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I agree with Michelle Obama.

There. I said it — something I thought I’d never say.

American kids are overweight, to such an extent that this is threatening to become a national crisis.

Then again, I also agree with Nancy Reagan, Lady Bird Johnson, and Laura Bush.

Because every First Lady of the United States adopts a non-controversial pet project. Ranging from Nancy’s Reagan’s “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign to Lady Bird Johnson’s Beautification program, it is a First Lady’s traditional role to promote some form of public betterment with which we can all agree.

So it’s not really a surprise that Michelle Obama has adopted a cause that just about everyone in the country thinks is worthwhile. That’s what First Ladies do. A more relevant question is: How does her non-controversial pet project stack up against earlier First Ladies’ non-controversial pet projects? Now that Michelle has declared her agenda, the time has come for an historical overview of First Lady initiatives, to see if Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” child obesity campaign is likely to be a flop or a success compared to earlier projects.

Eleanor Roosevelt is often credited with starting the tradition of activist First Ladies; unlike her predecessors, she took an aggressive role in promoting important policies during her husband’s administration. But considering that her level of involvement was so deep and wide-ranging across so many important social issues of the day, and also considering that her two immediate successors (Bess Truman and Mamie Eisenhower) retreated back to old-fashioned non-political First Lady status, the modern era of First Lady Pet Projects more properly starts with Jackie Kennedy and her drive to completely refurbish the White House.

Starting then, all First Ladies have dabbled throughout their tenures in a wide range of secondary feel-good social causes — for example, Barbara Bush helped AIDS awareness, and Rosalynn Carter became an advocate for refugees — but this essay concerns itself exclusively with those causes which are publicly announced as the First Lady’s primary initiative (literacy for Barbara, mental health for Rosalynn, and so on).

First Lady Pet Projects: The Rankings

The following chart ranks each First Lady’s pet project according to how socially significant it was and how successful she was in bringing it to fruition.

Two First Ladies on this chart (Bess Truman and Mamie Eisenhower) did not really have any pet projects worth noting, while two others (Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton) were what I call “Power First Ladies” whose activities and political involvement were so important that they didn’t really count as “pet projects” but rather were essential components of their husbands’ administrations. Because of this, all four have been excluded from the final rankings.

Although the chart starts in 1933 to be thorough, the list of First Ladies participating in the rankings actually begins proper with Jackie Kennedy.

The column on the right totals up each First Lady’s “Pet Project Rating” by assessing (based on my research) how significant (on a scale of 1 to 10) her pet project was to the nation at large, and multiplying it by how successful she was in bringing it off (again based on my research).

Following this chart, below, I discuss each First Lady’s pet project in a little more detail, and then place Michelle Obama’s new initiative in historical context.

A note on the background colors:

      = Power First Lady (excluded from rankings)

      = Non-participating First Lady (excluded from rankings)

First Lady
(tenure)
Primary cause
(Secondary cause)
Significance  x   Success
(1 – 10 scale)          (1 – 10 scale)
= Pet Project Rating
   (1 – 100 scale)
Eleanor Roosevelt
(1933-1945)
National policy     10sig. x  6suc. =  60
Bess Truman
(1945-1953)
none
Mamie Eisenhower
(1953-1961)
none
Jackie Kennedy
(1961-1963)
White House refurbishment     1sig. x  9suc. =  9
Lady Bird Johnson
(1963-1969)
Beautification
( + Project Head Start)
    5sig. x  8suc. =  40
Pat Nixon
(1969-1974)
Volunteerism     4sig. x  3suc. =  12
Betty Ford
(1974-1977)
Equal Rights Amendment
( + breast cancer awareness)
    5sig. x  3suc. =  15
Rosalynn Carter
(1977-1981)
Mental Health     4sig. x  5suc. =  20
Nancy Reagan
(1981-1989)
Drug Abuse     6sig. x  6suc. =  36
Barbara Bush
(1989-1993)
Literacy     5sig. x  2suc. =  10
Hillary Clinton
(1993-2001)
National policy     10sig. x  5suc. =  50
Laura Bush
(2001-2009)
Education     5sig. x  5suc. =  25
Michelle Obama
(2009- )
Childhood Obesity     6sig. x  ?suc. =  ?

