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  • WATCH: Nixon Event at the Post July 31, 2014

    Ken Hughes, author of Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate, took part in a special event last night, hosted by the Washington Post, which included Elizabeth Drew and reunited Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. With the  fortieth anniversary of the Nixon resignation rolling around this week, the panel revisited the heady days of the Watergate break-in and its following cover-up and also attempted to place those events in a contemporary context. C-Span will run the entire program next week, but until then the Post has already posted several clips online, and they make for pretty riveting viewing. The panel all rose to the occasion—this was no ceremonial gathering of famous faces, these people clearly wanted to talk.

    The panel discusses where they were when Nixon finally stepped down, including Post publisher Katherine Graham’s decree that there be “no gloating”: WATCH.

    Asked about Gerald Ford’s pardon of Nixon, the panel describes feeling at the time that it was the ultimate corruption, while in hindsight it seems like a courageous, necessary act: WATCH.

    On the subject of the presidential tapes and their legacy, the discussion turns to the current lack of such documentation and its disturbing impact on transparency: WATCH.

  • LISTEN: “Blow the Safe and Get it” July 28, 2014

    On a June afternoon in 1971, President Nixon and three of  his top aides—H.R. Haldeman, Henry Kissinger, and John Erlichman—discussed the possibility of exposing Lyndon Johnson’s bombing halt of 1968 as a political ploy to help his own party’s candidate, Vice President Hubert Humphrey. It’s one thing to accuse someone of something; what’s required is proof. The idea is floated that a file documenting this alleged abuse of power might exist at the Brookings Institute. Nixon promptly orders a break-in to retrieve the file. “Blow the safe and get it,” he says—not your typical Oval Office talk.

    As Ken Hughes shows in Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate, this conversation is fascinating in almost too many ways to count. Although it was Watergate, and its cover-up, that would finally bring Nixon down, the only break-in he ever ordered was this plan (eventually scrapped) to seize the file from Brookings. This is compelling evidence that Watergate was part of a pattern, not an aberration. Haldeman’s plan to blackmail LBJ was not only ethically dubious, but he was in fact wrong that Johnson’s motivation for the bombing halt was connected to the election. In an ironic twist, Nixon had a different reason for wanting to seize this file: he had secretly interfered in the Paris peace talks in 1968 and was afraid such a file would expose him. There’s a final irony: no such file existed.

    You may read this rather stunning conversation below, or listen to it here.

    Haldeman: The—you can maybe blackmail [Lyndon B.] Johnson on this stuff.

    President Nixon: What?

    Haldeman: You could blackmail Johnson on this stuff, and it might be worth doing.

    President Nixon: How?

    Haldeman: The bombing halt stuff is all in the same file. Or in some of the same hands.

    President Nixon: Oh, how does that show—oh, I wondered, incidentally, if that’s—

    Haldeman: It isn’t in this. It isn’t in these papers, but the whole bombing halt file . . .

    President Nixon: Do we have it? I’ve asked for it. You said you didn’t have it, Henry.

    Haldeman: We can’t find—

    Henry A. Kissinger: We have nothing here, Mr. President.

    President Nixon: Damn it, I asked for that, because I need it. [Unclear]—

    Kissinger: Yeah, but Bob and I have been trying to put the damn thing together for three years.

    Haldeman: We have a basic history of it—constructed on our own—but there is a file on it.

    President Nixon: Where?

    Haldeman: [Tom Charles] Huston swears to God there’s a file on it at Brookings.

    Kissinger: I wouldn’t be surprised.

    President Nixon: All right, all right, all right, you [unclear]—

    Haldeman: In the hands of the same kind of [unclear]—

    President Nixon: Bob—

    Haldeman: The same people.

    President Nixon: Bob, now, you remember Huston’s plan? Implement it.

    Kissinger: But couldn’t we go over? Now, Brookings has no right to have [President Nixon attempts to interject] classified documents.

    President Nixon: [Unclear.] I mean, I want it implemented on a thievery basis. Goddamn it, get in and get those files. Blow the safe and get it.

    Haldeman: They may very well have cleaned them by now, with this thing getting to—

    Kissinger: No, I wouldn’t be surprised if Brookings had the file on the bombing halt.

    Haldeman: My point is, Johnson knows that those files are around. He doesn’t know for sure that we don’t have them.

    Kissinger: But what good will it do you, the bombing halt file?

    Haldeman: The bombing halt—

    President Nixon: To blackmail him.

