It may seem shocking, but really, it is only unexpected.
Yesterday, after one enterprising photographer and one shocked checkout clerk let the cat out of the bag that First Lady Michelle Obama had spent about a half hour doing something she’s on the record as saying she enjoys doing, the world media made it a headline story. Astounding as it seems given the fantasy that Presidential families loll in the lap of luxury with servants peeling them grapes, the President’s spouse was pushing her own cart and scrutinizing the bargains at a suburban Virginia location of Target.
Had she been doing so at Tiffany’s or Nieman-Marcus rather than the modern middle-class version of what they called a fancy dry-goods store in the days of shopping-addicted Mary Todd Lincoln, it would have been turned into a tale of political consequence instead of curiosity.
The truly eye-popping reality the small story really brings to the nation’s attention is the fact that First Ladies, unlike Presidents, can, do and have been going undercover as well as openly to mix it up with the common man, whether to check out a dress, take a hike, compare the price of beef, take in the fresh air and even sometimes eavesdrop to hear what’s on the mind of the citizenry.
In one of the earliest examples of a First Lady being out and about, it even resulted in a small feminist victory. Two hundred years ago, Washington, D.C. was predominantly a man’s town, members of Congress making the grueling trip to the capital city by stagecoach and horseback and living in shared boardinghouse rooms. A certain oyster house on Capitol Hill during the 1810s was known as much for its rowdy vibe as its shucked Chesapeake Bay oysters, with all the backslapping, pipe-smoking, loo-playing (ye’ old form of poker), that was part of the 19th century scene between lobbyists and congressmen. Until the day of reckoning (likely sometime between 1809 and the city’s being burned in 1814) when First Lady Dolley Madison asked no permission and walked through the doors, followed by several other prominent civic-minded women. She had done the same thing in the Supreme Court and Capitol Building itself, inculcating women in politics and integrating the city’s society. It was no one-shot deal, however. Mrs. Madison walked her way up and into the Capitol Hill oyster house on several occasions, and forever after it was open to women. She never said whether she did so to taste the oysters or combat sexism. After all, she played a hard hand of loo, too.
Even the most obscure, the most tightfisted and alas, the most depressed of First Ladies seemed to enjoy shopping. Most accounts of Jane Pierce actually underestimate the degree of depression that she suffered from through most of her life, but quite severely and permanently after the horrific death of her 11-year old Benjamin whose head was smashed during a train accident just before the Inauguration. Still, in a recently discovered letter written by her constant companion and relative Abby Means, while Mrs. Pierce was too distraught to appear at her husband’s March 1853 Inauguration and lagged in Baltimore, the new First Lady ignored stares to window-shop along waterfront storefronts.
Michelle Obama used shades and a baseball cap to disguise her identity. Mary Lincoln tried a veil and an alias as she gorged herself on fabrics, gloves, hats and other clothing items. When she was recognized, however, wildly exaggerated accounts of her spending spree hit the papers, and left her either looking like a spendthrift or a liar.
By the time she bought two purple china sets (one for the White House, one for herself) at the famous New York shopping emporium of A.T. Stewart’s in New York, she gave up trying and reporters actually followed her around as clerks trudged her bundles up and down the six stories, from department to department of the famous cast-iron “Iron Palace.”
By the early 20th century, First Ladies were still going out in public freely but starting with Florence Harding, they were assigned a Secret Service agent. Perhaps no First Lady before or since has insisted on walking, shopping, hiking, lunching and doing whatever she wanted more than Grace Coolidge. She was instantly recognized and rarely bothered, however, with the tall looming presence of her Secret Service agent Jim Haley. With a large menagerie of dogs in the Coolidge White House, the First Lady was more than likely giving herself and a pet a long walk at her typically vigorous clip.
If Grace Coolidge’s right to be seen wherever she wanted was a given across the nation’s capital city, Eleanor Roosevelt’s was a given across the nation. In fact, although Nellie Taft had been the first First Lady to own and drive her own car around Washington, Eleanor Roosevelt did so frequently from there up to the Roosevelt family homes in New York City and further north to the Hudson River Valley. When she was on the West Coast, she usually just borrowed one from a friend. And she did all her driving often with just a friend. She insisted on having no Secret Service agents accompany or trail her, even during World War II.
Driving or just walking the streets blissfully was no longer an option after World War II. With not only Washington’s population but threats against Presidents and their families having risen dramatically, Bess Truman grumbled about having to quit driving because of the traffic jams she caused at red lights. It was an entirely different problem for the globally-recognized star of the New Frontier, First Lady Jackie Kennedy. Never especially interested in hitting the department stores to shop, Jackie mostly resented what she called the “fishbowl” existence of being First Lady because it prevented her from taking her children to play in the park. As she explained on the recently released “Jackie Tapes,” however, the Secret Service worked with her as friendly conspirators, driving Mrs. Kennedy with her children to random parks where they played and left before word spread.
She also employed disguises. Perhaps her most notorious getup was a blonde Brunhilda wig with pigtails. She wore it, pigtails flying in the wind, as she took off from the Kennedy’s Cape Cod compound in Hyannis Port in a red convertible with artist friend William Walton all the way to the tip of the Cape, to Provincetown, where she was able to anonymously hit up all the art galleries she wanted.
Still, to the end of her life, 31 years after leaving the White House, whenever Jackie Kennedy Onassis went for a jog, a restaurant meal or to shop, there was inevitably a photographer and a crowd.
After the Kennedy assassination in 1963, Secret Service protection became all the more strict when it came to presidential wives and children. During times of war, crisis and other high-alert periods, the restrictions placed on families became all the more intense. Certainly Pat Nixon, first during the Vietnam War and then the Watergate scandal, felt increasingly besieged. She considered Camp David to be an especial salvation to an otherwise confining life. During her husband’s campaign in 1968, she found she was able to still walk through Washington and New York without always being recognized or, at least, bothered. In the last months of the Nixon Administration, she actually found a way to cobble some sense of freedom together by again walking the streets of Washington to window-shop at the nearby Garfinkel’s and Woodward & Lothrop department stores in a headscarf – but only at night. When once a resident recognized her, she smiled and simply put her finger to her lips – and he kept her secret.
After the attempt on her husband’s life and then threats of Libyan attacks on Washington, in 1981 and 1982, respectively, Nancy Reagan also felt besieged. She had always especially enjoying browsing through card shops to pick out greeting cards for various events and holidays to send friends and give her family members. Finally, the Secret Service located one across from the Old Executive Office Building in an enclosed plaza and arranged for her to make frequent visits there. In time, she also regularly slipped out to meet friends for lunch at a table in the Jockey Club restaurant of a hotel where their seating went largely unnoticed.
Similarly, despite the Iraqi War and Afghanistan Wars of her husband’s Administration, Laura Bush was able to make frequent visits to Washington museums to browse new art, history and technology exhibits. Despite the frequent protests around the city, she was often unrecognized by other museum visitors who were focused on studying exhibit items and there
Still, a First Lady does not travel with as large a Secret Service contingency as a President or even Vice President and others with high-ranking positions. Considering how the lack of free movement and privacy is universally the single most common downside First Ladies have disliked about an otherwise rarefied and privileged life, perhaps nobody better realizes the irony of this than Hillary Clinton. Often walking into bookstores, museums and restaurants with only a quick clearance beforehand, she had more freedom as First Lady than she now does as a former First Lady…and incumbent Secretary of State.