Shedding Light on Private Lives of Leaders
Shedding Light on Private Lives of Leaders
By CALVIN WOODWARD, Associated Press Writer 4 minutes
WASHINGTON - Presidents and their wives have been an
amorous lot, their White House years coming at the
pinnacle of lives entwined. The men pursued and loved
these women as intensely as they clawed to power and
"Touch you I must or I'll burst,"
Ronald Reagan wrote to Nancy three years before he
became California governor. Lyndon Johnson, then a
young congressman from Texas, declared to his
valentine, Lady Bird, mere weeks after they had met,
"This morning I'm ambitious, proud, energetic and very
madly in love with you."
College graduate Teddy Roosevelt put Alice Lee on a
pedestal, telling her five days before they wed: "I
worship you so that it seems almost desecration to
A new book of letters between presidents and wives
fleshes out momentous periods of history with the full
range of human emotion love, longing, snippiness,
betrayal, loss, lust.
These men turned a resolute face to the world. In
private, they could be goo. The women were easily
their match in exchanging heart-racing prose and
pulled no punches on tough stuff.
Even as John Adams was in Philadelphia working on the
Declaration of Independence and its assertion that
"all men" are created equal, his loving spouse,
Abigail, sent the future second president a blistering
letter about the subjugation of wives this, way back
in March 1776.
"That your Sex are Naturally Tyrannical is a Truth,"
she wrote. "Men of Sense in all Ages abhor those
customs which treat us only as the vassals of your
She was a flirt, too, offering sweetly, "If you want
more balm, I can supply you," in a letter the spring
before they married in October 1764.
The correspondence in "My Dear President: Letters
Between Presidents and Their Wives," by
Library of Congress historian Gerard W. Gawalt,
captures some of the couples in the first blush of
their romance and follows them into the White House.
Presidents who were wild about their wives were not
necessarily faithful to them not even close. Some
wives knew it.
LBJ was a bull in the china shop when it came to
women; Lady Bird once shrugged off his affairs as a
"speck on a wedding cake."
Lucretia Rudolph was not so accommodating when she
learned her fiance, James Garfield, had been stepping
out. "James, to be an unloved wife, O Heavens," she
wrote in 1857. They wed anyway; he was assassinated in
1881 just months after taking office.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, as allied commander for Europe
in World War II, tried in several letters to his
stateside wife, Mamie, to shoot down rumors he was
involved with his driver, Kay Summersby, with whom he
formed an intense friendship. "I've no emotional
involvements and will have none," he told his wife.
Civil War spouses and girlfriends received harrowing
letters from the battlefield, for many presidents were
soldiers when young. Whether in war or peace, many
were ambitious men in eras of slow travel, meaning
long absences from home and longings expressed in the
overwrought language of their times.
"I have the Blues all the time," a love-struck Ulysses
S. Grant told his sweetie, Julia Dent, writing from
the Mexican War in 1848 two decades before becoming
"I feel the pulses of your love answering to mine,"
Chester Arthur wrote to his fiancee in New York, Ellen
Lewis Herndon, during an 1858 Republican Party mission
in Missouri. Arthur succeeded Garfield in 1881.
Such power couples enjoyed what might be politely
called quality time.
Harry Truman alluded to one such encounter after Bess
had visited him in July 1923, 22 years before he
became president, when he was at military training
camp in Kansas. "I, of course, acted like a man
brute," he wrote in a somewhat sheepish tone soon
after she left.
Gawalt drew his 184 letters, telegrams and cables from
4,000 to 5,000 found in the papers of 23 presidents
held by the Library of Congress, provided by family
members or available at presidential libraries. About
half were previously unpublished.
"What struck me is how early on that the wives were so
vitally important to their husbands' careers," he
said. "There's just an endless number of strong-willed
women who are involved in these couples."
Exchanges between one such woman, Eleanor Roosevelt,
and Franklin were friendly but emotionally distant.
Such was the lasting result, Gawalt said, of his wife
discovering FDR's affair with her social secretary
Lucy Mercer 15 years before he became president.
"That's when the passion went out of that
relationship," he said. "After that, I think, their
relationship is pretty well summed up by the fact they
were exchanging memorandums."
In one, Franklin complained to his wife that White
House food portions had gotten out of hand and
everyone must be cut back, for example, to one egg for
breakfast instead of two.
Another no-nonsense woman, Barbara Bush, got a treacly
note from her husband, George, asking her to show more
affection for the television cameras in the 1988
campaign, like their opponents, the Dukakises.
"Sweetsie," he began. "Please look at how Mike and
Kitty do it. Try to be closer in more well er
romantic on camera. I am practicing the loving look,
and the creeping hand. Yours for better TV and more
demonstrable affection. Your sweetie pie coo coo.
"Love 'ya GB."