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Thoughts on First Ladyship

30 Oct 2012

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Edifying Elucidations By Okey Ikechukwu. Email, okey.ikechukwu@thisdaylive.com

First Ladyship! Even with no clear conception of the term among those from whom the world inherited it, First Ladyship stands as solid as the Rock of Gibraltar everywhere. Thus the Americans who began the tradition, and who transmitted its more modern version, are under
pressure to redefine it. The office is not in their constitution, of course, but it has always been constituted and reconstituted, over time, as an integral part of the American state. Meanwhile, there were initially no clear expectations of the spouses of American presidents.  President Zachary Taylor, who allegedly described his media-loved late wife as “truly our first lady for a half a century” during her funeral, is not here to help us. Neither is the American press that doted on the woman and popularised the term.

Even as Americans have never stopped screaming “The Office of the First Lady is not in our constitution”, it has grown, been reformed, transformed, transmogrified and even repeatedly reinvented by successive First Ladies. This can only mean that there is something no one is thinking about or, perhaps, that there is something no one wants to admit. This may be a sneaking realisation that the current global ambience and profile of the Office of First Lady calls for some kind of discussion around what to do with it – or about it – in a sustainable way.  The occasional emotional raving against it, or its occupant at any particular time, achieves nothing.

It is better to acknowledge that the life and travails of the Office of the First Lady (over the past 50 years in the US) within and outside Nigeria calls for new thinking.

Before she became the First Lady of the US, Michelle Obama would probably not have been able to dissuade her friendly neighbour from parking at a particular spot that accentuated the unfriendly glare of the setting sun outside her bedroom. But as First Lady, she was able to persuade Kellogg’s, Coca-Cola and General Mills to assist her campaign to end childhood obesity by reducing the overall calories content of their foods. Taken aback by this, Forbes magazine named Mrs. Obama the most powerful woman in the world. Shortly after that she convinced Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, to eliminate trans-fat (which promises double trouble for heart health) and reduce sugar and sodium in its packaged foods.

While congratulating the American First Lady for these triumphs, let us pray that she does not turn up here to persuade us to abandon Fura, Gbegiri soup, nkwobi and related delicacies.

But, wait a minute; she is not the First Lady around here! We have our own First Lady, who recently returned from a health trip. This is not to say that some Nigerians did not still pick on her for travelling abroad at all. Some came dangerously close to blaming her for even bad weather and the damaged door handles in their homes. What it all throws up, again, is the constitutionality or otherwise of the Office of the First Lady. In case there were people who foamed in the mouth while discussing the matter, or others who may have suffered mild seizures following their agitation while discussing the topic, the best thing is to put the issues on the table in a rational way.

But, going back to Mrs. Obama, Richard H. Frank ate her raw not too long ago in his piece “The Office of the First Lady and our Constitution”, when he accused her of travelling with about 40 people during her vacation in Spain. Then he went to the old line:  “The last time I checked our constitution, Article II makes no provisions for the ‘Office of the First Lady’, nor does it provide for the President to create such an office. Yet it was reported in the Canada Free Press that Michelle requires more than twenty attendants at an annual cost to the taxpayers of six million, three hundred sixty four thousand dollars ($6,364,000.00).”

Notwithstanding the factual correctness, or otherwise, of Frank’s observations, the first issue that stand out is that the American state incurs huge personnel and other expenses to maintain the Office of the First Lady.  The other issue is that such expense would not be possible without some form of ‘process’ that survives the scrutiny of the fiscal discipline regimes that even the US president has no capacity to circumvent. Finally, it is clear that writers who easily raise constitutional issues forget (or know nothing) about the Public Law 95-750 of 1978, which Mrs. Rosalynn  Carter spearheaded and which set up a fund for the First Lady precisely because she is the spouse of the president.

Mrs. Carter broke precedent as First Lady when, in 1977, she toured Central and South America without her husband, to the dismay and consternation of Americans. Her mission was to meet with heads of state and discuss — in Spanish —  matters revolving around human rights, drug trafficking, nuclear energy, and weaponry. It was a good outing. She was also, at the time, the Active Honorary Chair of the President’s Commission on Mental Health. This later role derived from her personal commitment to helping reform the legislation on behalf of the mentally ill and it was in this capacity that she helped draft the Mental Health Systems Act, which was passed into law in 1980.

Mrs. Carter also had mandatory weekly 'working lunches' with the president and also attended cabinet meetings. She had a Chief of Staff. This is in addition to her being the first occupant of the office to have her own speechwriter, a Deputy Press Secretary, and an Appointment Secretary. Oh, by the way, her other staff attended the daily West Wing briefings of the Presidency. Mrs. Carter hired a management consultant to streamline her office and make sure that it was professional, organised, and incorporated into the White House as a matter of course. She was the first US First Lady to do so.

Before her, Mrs. Ford had crossed the presumed traditional boundary lines set for First Ladies in the public imagination. This came in the form of her public support and recognition of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), for which she lobbied and campaigned so desperately. She based her headquarters on the second floor of the East Wing and employed 28 staff members. Her tenure as First Lady before Mrs. Carter affected the profile and physical size of the office.

Then came Mrs. Nancy Reagan, with what the Americans began to call a ‘co-presidency’. She was once quoted as having said: “If the President has a bully pulpit then the First Lady has a white glove pulpit.  It’s more refined, more restricted, more ceremonial, but it’s a pulpit at the same time”. They just had to acknowledge that this First Lady was “part of the deal” when she fired the president’s Chief-of-Staff. With Mrs. Barbara Bush, nicknamed the “Silver Fox,” the Americans saw a First Lady who would ‘freeze out’ anyone suspected of leaking secrets and then have the fellow fired.

The point in what appears to be rigmarole here is that First Ladyship is heading in a direction we cannot ignore, right from the time of Eleanor Roosevelt, who was not only outspoken  but also maintained a newspaper column.  It took until the Clinton Presidency for things to come into sharp focus, as Bill Clinton presented himself alongside his wife to the voting public. He was saying, in effect: “I do not stand alone and I am pegging my candidacy on the fact that I have something extra I am proud to declare, as I step forward”. That ‘extra’, which was expected to swing votes as well, was Mrs. Hilary Clinton.

That Mrs. Clinton ended up as Chair of her husband’s Task Force on National Health Care Reform is not really an issue on its own. What is of interest here, and which left the average American dumb-struck, was the realisation that Hillary, their First Lady, had transcended all
her old and modern predecessors by occupying a position that made her a strong, separate and officially recognised source of power that flowed statutorily.  Her mandate of authority from the president (and an operational base from which to carry it out) allowed her to have an office in the West Wing of the White. This is in addition to another one in the Old Executive Office Building. Some Americans simply quaked with rage – impotent rage, that is!

What emerges in all of this is that First Ladyship has undergone, and is still undergoing, tremendous transformation all over the world. If no effort is made to distil and ‘warehouse’ its positive traits and possibilities we may have only the high birth rate (and short life expectancy) of many otherwise laudable development programmes. But where First Ladyship is taken up as a theme and examined rationally, under the ambiance of informed discourse, we are likely to arrive at templates that would ensure minimum performance expectations in terms of impact on other women, social morality, etc. Perhaps we can begin the debate, drawing from whatever sustainable initiatives are on the ground today.

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