FLOTUS: More than Just a Spouse

Mrs. Obama Tribute

Writer Jacqueline Holness dresses as her favorite First Lady, Michelle Obama.

With the upcoming New York primaries for the Democratic and Republican parties on Tuesday, the groundbreaking yet vitriolic presidential campaign continues to captivate the country. However, as the campaign showdown plays out, the presidential candidates’ spouses have become targets as well.

Last month, Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz traded insults and threw out innuendoes about their respective wives, potential First Ladies Melania Trump and Heidi Cruz, and recently, potential First Gentleman and former president Bill Clinton squared off with Black Lives Matter protestors. Bernie Sanders’ wife Jane O’Meara Sanders has managed to escape negative scrutiny for now.

However, as the country is on the cusp of choosing its candidates at the party conventions, it is appropriate to take a closer look at the attributes and accomplishments of these candidates’ spouses compared to current and former presidential spouses. Although presidents are typically seen as the primary power brokers in their marital relationships, First Ladies throughout history have also contributed significantly in public service, government, and overall American life.

Hillary Clinton is the first former First Lady to campaign for president and to have held the Secretary of State office as well as a senatorial position. According to WhiteHouse.gov, Hillary Clinton was the “first woman elected statewide in New York” to the United States Senate.

In addition to the being the first Black First Lady, the academic accomplishments of Michelle Obama also set her apart as well. Michelle Obama, who was the 1981 salutatorian for Whitney Young High School in Chicago, graduated from Princeton University in 1985, the first First Lady to have earned an undergraduate college degree from an Ivy League institution.

She then secured a law degree from Harvard Law School in 1988, making her the second First Lady to have an advanced college degree, with Hillary Clinton being the first.

While Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama are arguably the most popular First Ladies right now, other First Ladies have also distinguished themselves for their contributions to American life. Former First Lady Nancy Reagan, who died on March 6, took on the cause of youth drug addiction when she created the “Just Say No” campaign in 1982 during her husband’s presidency.

According to WhiteHouse.gov, “in 1985 she held a conference at the White House for First Ladies of 17 countries to focus international attention on this problem.” According to the Reagan Foundation website, by 1988, “cocaine use by high-school seniors dropped by one-third, the lowest rate in a decade.”

Eleanor Roosevelt, who held the First Lady position the longest (as her husband and distant cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt served four terms as president), also championed political causes. She held press conferences, lectured, and had a column “My Day” in a daily syndicated newspaper, according to WhiteHouse.Gov.

She also championed civil rights for Black Americans, including publicly supporting the Tuskegee Airmen. Her friendship with Pauli Murray, a Black civil rights activist and attorney, was captured in The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice, a book written by Patricia Bell-Scott and released in February.

Finally, following her husband’s death, Roosevelt became a United Nations spokeswoman.

Mamie Eisenhower, wife of Dwight Eisenhower, sought equality for Black people, though in less public ways. Eisenhower, an honorary member of the National Council of Negro Women, invited Black children to come to the annual Easter Egg Roll, and ensured that the 4-H Club Camp for Negro Boys and Girls was included in special tours of the White House, according to biography.com.

Here is some random trivia about other First Ladies: Should Melania Trump be next First Lady, she won’t be the First Lady to have been born in another country; Louisa Adams, wife of John Quincy Adams, was born in London, England. Similarly, Betty Ford, wife of Gerald Ford, worked as a fashion model, just like Melania Trump. Finally, technically not a First Lady, Harriet Lane served as a First Lady for her uncle James Buchanan, the only president who never married.

While it is impossible to predict who will be the next First Lady or even if there will be a First Gentleman this time next year, it is evident that the spouses of presidents have much to offer the country as well.

For more information about First Ladies, go to www.whitehouse.gov/1600/first-ladies.

“Too Small to Fail” or Too Big to Succeed?

While pundits speculate and pontificate on the future political career of Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former secretary of state seems not to be concentrating on 2016—at least, not for now. Last week, Clinton announced the “Too Small to Fail” initiative, a venture of the Clinton Foundation (created by her husband, former President Bill Clinton) and Next Generation—a nonpartisan group that promotes scientific research about early childhood development. A well-polished four-minute clip on the project’s site highlights what many of us have known for some time: the most critical years for any child are the early developmental stages, between the ages of 0-5. Colorful images of healthy parents with their healthy young children playing and reading were complemented by experts briefly discussing the importance of everything from nutrition to brain development.  Calling on communities, individuals, and businesses to serve as partners, the video seems more like a vision statement than a plan of action.

The focus is commendable, and the support from non-profits and corporations, alike—I am sure—will follow. From a moral standpoint, I feel we can learn a lot about a nation by how it treats its most vulnerable, which is what gives me pause. With all of our social programs, and countless organizations claiming to concentrate on child welfare issues, none have successfully addressed the increasing education, opportunity, and development gaps that exist among children in the United States. So while this organization is in its infancy stage, I have one simple question for Hillary Clinton: how are you any different?  We will get a better sense of how to answer that question moving forward, but there are four things that immediately pop in my head and I will be paying close attention to:

  • Collaboration with affected communities— Renowned experts and well-intentioned individuals may have led government-sponsored programs like the “War on Drugs” and “No Child Left Behind,” or non-profit initiatives, such as “Teach for America” but such efforts, however, are not new to criticisms about their lack of community inclusion in the creation of programmatic initiatives.  This often leads to resistance from communities that feel that their opinions are undervalued or not considered at all; unfulfilled promises and unmet expectations; and the ultimate failure—no change at all.  “Too Small to Fail” not only needs to clearly articulate its goals, but also incorporate statements of community partnership and consultation, with a recognition that investment and buy-in from the community will lead to sustainable progress.
  • Targeting disparities in day-to-day living—A blanket approach to tackling development in children is not going to work. Studies show that a poor child is likely to hear millions fewer words at home than a child from a professional family. Research highlighted in the book “Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children” (Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley) revealed that children whose families were on welfare heard about 600 words per hour, compared to 1200 words per hour in working class families, and 2100 words per hour in professional families.  Now consider the following statistics by the National Center of Children in Poverty:
    • 32.4 million children live in low-income families;
    • 16.1 million of those children living in poor families;
    • 65 percent of black children live in low-income families, compared to 31 percent of white children;
    • 86 percent of children with parents who have less than a high school degree live in low- income families.