    Haldeman: The bombing halt—

    President Nixon: Because he used the bombing halt for political purposes.

    Haldeman: The bombing halt file would really kill Johnson.

    Kissinger: Why do you think that? I mean, I didn’t see the whole file, but . . .

    Haldeman: On the timing and strategy of how he pulled that?

    Kissinger: I—

    President Nixon: I think it would hurt him.

    Kissinger: Mis—well, I—[speaking over President Nixon] as you remember, I used to give you input—I used to—as you remember, I used to give you information about it at the time, so I have no—

    President Nixon: I know.

    Kissinger: I mean, about the timing.

    Haldeman: Yeah.

    Kissinger: But I, to the best of my knowledge, there was never any conversation in which they said we’ll hold it until the end of October. I wasn’t in on the discussions here. I just saw the instructions to [W. Averell] Harriman.

    President Nixon: Well, anyway, why won’t Johnson have a press conference in your view?

    Haldeman: Because he’s smart enough not to. From Johnson’s viewpoint, if he has a press conference, it does [unclear]—he will see exactly what we see, which is that the thing that that will accomplish is clearly put this as a battle of Lyndon Johnson’s credibility versus the world.

    Ehrlichman: Be a lightning rod.

    Chasing Shadows is available July 29.

  • LISTEN: “Nixon Will Do Better By You” July 24, 2014

    On November 2, 1968, President Johnson called Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen to say that he knew Nixon’s people were inserting themselves in the peace-talk process with the Vietnamese. Their message to South Vietnamese president Nguyen Van Thieu was to stay away from the peace talks—that they would get a better deal from Nixon further down the road, as he was sure to be elected. Do what you can to get them to back off, LBJ told Dirksen. If this activity, which he flatly characterized as “treason,” continued, LBJ threatened to go public with what he knew.

    The next day LBJ spoke with Nixon himself, but the conversation could not have been more different in tone. He begins by reiterating his three conditions for a bombing halt, before turning to the talk of interference in the peace talks. LBJ tells Nixon that the word has gone out that the South Vietnamese will be better off if they deal with the Republican nominee rather than the current administration. LBJ assures Nixon he knows Nixon had nothing to do with this. Nixon assures LBJ he didn’t. Both men are lying.

    This fascinating conversation between two master politicians is a crucial moment in Ken Hughes’s Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate, an explosive new addition to presidential scholarship that will be published on July 29.You may read the transcript of the Johnson-Nixon exchange below or listen to the recorded conversation

    LBJ: Now, the other day, we had talked to [Nguyen Van] Thieu on October the 13th, and stressed that we had to have these points, and he agreed. On October the 15th, we reviewed it with him again, and he bought a 36-hour period between stopping the bombing and the conference. On October the 23rd, he agreed to a three-day delay.

    Nixon: Mm-hmm.

    LBJ: On October the 28th, we agreed to the communiqué, that we would both make a joint announcement—

    Nixon: Right.

    LBJ: —when and if we could clear it with them, get them signed on.

    Nixon: Mm-hmm.

    LBJ: Then the traffic goes out that Nixon will do better by you. Now, that goes to Thieu. I don’t—I didn’t say, as I said to you the other day, I didn’t say that it was with your knowledge. I hope it wasn’t.

    Nixon: [laughing] Ah, no.

    LBJ: But—

    Nixon: Well, as a matter of fact, I’m not privy to the—what you were doing, of course, with this thing, but—

    LBJ: Well—

    Nixon: The whole point is this. I think one thing we have to understand here is that, you know, and I know, that within the—there’s a hawk-dove complex out there as there is here, and that everybody’s been saying, “Well, now, after the election, what will happen?” And of course there is some thought that Hanoi would rather deal now than deal later.

    LBJ: Oh, yes.

    Nixon: They think Nixon will be tougher, and I understand that. And I think that’s one of the reasons you felt you had to go forward with the pause. But my point that I’m making is this: that my God, I would never do anything to encourage Hanoi—I mean, Saigon not to come to the table, because, basically, that was what you got out of your bombing pause, that, good God, we want them over in Paris. We’ve got to get them to Paris or you can’t have a peace.

