Communications professor Myra Gutin will discuss Barbara Bush on C-SPAN’s First Ladies: Influence and Image tonight, Jan. 20, at 9 p.m. Eastern time.
The series examines the public roles and private lives of the first ladies and their years in the White House. Each two-hour program reveals the championed causes of first ladies, as well as their influences on the presidents, stewardship of the White House and approach to private and public life.
From Martha Washington to Michelle Obama, the wives of American presidents played historic roles that are both complicated and malleable. "The role of the first lady is really whatever she wants it to be,” Gutin says, adding that polling indicates America is divided on the proper role of the president’s wife.
“Certainly since 1960, most of the first ladies have been as close as you can be to political professionals,” she says.
A widely quoted source for women in politics, Gutin is the author of The President’s Partner: The First Lady in the Twentieth Century and Barbara Bush: Presidential Matriach. She recently appeared in the news discussing Michelle Obama’s 50th birthday, conjecturing about her post-White House days: "I think she'll always be active in her community. It's been suggested that she might run for the Senate from Illinois. I really don't see her doing that.”
While Obama has focused on health during her husband’s tenure, Bush chose literacy, founding the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy. “She put literacy on the national agenda,” says Gutin, who interviewed Bush for her book. “I found her very gracious, very pleasant, but I also had a sense that there was no fooling around. She was very focused, but that also doesn’t mean she’s not a fun-loving person.”
Recently, Bush has made headlines by trying to dash the hopes of a 2016 White House run by son Jeb Bush. “She realizes the kind of pressure running and winning the presidency exerts on a candidate,” Gutin says. “I think she means it. She’s seen a lot of politics she didn’t like, and she was very upset last year at the gridlock in Washington.”
Now in its second season, First Ladies moves into the 20th century, showcasing first ladies from Edith Roosevelt to Michelle Obama. The first season looked at Martha Washington through Ida McKinley. During the show, viewers get the chance to learn about the first ladies in their own words through the use of recorded sound, film and video. The program also presents original interviews with first ladies or their family members; oral histories from social secretaries; and visits to presidential libraries.
“C-SPAN has done a first-class job,” Gutin says. “They’ve had some wonderful scholars, historians and authors taking part. They’re illuminating a part of history not well known to people.”