And so, looking at the final column, we can see that Lady Bird Johnson and Nancy Reagan had the two most successful First Lady pet projects, in terms of both social significance and eventual efficacy. Before we consider how Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity drive might rank, let’s take a closer look at each First Lady and her cause.

First Lady Pet Projects: A brief historical overview

Eleanor Roosevelt completely revolutionized the role of First Lady. Unlike her predecessors (and even her immediate successors), she was ambitious, educated, strong-willed and extremely opinionated, in public and in private. She jumped with both feet into a high-profile role and used her fame to promote a large array of significant policy issues. She vigorously promoted civil rights for African-Americans, encouraged women’s empowerment and feminism, led the charge for the New Deal programs which reshaped the American economy, championed labor unions and workers’ rights, helped troop morale and civil defense programs during WWII, and throughout her tenure staged an astounding 348 press conferences, far more than even any president in history, much less any First Lady. And to top it off, she had what was essentially the world’s first blog, a nationally syndicated daily column entitled “My Day” which chronicled her every activity. Considering all this, Eleanor had no one particular “pet project,” but was rather a one-woman branch of government, pushing not just her husband’s policies but espousing many of her own as well. As such, her career as First Lady must be judged on a different scale than those of the single-issue First Ladies who followed.

Bess Truman famously loathed the spotlight, and mostly lived a private life as First Lady, never really embracing any particular issue. Mamie Eisenhower also never adopted any public cause (aside from a brief period promoting awareness of heart disease after Ike suffered a heart attack), and was instead content in her role as White House hostess. Both of them, consequently, are also excluded from the final pet project rankings.

Jackie Kennedy, for all her popularity as a fashion icon, eschewed altruistic campaigns; her sole initiative as First Lady was to refurbish and redecorate her home, which of course just happened to be the White House. Although this helped further public interest in the glamorous “Camelot” image of the Kennedy family, her efforts had no direct social benefit on the nation at large.

Lady Bird Johnson changed all that. Although not as celebrated in the national consciousness as are many of her successors, it was Lady Bird who set the standard for First Ladies’ political and social engagement. Right out of the gate she encouraged “women’s activism,” promoting the proto-feminist notion that American women were competent and had an equal role to play in society. She also helped to launch and publicize Project Head Start, which provided nutritional and health assistance to poor children and families.

But Lady Bird is best remembered for what is likely the most unexpected yet most successful of all First Lady pet projects: “Beautification,” as she called it. Beautification was Lady Bird’s catch-all term describing her efforts to make America a more attractive place. Considering the innumerable social crises of the 1960s which a First Lady could have addressed, in retrospect it seems a very peculiar choice to focus on the nation’s physical beauty as the one overriding issue. And yet, she somehow made it work. Lady Bird led the charge for blight removal, flower and tree planting, National Park improvements, air pollution control, new landscaping, neighborhood trash pickups, and numerous other initiatives involving environmentalism, conservation, and urban renewal. Most controversial was her personal legislative bill, the Highway Beautification Act, which got passed after her husband twisted more than a few arms in Congress. The United States, as seen by most travelers in those days through car windows on cross-country drives, appeared to be little more than a long succession of garish billboards, junkyards, tourist traps, dilapidated gas stations, and tacky advertisements. Realizing that the view from the highway was the view that mattered most, Lady Bird pushed through a sweeping law which sought to transform our gritty highways into scenic drives, doing away with all the unsightly detritus of unregulated development. And while the Highway Beautification Act subsequently faced substantial political opposition (click on the cartoon on the right to see a particularly amusing critique), it — along with Lady Bird’s other Beautification projects — helped to give America a much-needed facelift after decades of neglect.

