and their wives elected from the Democratic Party starting with the "darling" of them all -- JFK and his wife Jackie. After a few chapters of mid 20th century politicians (Kennedy, Truman, Roosevelt, Wilson, etc.) Margaret turns to the first First Ladies (i.e. Martha Washington, Dolly Madison, etc.) and focuses on early politics (Federalists and Anti-Federalists).
Oddly enough -- or maybe because of her political views (or... maybe the fault of the book's editor), Margaret doesn't get around to discussing Republican Presidents and their First Ladies until over halfway into the book. When she does get to them she has very little in the way of positive comments to make about either husband or wife, an exception being her admiration of the relationship between certain Republican Presidents and their First Ladies, although she also makes the statement that while she admires this, she cannot admire their political views. Fair enough, we were warned -- she is a Democrat. To be fair, I think Maragret made an effort to be objective as she wrote, but in the end her political views did color her text.

If a reader has a dislike for the Democratic party they may find the book a little irritating at times, but if the reader is willing to look past this, they will find an interesting portrait of our First Ladies.

Interesting... That is exactly how I found the book. It was interesting, but not by my definition fascinating. My copy was 355 pages and for the most part was an easy read, though not one I could do in one sitting. It took me about a week to work this one. I'd recommend it to anyone curious to learn more about the relationship between First Ladies and their President husbands as well as what they accomplished while in the White House. I'd also suggest borrowing it from your library if you can. I was gifted my copy and think I may donate it to our library now that I'm done with it. It wasn't in my view one worth storing on my bookshelf to re-read in the future.

On the other hand, if you run across Margaret Truman's The President's House I highly recommend reading that book and even purchasing a copy. It's a book on the history of the White House and its grounds. I read it a few years back and found it absolutely fascinating, a book I definitely plan to re-read some day.

As a side note, I noticed two other recently published books on First Ladies available through The First Ladies Fact Book: The Stories of the Women of the White House from Martha Washington to Laura Bush by Bill Harris and Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation by Cokie Roberts. I've heard little to nothing about either of these books and would be interested if anyone out there has read them and what they thought of them.

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