22 April 2016

Jackie Kennedy is favourite First Lady of last ten


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I wrote about why JFK’s widow might be so popular in yesterday’s Times:

“It’s not hard to understand why Mrs Kennedy won her country’s enduring affection. She lost her husband in the most horrific of circumstances. On the day of his assassination, attending the swearing in of Lyndon Johnson as his successor, she refused to change the pink wool Chanel suit that was so obviously splattered with his blood. “I want them to see what they’ve done to Jack,” she said. Thereafter, the extraordinary widow of JFK never spoke or wrote publicly about her marriage. And that silence probably helps to explain her continued popularity, as it does with our Queen. You can’t offend people if you never utter any words that could give offence. If Princess Diana had never made her controversial public interventions she might have become the undisputed “Queen of Hearts” that was her hope.

Mrs Kennedy, like Nancy Reagan in particular, was closely involved with many of her husband’s biggest decisions. Cabinet members who she liked, such as the defence secretary Robert McNamara, prospered, while those she disrespected, like secretary of state Dean Rusk, never won his full confidence. “Jackie” was clever enough, however, to realise that looking more dumb and dutiful than powerful was what the America of that period wanted from her.”

In answers to a second question about the strongest influence on a president during their time in the White House, the chief of staff came top but the members of YouGov’s First Verdict panel thought that the First Lady was more influential than anyone else – including the Vice President, Secretary of State and Speaker. Given the influence that the likes of Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton had on their husbands, the FV Panel must be correct in its judgment.

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Personally, I’d argue that the First Lady was probably even more influential than the chief of staff – not least because they tend to outlast them, as President Obama’s first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, can testify to. He had testy relations with Michele Obama. She’s still there and he’s embroiled in unhappy controversies about policing in Chicago. Despite what the First Verdict panel thinks about the influence of First Ladies, only 6% said they have been giving “a lot” of attention to a candidate’s spouse during this presidential primary cycle, however:

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For more about Portrait of America and the methodology behind First Verdict, click here.

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Tim Montgomerie is Editor of Portrait of America