Bay Weekly Interview

Vol. 8, No. 44
Nov.2-8, 2000
Current Issue
Dock of the Bay
Letters to the Editor
Bay Reflections
Burton on the Bay
Chesapeake Outdoors
Bay Life
Good Bay Times
What's Playing Where
Music Notes
Sky Watch
Bay Classifieds
Behind Bay Weekly
Advertising Info
Distribution spots
Contact us
Donnie Radcliffe, Chronicler of First Ladies
with Sandra Martin & Lori Sikorski

official White House photo
Hillary Rodham Clinton is the sixth first lady journalist Donnie Radcliffe has covered. Here, Clinton throws Radcliffe’s retirement party at the White House.

When You Vote for a President, You’re Electing a First Lady, Too

Carmel, Monterey, Paris, Washington, the Leeward island St. Barthélemy: Journalists Donnie and Bob Radcliffe have traveled a cosmopolitan path to their semi-retired life of comfort and good citizenship on St. Leonard’s Creek in Calvert County. In Carmel and Monterey in the 1950s, they worked for competing papers. In Paris, Bob covered the political scene in Europe for the American Forces Network while Donnie freelanced. Back in Washington, Bob worked for ABC Radio while Donnie went to work first for The Washington Star then for The Washington Post.

It was another world in those days. The great campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment had hardly begun, and — whatever way you sliced it — women were the second sex. Women had always worked, but their salaries were lower, their opportunities fewer and their vulnerability enormous.

Donnie, whose given name is Redonia, met Bob at a murder trial. Fresh from San Jose State University, she was trying to make a name for herself before the GIs came marching home and women in her field would go from covering trials back to covering teas.

She succeeded. As a journalist in the Washington press corps, Donnie was extraordinary: one of a handful of women who had climbed so high. Among them were her friends Helen Thomas and Fran Lewine, who are still working, Thomas - longtime United Press International reporter and dean of the Washington press corps - as a columnist for the Hearst Syndicate, Lewine as a producer for CNN; and Elsie Carper who, like Donnie, is now retired from The Washington Post.

Even so, it was 1971 before they could enter the men-only National Press Club.

At the top of her field, Donnie got the top assignment a woman could handle: First Ladies. From Pat Nixon through Hillary Clinton, she chronicled the lives and times of America's most public, and most second-guessed, women.

Women's roles have changed - so much that the daughters and granddaughters of Donnie's generation no longer believe how things used to be.

Change has come slower for first ladies, who still work the second hardest job in America - as volunteers.

BW In your book, Hillary Rodham Clinton: The Evolution of a First Lady, you quote President Richard Nixon as criticizing Hillary's role in her husband's campaign, saying "If the wife comes through as being too strong and too intelligent, it makes the husband look like a wimp." How did Pat Nixon's first lady play to his president?

DR She was stoic, at least in public, and you always wondered what was going on behind the scenes. I'll give you an example.

In 1969, when Lyndon Johnson was leaving office and Nixon coming in, the astronauts first went to the moon. Nixon gave a big banquet in California in the astronauts' honor when they came back. The Star had sent me to cover that dinner.

At the same time, the Johnsons flew up there to dedicate a redwood grove in Northern California that was named after Lady Bird. On the stage with all these people, the Johnsons and all the local honchos, Nixon introduced everybody but Pat. I never could quite understand that.

Again when Nixon left office in 1974, he gave this sad, pitiful farewell in the White House, and he kept talking about his mother, and Teddy Roosevelt's first wife and what she meant to him. But he never once mentioned Pat. I thought that was very telling.

BWYou were there when Nixon left office?

DR I saw Nixon come into the White House, and then I saw him leave.

In 1969, when Nixon came in as president, I was at The Washington Star and had just been assigned to cover the president's wife. For some reason, Lady Bird Johnson's press secretary, Liz Carpenter, got me in the White House the day of the inauguration, when they have coffee for the incoming and outgoing presidents.

I hadn't been in Washington that long, and, my lord, I was so excited to think that all these other reporters were lined up outside of the White House waiting for the limousine to take off while I was inside. I could look into the room where Hubert Humphrey, Nixon, Spiro Agnew and of course LBJ and all their families were gathered with the delegation from Capitol Hill, too. As they left, Nixon did a sort of a little dance because he wanted to make sure his protocol was right, trying to get into step with LBJ.