    LBJ: Well, I think if you take that position, you’re on very, very sound ground and—

    Nixon: That’s what I said on—

    LBJ: I think it’s very much in the interest of your—

    Nixon: I said that the major thing that the President insisted upon and got was the right of Saigon to be at that conference table. [President Johnson attempts to interject.] And they must be at the conference table and I believe they should be, and then that’s why I said that—I just felt that I ought to emphasize it—I said that I know that nobody knows who’s going to win this, but if I do, I said, if I’m president-elect, I personally pledge to President Johnson I would do anything, and I want to amplify that by—emphasize it by saying that I will do—if he and Secretary [Dean] Rusk indicate that my presence in Paris or Saigon, and, incidentally, I want you to know I’ll do that. I’d go out there and talk to Thieu if it’s necessary.

    LBJ: Well, I think that—I—

    Nixon: [Unclear] or whatever you want. [Unclear]—

    Chasing Shadows will be available july 29.

  • A Calculated Risk July 22, 2014

    With the publication of Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate only a week away (7/29), author Ken Hughes is suddenly in great demand, so we appreciate his taking the time to answer a few questions about his book. Chasing Shadows shows how the covert activity that would eventually bring Nixon down had its roots in the 1968 presidential campaign, when the Republican nominee involved himself secretly in the Paris peace talks. One of the fascinating aspects of Hughes’s book is the interaction between Nixon and Lyndon Johnson, who was only months away from his self-imposed retirement. It is a complex—not to say controversial—story, and in the following interview Hughes sheds much light on these two master politicians and the remarkable events they were at the center of.

    Q: With the 40th anniversary of the resignation looming, there are a number of books being published at roughly the same time on the subject of Nixon and his downfall. What sets Chasing Shadows apart from the rest of this barrage of books?

    A: Chasing Shadows is shorter! It doesn’t try to explain the entire era or every aspect of the man. Instead, the book answers one question: What was the motive behind the only break-in that we know for a fact Nixon personally ordered (because his own secret recording system captured the order on tape)? It’s a simple question with a complex, twisty answer that winds up illuminating a lot about one president’s rise and fall.

    Q: Your book leaves little doubt that Nixon interfered in the Paris peace talks in 1968. It isn’t exaggerating to say this was a treasonous act. Having said that, do you think Nixon affected the process substantially? In other words, was there the glimmer of a chance that the war could have changed its course at that point? And if not the war itself, do you think Nixon’s actions impacted the election?

    A: The State Department certainly defines violations of the Logan Act as treasonous. Interestingly enough, most writers think South Vietnam would have boycotted the Paris peace talks before Election Day 1968 even if Nixon had not secretly encouraged them. Saigon, after all, preferred Nixon, the premier anti-Communist politician of the Cold War, to Vice President Hubert Humphrey, a liberal Democrat who had opposed Americanizing the Vietnam War in the first place. The South Vietnamese knew that boycotting the talks would hurt Humphrey and help Nixon. They also feared (correctly, as it turned out) that the peace talks would become a cover for American withdrawal from the war. In the conventional interpretation of events, Nixon could have achieved the results he wanted by doing exactly nothing.

    If that were true, then taking the enormous risk of breaking the law by sabotaging the peace talks would have been the act of a political numbskull, not a political genius, which Nixon truly was.

    I think the conventional view is mistaken. Writers tend to overlook the reason why South Vietnam, right after the election, reversed course and agreed to take part in the peace talks. President Johnson got President-elect Nixon to privately issue an ultimatum from both of them to Saigon: if it didn’t take part in the negotiations, it would lose the support of the American government. That threat had teeth. South Vietnam depended on American support for its very survival. The ultimatum worked because it came from the leaders of both the Democratic and Republican parties, so South Vietnam realized it had no alternative. Saigon immediately assured the United States it would send a delegation to the Paris talks, although it did drag its heels a bit more.

    During the campaign, in his public statements, the Republican nominee had said repeatedly that he wanted the South to take part in the peace talks. If Saigon had believed him, it would have thought it had no choice. The whole point of Nixon’s secret messages to the South Vietnamese during the campaign was to make sure they knew that he didn’t really mean what he was telling American voters. This gave Saigon room to maneuver that it otherwise wouldn’t have had. Sabotaging the peace talks wasn’t some dumb mistake on Nixon’s part. It was a calculated risk he took, knowing that the bigger risk to his campaign would have been to allow peace talks to start before Election Day.

    Of course, once the sabotage succeeded, Nixon had to worry about covering his tracks. And that’s the best explanation for why as president he ordered the burglary of a think tank. He’d been led to believe it had secret documents on events leading up to the start of the peace talks. Once again, it was a calculated risk. A break-in would involve the risk of impeachment and imprisonment, but exposure of his political interference in the peace talks would have been a bigger threat.

