7 U.S. Presidents And First Ladies On Passion, Adultery, And Making Marriage Work
Every marriage has its challenges. Sometimes there are serious, foundation-shaking moments, like if one spouse cheats on the other. Sometimes just figuring out when to get married is a struggle. Few marital relationships are subject to as much scrutiny as that between a U.S. President and the First Lady, and that extra level of speculation means the marriage has to be extra strong in order to last.
It therefore stands to reason that the advice given by these leaders about how to make a marriage last is probably among the best out there. (It doesn't hurt that Presidents and First Ladies are usually pretty good at giving speeches and writing letters, too.)
In The Marriage Book: Centuries of Advice, Inspiration, and Cautionary Tales from Adam and Eve to Zoloft , Lisa Grunwald and Stephen Adler have collected and annotated notes and letters and interviews about marriage from famous people like Presidents and First Ladies. (Grunwald and Adler have been married to each other since 1988, so they know a little something about making marriage work themselves, which is good news.) Some of the entries in this book are deeply personal and meant to be private, shared only within a couple, while others are public displays of commitment to each other and to the rest of the country.
These seven Presidents and First Ladies show it takes a lot to make a marriage work inside the White House, but, as Grunwald and Adler explain in The Marriage Book, many of these marital problems are more ordinary than we might think. Take a page from their book for your own relationship.
Bill Clinton & Hillary Rodham Clinton
You can't talk about Presidential marriages without talking about Bill and Hillary. In 1992, the power couple appeared on 60 Minutes and were challenged to address rumors that Bill had conducted a 12-year-long affair with an Arkansas woman. In defense of his union with Hillary, Bill said, "You’re looking at two people who love each other. This is not an arrangement or an understanding. This is a marriage. That’s a very different thing."
Hillary chimed in, "You know, I’m not sitting here some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette. I’m sitting here because I love him, and I respect him, and I honor what he’s been through and what we’ve been through together. And you know, if that’s not enough for people, then heck, don’t vote for him." Clearly, what she said worked because people still voted for Bill. Lesson here, I suppose? Sticking together, with conviction, is important — no matter what anyone thinks.
Although he had quite the same kind of scandal as Clinton, Carter did make some memorable remarks about adultery in a 1976 interview with Playboy. Yes, that Playboy. Carter was all about straight talk, and although he was married, he admitted:
I’ve committed adultery in my heart many tines. That is something that God recognizes I will do — and I have done it — and God forgives me for it. But that doesn’t mean I condemn someone who not only looks on a woman with just but who leaves his wife and shacks up with somebody out of wedlock. Christ says, Don’t consider yourself better than someone else because one guy who screws a whole bunch of women while the other guy is loyal to his wife. The guy who’s loyal to his wife ought not to be condescending or proud because of the relative degree of sinfulness.
Carter was clearly a forgiving guy, but the country was a little less so. The authors of The Marriage Book note this quote "was responsible for a 15 percent drop in Carter's poll nuimbers and for what was said to be a joke circulating at the White House: 'He would have been all right if he'd just kept his heart in his pants." Yikes.
Lady Bird Johnson
Claudia Taylor, better known as Lady Bird, married Lyndon B. Johnson in 1934, and was always a fervent supporter of his political work, even using her inheritance to financially support his first congressional campaign. In 1964, she wrote this letter of encouragement to her husband, as he grappled with some of the most complicated international political issues of the 20th century (like, you know, the Vietnam War): “You are as brave a man as Harry Truman — or FDR — or Lincoln. You can go on to find some peace, some achievement amidst all the pain. You have been strong, patient, determined beyond any words of mine to express. I honor you for it. So does most of the country.” Note to self: Pick up letter-writing.
President Reagan wrote a letter to his son Michael before his wedding in 1971. In this letter, then-governor of California told his son, "There is an old law of physics that you can only get out of a thing as much as you put in it. The man who puts into the marriage only half of what he owns will get that out … Any man can find a twerp here and there who will go along with cheating, and it doesn’t take all that much manhood. It does take quite a man to remain attractive and to be loved by a woman who has heard him snore, seen him unshaven, tended him while he was sick, and washed his dirty underwear."
Reagan ended the letter with the quick post-script, "You’ll never get in trouble if you say ‘I love you’ at least once a day." Grunwald and Adler note, however, that this first marriage only lasted Michael a year, but "His second marriage, to Colleen Sterns, endured."
In the lead up to the 2008 election, Michelle Obama gave an interview with Ebony, and she was asked if she was worried her husband would cheat on her (which, really, is an absurdly sexist question to ask a woman... but in any case). Long story short? No. First Lady Obama explained, "I never worry about things I can’t affect, and with fidelity — that is between Barack and me, and if somebody can come between us, we didn’t have much to begin with."
Eleanor Roosevelt did not have the best relationship with her husband Franklin Delano Roosevelt's mother (who happened to be her aunt, several times removed). In her 1937 memoir This Is My Story, First Lady Roosevelt gives some insight into her complicated relationship with this controlling mother-in-law:
I did not know quite what was the matter with me, but I remember that a few weeks after we moved into the new house in East 65th Street I sat in front of my dressing table and wept, and when my bewildered young husband asked me what on earth was the matter with me, I said I did not like to live in a house which was not in any way mine, one that I had done nothing about and which did not represent the way I wanted to live. Being an eminently reasonable person, he thought I was quite mad and told me so gently, and said I would feel different in a little while and left me alone until I should become calmer. I pulled myself together and realized that I was acting like a little fool, but there was a good deal of truth in what I said.
Family is family, but it's somewhat comforting to know that even Eleanor Roosevelt, tough as she was, was still made to feel terrible by her in-laws.
Abigail and John Adams spent a not insignificant amount of time apart, so spent a lot of time writing letters to each other, and many of them are gorgeous ruminations on love and relationships and making marriage work. Grundwald and Adler describe them as "wonderfully eloquent."
In a letter to John, written in 1782 on their 18th wedding anniversary, Abigail wrote this ode to her man, showing their marriage was just as passionate all those years later: "Do you not recollect that Eighteen years have run their annual Circuit, since we pledged out mutual Faith to each other, and the Hymeneal torch was Lighted at the Alter of Love. Yet, yet it Burns with unabating fervour, old ocean has not Quenched it, nor old Time smothered it, in the Bosom of Portia. It cheers her in the Lonely Hour, it comforts her even in the gloom which sometimes posses her mind."