A stunning display of first ladies' enduring moral power

The four living former first ladies -- Rosalynn Carter, Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama -- have broken...

Posted: Jun 20, 2018 1:48 PM
Updated: Jun 20, 2018 1:48 PM

The four living former first ladies -- Rosalynn Carter, Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama -- have broken protocol in unified fashion: they have called the Trump administration's "zero-tolerance" immigration policy of family separation "cruel" and "immoral" and "a shame to our country," condemning the practice of family separation in more forceful and impactful terms than their husbands. Images and audio of children being separated from their parents at the border between the US and Mexico have captivated, and largely appalled, the country.

The tradition of former presidents being quiet bystanders to history and refusing to weigh in on the pressing issues of the day has been overthrown by this small group of women who realize the weight of their words and the power they command. All four of them are united in their roles as mothers and in some ways, while uniting publicly against the sitting president and his policies is an unprecedented act, because they are doing it as mothers they are shielding themselves from seeming too politically motivated.

It started, surprisingly, with the President's own wife, Melania Trump, whose communications director Stephanie Grisham told CNN in a statement on Sunday: "Mrs. Trump hates to see children separated from their families and hopes both sides of the aisle can finally come together to achieve successful immigration reform. She believes we need to be a country that follows all laws, but also a country that governs with heart."

Not long after that, Laura Bush, the wife of the last Republican president, took a remarkable step and penned an op-ed for The Washington Post. In it she wrote, "I live in a border state. I appreciate the need to enforce and protect our international boundaries, but this zero-tolerance policy is cruel. It is immoral. And it breaks my heart." One Republican spokesman who asked not to be named told me he was surprised by how outspoken Laura Bush was being, but that he was proud of her: "That unusual sound you hear," he said, "is the voice of reason."

The floodgates opened with Bush's op-ed Sunday, almost as though she was giving her fellow former first ladies, members of an exclusive club, the go ahead to speak their minds. Michelle Obama retweeted Bush's link to the piece and wrote,"Sometimes truth transcends party." At an event in New York on Monday Hillary Clinton said, "The test of any nation is how we treat the most vulnerable among us. Laura Bush made that case eloquently in The Washington Post this weekend. ... She is absolutely right."

Also on Monday, Rosalynn Carter, the oldest member of the group, released a statement harkening back to her time as first lady seeing refugees leaving Cambodia for Thailand. "I visited Thailand and witnessed firsthand the trauma of parents and children separated by circumstances beyond their control," she wrote. "The practice and policy today of removing children from their parents' care at our border with Mexico is disgraceful and a shame to our country."

Meanwhile, the White House is pushing back, activating a blame game, with press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen calling to task past administrations, including George W. Bush's, for signing off on laws that have contributed to the crisis immigrant families face today. "Frankly, this law was actually signed into effect in 2008 under [Laura Bush's] husband's leadership, not under this administration," Sanders said during Monday's press briefing.

There have been many, many other moments -- among them Trump's campaign-era proposal to ban all Muslims from the United States and his insistence that Barack Obama bugged Trump Tower during the campaign -- when the former presidents could have spoken up more forcefully, but they have not, in part because of a longstanding tradition of former presidents not criticizing or undermining the sitting president from the sidelines. Bill Clinton, for one, has broken that tradition by tweeting "These children should not be a negotiating tool," and calling for them to be reunited with their families.

But when it comes to the forced separation of children from their parents, it really is the former first ladies who appear to have had enough and who have led the charge. As a cohort, these women are wives, working mothers, and close political advisers who have been transformed into international celebrities simply because of whom they chose to marry. They are often beloved, sometimes vilified, and they are almost always their husbands' most trusted counselors.

While it takes a nation to elect a president, "we were elected by one man," Laura Bush said in her commentary. Their position is not enshrined in the Constitution, and the role of the unpaid spouse seems incredibly anachronistic in today's world, especially since these women helped get their husbands elected and are then confined to the East Wing. But Rosalynn Carter understood decades ago the covert power a first lady wields. "I have learned," she said in an interview for my book First Women, "that you can do anything you want to."

They have a sisterhood and friendship that often crosses party lines, as it did with Michelle Obama and Laura Bush who became friends, and before them Barbara Bush and Lady Bird Johnson and Rosalynn Carter and Betty Ford, who were all close. Last November, Laura Bush revealed that she has had tea with Melania Trump since her husband took office and told CNN, "I just think she's done a lovely job." She was largely sympathetic to the Trumps and said, "I wish them the very best. That's what every American should wish for the people in the White House since they are our president and first family." To be fair, George W. Bush made headlines last year when he criticized the isolationist policies of the current administration but he did not name any names. It seems separating parents from their children was a bridge too far for Laura Bush and she is bravely calling this White House out by name.