    The peace talks never did produce peace. Hanoi was unwilling to give up on taking over the South militarily, and neither Nixon nor Johnson nor any of their military and civilian advisers ever came up with a strategy to make it give up. The only way to prevent a Communist takeover was to keep American soldiers fighting and dying in Vietnam. Johnson wasn’t going to let them win the war in the last three months of his presidency. President Nixon wasn’t going to let them win until after he had secured his own reelection in 1972. In the end, Nixon got Hanoi to sign the (misnamed) Paris Peace Accords by secretly assuring it, through China and the Soviet Union, that it could overthrow the South Vietnamese government without fear of American intervention as long as it waited a “decent interval” after he withdrew the last American troops. And it did.

    Q: How exceptional were Nixon’s maneuverings? Can you put them in some sort of historical context? How do you think it compares to other abuses of power by trusted leaders?

    A: Nixon’s defenders stick to the line that everybody does it, he just got caught. They launch a flurry of counter-charges against LBJ and other presidents. The problem is that the counter-charges they make about the 1968 election at least don’t withstand scrutiny. They claim Johnson stopped the bombing of North Vietnam before the election to help Vice President Humphrey win. The declassified negotiating record proves this is not true. What really happened is that in June 1968 Johnson set three conditions for halting the bombing: Hanoi had to (1) respect the demilitarized zone dividing Vietnam, (2) accept participation by the South Vietnamese government in the peace talks, and (3) stop shelling civilians in South Vietnamese cities. Month after month, Hanoi insisted that the bombing halt be unconditional. Johnson wouldn’t budge. Finally, in October 1968, Hanoi accepted all three of his demands. Johnson didn’t choose the timing of the bombing halt. Hanoi did. Nixon’s defenders also claim there was something illegal about the surveillance by which Johnson found out about Republican interference with the peace talks. Yet they never say which law they think was broken. The CIA had a bug in the office of the president of South Vietnam. That may have violated South Vietnamese law, but not American law. The NSA intercepted cables from the South Vietnamese embassy in Washington, DC, to Saigon. The CIA and NSA surveillance both were part of diplomatic intelligence-gathering to find out what an allied government’s position on peace talks really was. Again, this doesn’t violate American law.

    Johnson ordered an FBI wiretap on the South Vietnamese embassy phone. At the time, all that required was the OK of his attorney general, which he got. The wiretap overheard a prominent Nixon campaign fundraiser, Anna Chennault, deliver a message to South Vietnamese Ambassador Bui Diem from “her boss (not further identified)” urging Saigon to “hold on”—that is, to stay away from the Paris talks. We know for a fact that Chennault introduced the ambassador to Nixon at a meeting in New York that Nixon kept secret from almost all of his campaign aides and from the Secret Service detail assigned to protect him. According to Chennault, at that meeting Nixon designated her “the sole representative” between his campaign and Saigon.

    LBJ didn’t know about that secret meeting, and his lack of proof that Nixon was involved was one of the reasons he didn’t go public with the evidence he had of Republican sabotage.

    Many presidential candidates have been accused of violating the Logan Act, but I have yet to see a case against any of them that is as good as the case against Nixon. And once Nixon was president he set up an illegal, unconstitutional secret police unit operated out of the White House to carry out the one break-in we know he ordered. There’s no evidence any other president committed that particular abuse of power. Whenever you hear the everybody-does-it excuse, it’s best to ask for the evidence. The compensatory accusations Nixon’s defenders make against other president don’t all withstand scrutiny.

    It’s important to note, however, that there still isn’t “smoking gun” proof of Nixon’s involvement in the Chennault Affair. In history, you look for the explanation that best fits the facts. The actions Nixon took as candidate and president make sense if he was guilty; if he wasn’t guilty, then a lot of what he did makes no sense at all.

    Q: Readers will be struck by the almost jovial tone between Johnson and Nixon. He’s warmer with Nixon than he is with his own vice president. Is this a quality of an older, less partisan era in politics (it’s hard to imagine Obama and Boehner sharing so many laughs), or is this partly a smokescreen? Does LBJ have motives for sharing info with Nixon, beyond courtesy?

