Credit Barbara Kinney/William J. Clinton Presidential Library
Here are six first ladies, 20 years ago next month, at a joint fund-raising appearance at the United States Botanic Garden in Washington. The body language seems revealing. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the incumbent president’s wife, confers with the widow of L.B.J., a Big Daddy for modern Democrats. Betty Ford turns to Barbara Bush, wife of the young Texan whose career her husband, Jerry, had once promoted, and away from Rosalynn Carter, whose Jimmy had thwarted Gerald Ford’s re-election. Former actress Nancy Reagan seems to be waiting for their cue to perform.
More startling, however, are the anachronisms in this tableau. The visual lineage of this scene is 19th-century America, with the women sitting among flowers, wearing ornate couture, separated from the men. But as we now know more in historical retrospect than we could have in 1994, each of these six women, strong and publicly activist, expanded the boundaries for the modern presidential spouse, one of them so much so that she may yet run again for president herself.
The role had changed, but, as this photograph attests, the imagery remained surprisingly the same.