First ladies have a moral power that press secretaries, and even presidents do not share, in part because they are not political and they do not often weigh in on politics. When they do, it matters. A source for my book "The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House," said it best when he told me: "The first lady can pick up the telephone and change your life." And Laura Bush, now the matriarch of our country's most famous Republican dynasty, understands that.

Minnesota Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 556381

Reported Deaths: 7098
CountyCasesDeaths
Hennepin1158471682
Ramsey47939856
Dakota42586422
Anoka38655415
Washington24993274
Stearns21052219
St. Louis16821298
Scott16013117
Wright14818127
Olmsted1276297
Sherburne1064880
Carver984945
Clay783490
Rice7649101
Blue Earth698640
Kandiyohi628181
Crow Wing618186
Chisago550650
Otter Tail543973
Benton532297
Mower451132
Goodhue444172
Douglas442870
Winona438649
Nobles400648
Morrison396059
McLeod395255
Isanti378259
Itasca373653
Beltrami372957
Polk366067
Steele364014
Becker356048
Lyon348648
Carlton329452
Freeborn328129
Pine312321
Nicollet307542
Brown294739
Mille Lacs282150
Le Sueur270822
Todd268830
Cass250426
Meeker237437
Waseca231421
Martin213429
Wabasha19953
Roseau197818
Renville172543
Hubbard172341
Dodge17193
Redwood166335
Houston162614
Cottonwood157021
Fillmore15179
Pennington151019
Chippewa146537
Wadena144621
Faribault144019
Sibley136410
Kanabec131721
Aitkin128736
Watonwan12569
Rock123019
Jackson117410
Yellow Medicine110819
Pipestone109926
Pope10306
Murray10269
Swift100018
Marshall85617
Stevens82210
Lake78419
Clearwater77814
Koochiching77313
Wilkin77012
Lac qui Parle73622
Big Stone5644
Lincoln5592
Grant5498
Norman5229
Mahnomen5088
Unassigned50378
Kittson46822
Red Lake3877
Traverse3605
Lake of the Woods3073
Cook1460

Iowa Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 358085

Reported Deaths: 5821
CountyCasesDeaths
Polk56023604
Linn20310330
Scott19111234
Black Hawk15560306
Woodbury14906221
Johnson1405881
Dubuque13162202
Dallas1090196
Pottawattamie10763162
Story1031547
Warren555686
Clinton537790
Cerro Gordo522986
Webster508391
Sioux506673
Marshall477274
Muscatine460796
Des Moines441965
Wapello4254120
Buena Vista421940
Jasper407670
Plymouth397479
Lee368555
Marion354575
Jones293155
Henry286337
Bremer279360
Carroll279351
Crawford261840
Boone258833
Benton250355
Washington249550
Dickinson242343
Mahaska224850
Jackson218242
Kossuth213063
Clay211225
Tama206671
Delaware203039
Winneshiek194433
Page190421
Buchanan188831
Cedar184423
Fayette183041
Wright180435
Hardin179942
Hamilton178149
Harrison176473
Clayton167155
Butler162534
Mills158720
Cherokee157138
Floyd155442
Lyon154841
Madison154119
Poweshiek152733
Allamakee149151
Iowa145524
Hancock143734
Winnebago136131
Grundy135332
Cass134654
Calhoun133211
Jefferson131035
Emmet128740
Shelby128637
Sac127319
Louisa127249
Appanoose126647
Mitchell125341
Union124132
Chickasaw122615
Humboldt118326
Guthrie117929
Franklin112821
Palo Alto111022
Howard102822
Montgomery100637
Unassigned10050
Clarke98323
Keokuk94730
Monroe94128
Ida89733
Adair84532
Pocahontas83721
Monona81230
Davis79924
Greene76710
Osceola75516
Lucas74923
Worth7098
Taylor65312
Fremont6139
Decatur5899
Van Buren55518
Ringgold53623
Wayne52123
Audubon4939
Adams3284
Rochester/St. Mary'S
Mostly Cloudy
33° wxIcon
Hi: 39° Lo: 30°
Feels Like: 28°
Mason City
Clear
23° wxIcon
Hi: 40° Lo: 26°
Feels Like: 13°
Albert Lea
Partly Cloudy
28° wxIcon
Hi: 40° Lo: 28°
Feels Like: 28°
Austin
Cloudy
30° wxIcon
Hi: 40° Lo: 28°
Feels Like: 30°
Charles City
Partly Cloudy
27° wxIcon
Hi: 41° Lo: 27°
Feels Like: 20°
Cooler for the next couple of days
KIMT Radar
KIMT Eye in the sky

Latest Video

Image

Bulls defeat Grizzlies in Fraser Cup Final

Image

Bruins continue fight for playoff bid

Image

Aaron's Evening Forecast (4/19/21)

Image

Sean's Weather 4/19

Image

Mayo Clinic Doctor creates art for patients

Image

Electric car show

Image

Walk a Block

Image

Cleaning up Chester Woods

Image

Little Thistle collecting donations

Image

Rochester United PKG

Community Events