Circumstances were so different five years later. I was outside, lined up with all the other reporters waiting for him to come out of the White House and go to the helicopter. Pat was wearing dark glasses and she was in tears, I think, and somebody said to her, "It's okay to cry. You can take your glasses off."

They were walking down the red carpet half the way to the helicopter, and in her bitter way, Pat Nixon turned to Betty Ford and said, "you're going to hate red carpets."

BWFrom the further vantage of looking at first ladies and would-be first ladies on television, I notice that they're always focusing their eyes on the president adoringly.

DR The gaze.

BW Is it one of the jobs of first ladies to look like the first adorers?

DRI have no doubt that sometimes their gaze is true. Nancy Reagan's gaze was true and sincere. They really were a couple in love all their married life.

BW Do Democrat and Republican wives have different job descriptions?

DR Their political agendas are different, but Republican or Democrat, the way it used to be, they looked at their job as being active socially in a way that would help their husband's career.

Now that's changed a lot because there are a lot of wives who work, which is an enormous change

BW Do you think what's expected of a first lady has more to do with the times than with her political party?

DR I think it has to do with what people expect of them, and I think there's still a great number of people who expect a first lady to do nothing but be the first lady, do good things, to have a cause and do the job of first hostess - in other words, an unpaid servant.

BW Has Hillary Clinton done that?

DR There are people who say that she hasn't.

Rosalynn Carter told me her advice to Hillary: "You're going to be criticized no matter what you do, so be criticized for what you think is best and right for the country."

I think that in looking back, it's too bad that the Constitution didn't make some reference to what the wife of a president should do.

Wasn't it Abigail Adams who told her husband, John Adams, when they were developing the Constitution, "remember the ladies"?

She was a person in her own right. As a matter of fact, many of these women were. I've read enough about them to know they were far more exceptional than people thought they were. They did a lot behind the scenes. You can't expect wives not to know what's going on politically.

official White House photo
Rosalynn Carter was the second first lady to testify before Congress; Eleanor Roosevelt, a quarter-century earlier, was the first.

BW I'm always struck by the intensity of reaction against Hillary Clinton, as I am when I read about the intensity of reaction to Eleanor Roosevelt. Can you explain why people would be so malicious?

DR Because we still haven't gotten through that bias against women being able to do a job well and compete with men. I hope that I'm wrong. I hope that we've changed. But when my book on Hillary came out, I did a lot of radio interviews, and I can't tell you the people who would call in - women as well as men - who were so opposed to someone like Hillary who had been introduced by her husband as his most important advisor.

One of the things that's mystifying is that nobody ever said anything about Milton Eisenhower being his brother's first advisor, or Bobby Kennedy. That's different. Those are guys.

BW So you don't think it's Hillary's personality, or Eleanor's, that set people off?

DR I think that Hillary's personality is very much a part of it. She has had the best education of any first lady in our lifetime. She's an exceptional person. This woman didn't just go to college. She went on to Yale and got a law degree.

A lot of people made a lot out of Elizabeth Dole. You remember that when Bob Dole was running for president in 1996, she said that she was going to continue to work [at the American Red Cross]. That's admirable, and she had a good job, too, that paid hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But Elizabeth Dole never ran for anything. All of the jobs that she got in the administration were jobs that she was appointed to. I don't mean that she wasn't good at it, but she wasn't necessarily that well equipped to do the various jobs that she was given in the White House and then as Secretary of Labor.

That's why what Hillary is doing is just out of this world. Who would ever think that the wife of a president would have the gall to run for the Congress?

BW Do you think that because of Hillary the role of the first lady is changing?

DR There's a whole different generation of women coming up now who are better educated and, for better or worse, in the workforce. It's a given thing now, and you can't deny it. I think it's the wave of the future.

BW Will we see the change in our new first lady, whoever she is?

DR More if it's Tipper Gore, I think, than Laura Bush. Gore is doing the same thing Clinton did, calling Tipper his first advisor. From what I've read, Tipper's not going to be tied to the stereotyped expectations that people have for a first lady. She's going to do her own thing.

official White House photo
Covering first lady Barbara Bush, Radcliffe saw more than the “grandmother type so many people liked. There was nothing naïve about her. She was a tough cookie.”

