The Role of the First Lady: A Right-Hand Woman Perspective

By Lauren Ridlon

On Wednesday, March 30th, an all-star female panel including Anita McBride, Chief of Staff for Laura Bush; Tina Tchen, Chief of Staff for Michelle Obama; and Melanne Vereer, Chief of Staff for Hilary Clinton, graced Georgetown’s campus. Moderated by ABC news contributor Claire Shipman and run by GU Politics, the women were asked to touch on the challenges and excitement of their jobs. Students attending the talk were lucky enough to hear what it really means to hold the job of First Lady from the point of view of her right-hand woman. One of these spectators, Annabelle Heisley (’19) says: “These women are so successful and listening to them made me want to work harder so that maybe one day I can work to make a difference like they have."

When asked how the expectation of the job of First Lady’s Chief of Staff measured up to the reality of it, Vereer responded by saying that “no one can anticipate what it is like in the White House.” The First Lady, believe it or not, has to deal with that same uncertainty. Each panelist mentioned over and over that there is no job description for the title of First Lady. It is almost like going into a course with no syllabus and no parameters and being asked to write a term paper that will in some way go along with the course.

So how does the First Lady make her impact? She uses her platform and the scrutiny she is under to bring light to issues that otherwise may go unnoticed. The First Lady, while seen on surface level as the woman of the house who picks the china for the State dinner, starts and drives a momentum that becomes absorbed into the president’s agenda. McBride mentioned that Americans do not want a passive First Lady. Every First Lady has the pressure and privilege to lead a nationwide campaign, from Nancy Reagan’s “Say No to Drugs” or Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move.” It seems to be expected of the First Lady that she come into her office with an idea of how to change the world.

In all honesty, though, the First Lady has that power. The first and last person the president talks to everyday is his wife. Her role in supporting him and working with his administration parallels the President’s support and interest in his wife’s work.

Why then, if the First Lady has such power and prestige, is the topic of designers, shoes and hair amongst the first comment? As Tchen said, there is a “shiny bright light that follows her around.” The First Lady has the challenge of moving people away from the superficial aspects of her position to look at her mission as a representative for the United States and the presidency. McBride notes that the makeup bag for the First Lady is the nuclear football for the President. The scrutiny and spotlight to which she is subject can be utilized to her benefit and to the benefit of those she seeks to help and advocate for by bringing notice to her cause.

In many ways, her power is underrated, yet she manages to make quite an impact.  

Finally, the women shared some advice on their day-to-day lives and how they managed as successful women in the White House. As a former lawyer, Tchen emphasized the importance of attention to detail. As Chiefs of Staff, these ladies had to work out every possible wardrobe malfunction, speech mistake, and publicity scandal to make sure that the First Lady was primed for action. Tchen, laughing, notes that they had to even check the kind of ground the First Lady would be walking on to make sure her heels would not sink into grass when she walked to crucial international meetings and speeches. McBride followed by saying that in her early days in her position, the best advice she ever received was that even on her worst days, she needs to remember where she is and what she can do. She expanded upon this by emphasizing that it is incredibly important to “empower the people you delegate.” To understand the scrutiny the First Lady is under and to help her. To lead with confidence and empathy.

The conversation ended with the idea that the 2016 election could witness the first ever “First Spouse” or “First Gentleman” in the White House. Vereer, speaking as the Chief of Staff for the former first lady and current presidential candidate Hilary Clinton, was able to shed some very interesting light on this. In short, she said that although the First Spouse might not be picking out the china or flowers for dinners at the White House, he will have an agenda and a mission just as any First Lady has. While this agenda may not be a so-called “soft issue” (as many issues involving women and children are dubbed), he will have the opportunity to craft his own platform for the betterment of the country alongside his presidential wife.

For more, check out The Hill's coverage here: http://thehill.com/blogs/in-the-know/in-the-know/274789-first-ladies-top-aides-share-their-stories