“Volunteerism” is most often cited as Pat Nixon‘s primary personal initiative, and she did indeed promote the notion that people — women in particular — should volunteer their time in nonprofit activities to help communities and the less fortunate. She toured the country highlighting noteworthy volunteer groups, and helped the National Center for Voluntary Action. However, Pat was also busy in many other fields, such as helping disadvantaged youth in the Washington DC area, making the White House accessible to the disabled, and numerous day-to-day good works that received little press coverage during her husband’s tumultuous tenure. And much of her time was spent criss-crossing the globe and serving as an unofficial goodwill ambassador during the countless presidential overseas trips of the Nixon administration. Even so, it can’t be said that her drive to popularize volunteerism was particularly successful, because her efforts were overshadowed by an unending series of national crises and major historical events during the Nixon era.

Most younger Americans assume that Betty Ford‘s pet project as First Lady was the treatment of alcoholism and drug addiction; the Betty Ford Clinic, after all, bears her name. But she did not confront her own alcoholism and become an icon in the recovery movement until 1978 — after she was no longer First Lady. During her comparatively brief stint in the White House, she instead mostly focused on trying to get the Equal Rights Amendment ratified in state legislatures. She also became a pioneering spokeswomen for breast cancer awareness, after her own diagnosis and mastectomy in 1974. Since her efforts on behalf of the ERA did little to prevent its eventual defeat, Betty’s brave decision to speak out and bring attention to the then-taboo topic of breast cancer is most likely her most noteworthy achievement as First Lady.

Rosalynn Carter poured much energy into the President’s Commission on Mental Health, which with her help produced a massive report based on years of investigation, recommending a complete overhaul of how the government treats and helps people with mental illness. The report formed the basis of the Mental Health Systems Act, in support of which Rosalynn testified before the Senate and which become law in 1980.

(As an inappropriate aside: While researching this article I’ve been uncovering many pictures of the First Ladies in their younger years, and have come to the conclusion that, if the rankings were instead based on looks rather than accomplishments…Most people would agree that Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy was the most attractive First Lady while she was actually First Lady, but Rosalynn Smith Carter was the cutest while growing up and most attractive as a young woman; Nancy Davis Reagan comes in a close third as the only First Lady to build a career on her visual appeal. Jackie has an advantage in this area due to being the youngest First Lady of the modern era.)

Nancy Reagan will forever be associated with the slogan “Just Say No,” which was the catchphrase she coined for her drug abuse prevention campaign of the 1980s. The massive publicity — both positive and negative — surrounding Nancy’s Just Say No campaign far eclipsed the notice given to any previous First Lady pet projects. On one hand, the sustained media blitz definitely helped her vigorous anti-drug message to penetrate the national consciousness, and thousands of Just Say No anti-drug groups were founded across the country (and even worldwide). And while drug abuse during the Reagan era did decline sharply after raging out of control for most of the ’60s and ’70s, it’s not clear whether the decline was due exclusively to Nancy’s efforts or more due to a general turn toward conservativism and traditional values in middle America during those years. Unlike previous First Lady pet projects, Just Say No was savagely mocked by Reagan’s critics as simple-minded and insulting, since it didn’t fully address the supposed underlying social and physical causes of drug abuse and addiction. If a heroin addict could simply “just say no,” then he wouldn’t be an addict, would he? Even so, her campaign did seem to dampen casual drug experimentation among young people, even if it didn’t necessarily do much to help hardcore addicts.

Barbara Bush is the only First Lady to have spent 12 years with the same pet project — in this case, literacy — because she had already adopted it as her cause when she was Second Lady (the vice president’s wife) for eight years. She sponsored various literacy programs throughout her tenure, and was certainly well-intentioned about a problem that is indeed a serious one — but unfortunately the social causes of illiteracy are far too deep and intractable to be cured by anyone in what is essentially still after all a ceremonial role; studies released after the Bush I presidency showed that rates of illiteracy had if anything gotten worse over time and have continued a worsening trend ever since. So, alas, despite noble efforts, Barbara could do little to really succeed with her pet project, since causes like the downward slump of public education coupled with skyrocketing immigration of non-English speakers completely overwhelmed the First Lady’s efforts.