    A: Johnson was a consummate phone artist. I hope everyone who reads the book goes to chasing-shadows.org and listens to some of the Johnson tapes as well as the Nixon ones. Johnson had practical reasons for reaching out to Nixon. He wanted to make sure that none of the presidential candidates undermined his negotiations with Hanoi by offering to stop the bombing for anything less than his three conditions. He thought Hanoi would wait until after the election if one of the candidates offered a better deal than his. That’s why he kept Nixon as well as independent candidate George Wallace briefed on the negotiations—so they wouldn’t undercut him. It was easy to get their support for his demands, since Nixon didn’t want a bombing halt, and Wallace wanted a bombing surge.

    But his own vice president, Hubert Humphrey, came out in favor of a bombing halt without insisting on all three of LBJ’s conditions. Johnson was furious and thought that Humphrey had destroyed his chances of getting peace talks started. He was mistaken. Within weeks, Hanoi accepted all three of LBJ’s demands. But Johnson was so angry with Humphrey that he went so far as to secretly advise the Republicans on how to campaign against the nominee of his own party.

    Q: You must have been a grade-school kid when the Watergate saga was unfolding. What do you remember about it? Did you come from a Nixon household?

    A: I entered kindergarten the year Nixon entered the White House, 1969, and he’s the first president I remember. My mother was a New Deal Democrat, my father an Eisenhower Republican. They both voted for the Eisenhower/Nixon ticket in the 1950s, but they voted for JFK over Nixon in 1960. I can’t say for sure how they voted in 1968 or 1972; memories differ, and my understanding of things at the time was understandably limited.

    Watergate was completely unavoidable, no matter what age you were. It took over daytime television on all the networks once the congressional hearings started in 1973 and simply dominated conversation—including playground conversation—for over a year. It was too big for kids to ignore and too complex for us to fathom. I remember having lots of questions. Now I finally have some answers.

    Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate will be released on July 29.

  • LISTEN: LBJ Begins to Suspect July 17, 2014

    A week before the 1968 election, President Johnson called Senator Richard Russell. The conversation begins with personal anecdotes but LBJ then confides in Russell that Republican nominee for the presidency, Richard Nixon, is secretly interfering in the Paris Peace Talks. In Chasing Shadows, Ken Hughes shows how this episode reverberated through Nixon’s own administration and put him on the path to Watergate.

    Listen Here

  • WATCH: Trailer for Chasing Shadows July 15, 2014

    This summer marks the forty-year anniversary of Richard Nixon’s resignation as president. This singular event is now far enough away from us to feel like a finished chapter in our history. After all this time, however, there is still much about Nixon’s downfall that is not widely understood. If anything, the story continues to deepen.

    On July 29, we will release Ken Hughes‘s new book, Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate. Bob Woodward calls Hughes “one of American’s foremost experts on secret presidential recordings,” and in Chasing Shadows Hughes draws from his unprecedented access to the tapes of both Nixon and Lyndon Johnson to show how the Watergate break-in was part of a larger pattern of behavior, stretching back to the 1968 presidential campaign. The trailer for the book is online now.

  • Dolley Madison: The Fame Years March 18, 2014

    Rotunda’s Dolley Madison Digital Edition, edited by Holly C. Shulman, has been updated with 158 new documents, 543 new and revised identifications of people, places, and terms, and two new editorial essays.

    This seventh installment takes the reader through 1845. By the end of the year, Dolley was settled in the nation’s capital, and would never return to Montpelier—or any other place in Virginia. She had established a close friendship with President Tyler, and after James K. Polk was inaugurated on 4 March 1845, she created a warm relationship with both the president and his wife. In addition, the reader may follow her friendships and her social life, and how she dined and partied with the elite of the Polk administration. She continued to receive requests for autographs, both hers and her husband’s, and received dedications for books and poems. This is the Dolley Madison of fame.

    Concurrently, Dolley lived a far different private life. Her financial situation was precarious. Her brother-in-law, General William Madison, had filed suit against her, and that proceeded even after William’s death. She asked for loans, and could only repay her debts in small amount. Her finances shot, her son still in Virginia, her slaves divided between Henry Moncure, John Payne Todd, and herself, she considered emancipating her husband’s valet, Paul Jennings, but in the end rented him out to President Polk.

    The image above was painted a half century after her death. The illustrator, Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, depicted Dolley presiding over a ball held on 8 December 1812 and imagined her accepting the colors of the just-captured British vessel Macedonia, walking toward it in readiness to stamp on the British flag. The ball did take place, the flag was brought there, but Dolley never trod on it, nor did James Madison even attend. The picture reflects one of the myths that by 1845 had grown up around Mrs. Madison.