What does this mean? In short, before a poor child reaches the age of 1, he or she has already fallen behind middle-class children in their ability to talk, understand and learn.  This likelihood increases if you are a poor black child.  We cannot target children without targeting their caretakers, and it will be interesting to see what solutions (if any) “Too Small to Fail” will introduce to address these disparities.

  • Recognizing non-traditional employment opportunities—It is encouraging to hear that ‘Too Small to Fail” will aim to work with the workforce to support practices that support workers—and thus support children.  There are so many workers, however, that do odds and ends jobs just to make a living for their families. Furthermore, the demands of the current economic climate are forcing already overworked families to pursue any opportunity for revenue just to meet basic needs. A broader lens is therefore needed to identify the various kinds of employment and be inclusive of “under the table” jobs, which often do not entail a W-2 form.
  • Understanding the impact of a child’s demographic—A 2009 study by the Urban Institute focused on the impact a child’s living environment has on development. An organization today cannot afford to shy away from the various forms of trauma that exist for many urban youth, including the more obvious ones—such as gun violence and crime—and even more subtle, less discussed ones—such as the impact of being raised by a teen parent, exposure to paramilitary-like school systems, and the residual impact of incarceration. The desire for each child to reach their full potential is incomplete if there is a failure to explore how one’s address can change how you think and develop.

I am cautiously optimistic about “Too Small to Fail.”  Only time will tell if this infant organization will develop into a fully-grown solution.

Ify Ike is a former Capitol Hill advisor and counsel, with experience on a variety of social justice issues.  She is an original blogger of the faith-blog “The Bold and Fabulous,” founder of the policy and communications firm, Ike Professionals, LLC, and has assisted numerous ministries in program creation, youth outreach efforts, community service, and natural disaster relief.  At least once a day, you can find her in a debate about politics or religion.

The Politicization of ‘I Do’

Many are discussing the moral and social obligations of the Black church in the wake of President Obama’s recent endorsement of same-sex marriage. The details of what should be the appropriate reaction of the media-crafted monolithic “Black-church vote” are being hotly debated, and well they should be; this is good political discourse. However, the limited focus of these debates seems to ignore a much larger picture.

Many wonder about the timing of this announcement. Some have pointed out that it was all too conveniently issued on the eve of Obama’s $40,000 per plate re-election fundraiser among the super rich who might favor such a move.

I believe this timing touches on the fringes of the picture we see, yet to gain better perspective we must first reflect on the 2008 election. In the months following Barack Obama’s announcement of his candidacy, Hillary Clinton – with the anointing of the Democratic establishment – was well on her way to being “in it to win it.”

Then we saw a great reversal at the Iowa caucuses, transforming Obama from a Black candidate driven by politics to a mainstream candidate driven by a movement. This caused a convergence of multitude paradigm-shifting factors, resulting in a tipping point. Even African American Democrats who favored Hillary experienced this paradigm shift — a shift that was completed with the South Carolina primary. The rest is history.

A cultural movement will always trump politics when they go head to head; this is culture vs. politics. The “marriage equality” advocates seem to have learned this lesson, but those who advocate for traditional marriage are, like a needle on a record, stuck in the groove of an ineffectual political approach.

With Obama’s recent endorsement as we approach the 2012 election, it seems that the order of the day will be politics vs. politics. This time, there is no euphoric movement on the horizon. In this light we can understand Obama’s pronouncement as a matter of political calculation.

I am mystified by the shocked reactions emerging from various quarters, since as early as 1996 Barack Obama is documented as stating, “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages.” As the dates add up, his talk of “evolving” now seems a ruse.

Without a movement to ride, perhaps Obama felt the need to assemble a winning coalition. He took for granted the Black vote, in spite of their traditional opposition to same-sex marriage. Given the alternatives, perhaps he reasoned that Black folks would “get over it” and still choose him. After all, why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free? Likewise, he counts on the liberal/left vote. It seems to me that this well-timed endorsement of same-sex marriage was aimed at shoring up the enthusiastic support of the LGBT community, with its considerable wealth and clout — a community that was beginning to show signs of antipathy towards him.

In my perspective, same-sex marriage is not the ultimate issue. What disturbs me more is that today’s politicians and judicial activists presume that they can redefine stabilizing institutions that have survived for millennia merely for the sake of short-term gain. Their hubris is rooted in the notion that they are wiser than all the generations that have preceded us. It is this calculated approach that will “fundamentally transform” this nation from a government of laws into a government of men. In such a society, power is applied according to the impulses of flawed leadership. The winds may blow in your favor today, but tomorrow they may tragically reverse, with no recourse.

If our institutions can be redefined at whim for political gain, it makes us all — Black, White, gay, straight, liberal, conservative, or what have you — into pawns in a game in which there are no rules.

You wanted equality, same-sex advocates? Congratulations. You are now a vulnerable piece on the chessboard — just like the rest of us.