Hillary Clinton is a special case. Like Eleanor Roosevelt, she was not content to relegate herself to the subservient and mostly symbolic role of the President’s docile wife who arranges the seating at state dinners. Nor was she content to simply use the publicity that naturally comes with her position to promote this or that agreeable cause. Instead, she was so deeply involved with her husband’s administration that the two were dubbed “co-presidents”, or even “Billary,” by pundits. One could say that her primary public role focused on health care initiatives and women’s issues, but behind the scenes she was also involved in every level of national policy-making. It’s not really possible to assess her personal projects without assessing the success of the Clinton presidency as a whole. Because of this, I have excluded Hillary (along with Eleanor Roosevelt) from the “Pet Project” rankings, because their activities were far more significant than just mere pet projects.

Laura Bush has degrees in education and library science, and once worked as a schoolteacher, so her focus as First Lady naturally was on education, and especially reading and literacy for children. She founded the National Book Festival; defended the No Child Left Behind Act, a bill to improve education nationwide; advocated for improved teacher salaries and introduced various teacher training and recruitment programs; helped to push through federal policies benefiting librarians; and fought for childhood literacy programs both in the U.S. and abroad. The jury is still out as to how much American education improved during the Bush years and to what extent Laura was responsible, but each of her individual policy efforts was successful in and of itself, so they must have had some cumulative effect.

And so we come to Michelle Obama. She had already been focusing on children’s nutrition during the first year of her tenure, but her pet project became official just a few days ago when she announced the creation of Let’s Move, a nationwide drive to combat childhood obesity. Now, obviously, there’s no way to judge the long-term success of her pet project, because it just started. In fact, we likely won’t have any conclusive data about trends in childhood obesity rates in the post-2010 era until long after Obama has left office; these kinds of studies take years to conduct. So the second half of her equation — the “success” of her pet project — will have to remain a question mark for now.

But we can assess the first variable: how significant an issue it is. And here I can say that I think Michelle made a good choice, because not only is childhood obesity a national epidemic, but it is very relevant to the overriding policy issue of the day: health care. Obese babies often become obese children, and obese children, statistically speaking, tend to become obese adults. And as I discussed in an earlier essay about health care, it is obesity (and the choices which lead to obesity) which is partly responsible for the health care crisis in the first place. Obesity-related ailments (such as diabetes and heart conditions) are expensive to treat and are therefore a major cause of skyrocketing health care costs — despite being entirely preventable. If Michelle miraculously does manage to eliminate childhood obesity, she (not her husband) may in the long run be the one to resolve our national heath care dilemma. But that’s a very very big “if.”

Michelle’s “Let’s Move” agenda has elicited a variety of responses already, some purely partisan, some based on reason. Rushing to Michelle’s defense was conservative columnist Meghan Cox Gurdon, whose Washington Examiner piece entitled “First lady’s anti-obesity campaign makes sense” lays out the rationale for supporting the “Let’s Move” agenda. However, not everybody is on board with the program: PajamasTV pundit Joe Hicks issued a scathing critique of Michelle’s hypocrisy, pointing out that she by her own admission made a personal decision to improve her kids’ nutrition — and yet insists on a nanny-state government program to dictate to supposedly ignorant poor people how to feed their kids and run their lives. Hicks convincingly argues that family nutrition decisions are best left to parents, not to government bureaucracy.

Michelle has a big head start in the pet project rankings, because her chosen cause has a high significance rating, a “6″ out of 10 — the highest of any First Lady initiative (tied with Nancy Reagan’s anti-drug abuse drive).

Setting aside partisan bickering: How successful do you think Michelle’s anti-obesity drive will be? Is it the role of the government to intervene in family nutritional choices? Should the government become a nanny state in those areas where the actual nannies themselves are falling down on the job? And is fighting childhood obesity the hidden solution to our health care crisis, with a chance to succeed where Obamacare failed?

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