  • Texas Joins Archipedia February 27, 2014

    With the 2014 annual meeting in Austin just over a month away, we are happy to announce the addition of 1,319 building entries covering roughly half of the state of Texas to Rotunda’s SAH Archipedia, with 50 of these accessible via SAH Archipedia Classic Buildings. This material comprises the full text of the recently published Buildings of Texas: Central, South, and Gulf Coast. Additional photographs will be added in the months to come. The first of two Buildings of the United States books devoted to the Lone Star State, this volume includes four major cities (Austin, Corpus Christi, Houston, and San Antonio), surveys a range of building types and styles from Spanish missions to modern skyscrapers, canvasses everything from the Alamo and the Johnson Space Center to the Menil Collection/Rothko Chapel and the O. Henry House, and highlights such topics as Texas dance halls, faux bois (false wood) art, cattle and ranching, and barbecue.

  • Additions to History of the Ratification February 27, 2014

    The digital edition of The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution, published by our electronic imprint Rotunda, has just made two important updates to its content. With the addition of Volume 23 from the print series, the digital edition includes the complete New York content. This chronicles the proceedings of the state Convention, where a mostly Antifederalist collection of delegates debated over the Constitution clause by clause. We have also added Volume 24, which is the first volume of Rhode Island content. Notably independent in its thought, Rhode Island was the last of the original thirteen states to ratify the Constitution, a process that eventually took three years to complete.

  • FLOTUS Showdown February 21, 2014

    Greatest film of all time? Vertigo, according to the Sight and Sound poll. Greatest album? Sgt. Pepper, says Rolling Stone. Best college men’s basketball team? AP has Syracuse at the top (for now). We live in an age of lists. While list-making is to a certain extent just a parlor game, as well as a handy way to sift through information overload, such a list can be a fairly reliable yardstick for fluctuations in reputation.

    The Siena Research Institute periodically polls historians to assemble their rankings of the U. S. Presidents, but many people probably don’t know that Siena also ranks the First Ladies. The latest edition of the First Ladies rankings has just been released, and it has inspired considerable commentary (including this CNN piece). In the rankings’ top spot is Eleanor Roosevelt, who, apart from her famous marriage, was one of the great public figures of the twentieth century. In fourth place, almost exactly 200 years after she and her husband left the White House, is Dolley Madison, often credited with creating the role of the First Lady as we know it.

    The Founders loom perhaps largest of anyone in our history, and not surprisingly their wives did very well in the poll, with Abigail Adams (#2) and Martha Washington (#9) joining Dolley in the top ten. Another trend in the list seems to be recognizing the more recent presidents’ wives: the four most recent First Ladies all made the top twelve, including Michelle Obama (#5). Who fared less well were the women in between—that long century and a half between the end of the early republic and the second World War. Lost in the shuffle are some formidable First Ladies, such as Lou Hoover (#17)—or the exceptional case of Edith Bolling Galt Wilson (#14), who hid her husband’s deteriorating health from his own cabinet and, in order to reduce his burden, actually took on many of his presidential duties herself. Historians debate whether this was admirable resourcefulness or simply a political spouse going rogue.

    A particularly poor showing on the list can almost always be traced back to difficult personal circumstances, whether it is Eliza Johnson (#38), who was too unhealthy to perform the traditional duties and had to defer to her daughter, or Jane Pierce (#39, last place), whose arrival at the White House was preceded by an almost incomprehensible run of personal tragedy (she lost all three of her children—the last only weeks before her husband’s inauguration).

    The way in which Dolley Madison and Eleanor Roosevelt seem to bookend a long period of largely forgotten stories says something about a historical memory that naturally concentrates on the recent history, as well as the enduring prominence of the Founding Era in our minds, but it may also reflect a diminishment of the President’s—and, in turn, the First Lady’s—importance during a significant stretch of our history. “While there were powerful presidents between Madison and FDR, including James K. Polk, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson, during most of the 19th century the power of the president remained limited by the strength of Congress,” says Holly Shulman, editor of The Dolley Madison Digital Edition. “While this balance of power shifted under the Progressive Era presidents, it was only with FDR, the New Deal, and the Second World War that the Presidency as we know it took shape.  That supremacy has solidified in the nearly 70 years since the end of World War II.  The era of the imperial presidency has brought to the American public an ever-more prominent First Lady.”

    The very interesting survey results may be viewed in their entirety on the Siena web site.

Older posts from before 2013 are available in the Rotunda news archive.