It had been forty-four years since a First Lady had given much attention to the White House grounds and significantly re-landscaped them when Michelle Obama broke ground for what has become, in the four years since, her White House Kitchen Garden. She was just 15 months old when Lady Bird Johnson cut the ribbon of the newly landscaped East Garden of the White House, a formal spot with clipped boxwood and topiary which she named “The Jacqueline Kennedy Garden,” after her predecessor. The White House has produced a great little video on the kitchen garden, narrated by Michelle Obama and White House chef Sam Cass, showing its development:
Used as a teaching ground for Americans about avoiding the disease of obesity, and raising healthy produce which can be cultivated and harvested in similar vegetable gardens around the nation, the First Lady’s project has also served the practical purpose of producing food for the First Family’s meals and those of many of their guests.
The book puts Michelle Obama in a relatively rare sub-category among her predecessors, making her one of only eight incumbent First Ladies to author books. In it, Michelle Obama reflects not only her very human worries that she was too inexperienced as a gardener to lead the effort but recalls stories about her mother and grandmother maintaining their own World War II victory garden in their Chicago neighborhood.
At that same time, in Washington, it was Michelle Obama’s predecessor Eleanor Roosevelt who had directed that a White House Victory garden be landscaped onto the South Lawn, serving as an example to the nation.
The Roosevelt victory garden was a relatively small plot of land and with a limited variety of produce compared to the Obama one.
It was largely overseen by the daughter of presidential aide Harry Hopkins, rather than the First Lady.
In the book department, Eleanor Roosevelt proves to also provide context for Michelle Obama.
Eleanor Roosevelt had been a prolific writer before she became First Lady in 1933, churning out articles in newspapers, magazines, policy journals and partisan political newsletter.
So often the First Lady who was the first to set a precedent, Eleanor Roosevelt was also the first presidential spouse to author a book while still living in the White House – although technically not the first First Lady to do so (see the end of tis article).
In 1937, the first volume of her three-volume autobiography, This Is My Story, was published.
Recalling her first childhood visit to the White House and coming away with nothing tangible to learn more about what she’d seen, Jackie Kennedy conceived of the guidebook for both children and adults.
She bucked criticism to sell the books directly to tourists coming into the White House – all of the proceeds going towards the White House Historical Association, which she created fifty years ago as the caretaker organization for the historic mansion.
Having gone through many editions since then, it remains a big seller.
It was another thirty years before another incumbent First Lady had her name on a book.
To bring national attention to the Foster Grandparents program, which she’d famously supported while serving as wife of California’s governor, Nancy Reagan wrote the introduction for To Love a Child (1982), chronicling the stories of retired citizens who volunteered as “grandparent” mentors to children without any family mentors to help guide them and give them the attention they needed.
Composed by Joe Raposo with lyrics by Hal David, it was released as a single by Sinatra. And the First Lady even sang it along with him.
Millie’s Book (1990) had a first printing of 100,000 copies and spent 23 weeks on the Publisher’s Weekly hardcover bestseller list.
Like the Kennedy, Reagan and all subsequent books written by incumbent First Ladies the royalties went to charity.
The popularity of Millie’s Book served as proof that a book penned by an incumbent First Lady reached an eager market beyond the scope of partisan loyalty.
It was a fact proven by the breakaway success of her successor Hillary Clinton’s first book, It Takes a Village to Raise a Child (1996).
The huge advance sales of her book also led Hillary Clinton to become the only incumbent First Lady to undertake a national book tour of ten cities.
The book laid out many of the Clinton Administration’s intended and realized legislative initiatives on behalf of children and was speedily used against her husband by his Republican opponent.
During his 1996 Republican National Convention acceptance speech, presidential nominee Bob Dole declared, “It does not take a village to raise a child. It takes a family to raise a child.”
The success of the book also led this First Lady to author two other books by the time she left the White House, making Mrs. Clinton the most prolific among incumbent First Ladies.
If Hillary Clinton hoped to help children to write, her immediate successor Laura Bush hoped to encourage them to read.
With her daughter Jenna Bush Hager, then a public school teacher, Laura Bush authored the children’s book Read All About It! (1998).
Intended for children from kindergarten to third grade, it focused on Tyrone, a student who loved math and science whose imagination is fired in other directions once he begins listening to stories read to him and his fellow students by teachers, the proceeds going to Teach for America and the New Teacher Project.
The only book written by a presidential wife-daughter team during the White House years, the Bush family book was also published in a Spanish-language version.
Although the First Lady did not do a book tour, she did make several national television interview appearances.
While each of the last five incumbent First Ladies has been an author, it is not an entirely modern phenomena.
The first woman in that role to write and publish a book, before Eleanor Roosevelt, was not a president’s wife but rather a president’s sister.
When Democrat Grover Cleveland began his first term as President, on March 4, 1885 he was accompanied by his youngest sister Rose Elizabeth Cleveland, an educator and lecturer.
While acting as First Lady in public for her bachelor brother until his White House wedding in June of 1886, in private “Libby” was pursuing her passion for scholarly study of literature.
The next year, the First Lady turned out a romantic novel, The Long Run, (1886).
The year after that, she had two books hit the stores, one of which was the high-minded, You and I: Or Moral, Intellectual and Social Culture.
The other book Rose Elizabeth Cleveland published that year was a seemingly prescient guide for one of her own literary successors in the White House – but not as First Lady.
How to Win: A Book for Girls (1887) was the sort of read that could help get one into the White House.
- Michelle Obama to do Top 10 on Letterman (politico.com)
- Michelle Obama Does Letterman’s Top 10 List (abcnews.go.com)
- Michelle Obama: my White House Kitchen Garden (telegraph.co.uk)
- Fab Flash: Vogue Wants Michelle Obama (fabsugar.com)
- Michelle Obama Does Letterman’s Top 10 With ‘Fun Facts About Gardening’ (mediaite.com)
- Michelle Obama: 8 food and garden tips, stories from the First Lady (csmonitor.com)
- Should Michelle Obama have run for the Senate? (uloop.com)
- First Lady Michelle Obama to Appear on ‘Live! With Kelly’ Monday June 18 (tvbythenumbers.zap2it.com)
- ‘American Grown,’ Michelle Obama: review (sfgate.com)