BW So we might expect her to take the kind of role Hillary has?

DR Maybe not quite. Tipper has never had a paid job.

BW Is Hillary Clinton our best prepared first lady in her own right and to stand in a profession?

DR I think Hillary has always probably had some thought about being in elective politics. Certainly people who knew her when she was young and active in politics, in the McGovern campaign and before that the McCarthy campaign, saw that there was great potential in her. She certainly had all kinds of opportunities, in law firms as well, rather than go to Arkansas and disappear.

Even in Arkansas, she was the principal wage earner, when Bill was making $28,000 a year as attorney general.

BW For all that she's done, Hillary has never provoked more reaction than for standing by her man despite the terrible humiliation she suffered. What do you think about that?

DR I think she did what she had to do. I don't think it was all that different from what Eleanor had to do. Franklin cheated on her, but the difference is that the press then didn't tread on the private lives of presidents. Look at Kennedy. Nobody ever ratted on him. Look at Harding. Eisenhower.

No first lady has ever had to go through what Hillary has. Here it was all out in public. She had to go to court. I think she conducted herself with great dignity.

Hillary's big problem was that she stuck by him, and the public knew what was going on and couldn't figure out why she would. There was an awful lot of antagonism against her because she stuck by him.

She surely knew what he was before he got to Washington, but she had a strong sense of her marriage, and she is religious. This is the sort of thing that she wouldn't allow to take down her marriage. She knew as well that the presidency would be rocked terribly if she walked out on him.

Radcliffe began covering first ladies at the end of President Johnson’s term and has since met with Lady Bird Johnson.

BW Do you think that part of the job of a first lady perhaps is to support her husband even in the most trying personal times, with a respect for the office that's as great as her respect for him?

DR That's what people would expect of them, and it's a way they've all risen to the occasion.

The interesting thing about Hillary is that she didn't let it wear her down. She didn't deviate from what she believed in: that women ought to be able to do what they think is right for them. I think that it's insane that women don't like her.

BW You've known so many first ladies. After Pat Nixon came Betty Ford. How did she do the job of first lady?

DR Betty Ford probably never expected to be in that situation. She had her own emotional problems. He was gone all the time when the kids were growing up. She was the mom at home, the one who made the decisions about the kids.

But she was really something wonderful. She was very important in the equal rights movement. She was working at trying to get the amendment through, touring and speaking out for it. Meanwhile, some of his advisors were trying to get her out of the picture because that wasn't what the president's agenda was.

There are people who say that she lost the election for Jerry Ford. I don't know if she was that influential or not. But she had a lot of guts to do that. She had guts in a lot of ways. She had breast cancer, and she made that her cause, told the world about it back when it was something people never talked about.

I liked her a lot.

BW Who do you think has been our most influential first lady?

DR Nancy Reagan was very influential. You know, pillow talk.

She got off on the wrong foot, labeled as a woman who didn't have anything upstairs. I think she was an example of a woman who can grow in a job like that, because by the end of that first year, she realized she had to come up with some kind of cause she could care about. She had been very much against drugs when he was governor of California, and that was a natural.

official White House photo
As first lady, Nancy Reagan “got labeled a woman who didn’t have anything upstairs. I think she was an example of a woman who can grow in that position,” said Radcliffe, at right.

BW How about Rosalynn Carter?

DR Her big cause, of course, was mental health, and after Eleanor she was the first to testify on the Hill. Mental health is something that Tipper has been very involved with, as well.

BW How does Barbara Bush, about whom you wrote a whole book, stand out in your memory?

DR There weren't very many like her. She had a good take on America, and knew what the people wanted was somebody they could relate to.

The thing about Barbara is that people really liked her. She wanted them to think of her as the grandmother type, and that was the role that she crafted for herself. There had to be somebody who was interesting and exciting, for he was sort of bland, and she was perfect for it.

The people who were covering her had a different take on her. They knew there was nothing naïve about her. She was a tough cookie.

BW Do you think her daughter-in-law will be like her? Has her son chosen a replica?

DR I don't know, but I would not think she lips off like Barbara can. George W. will be the Barbara of that pair.

As first lady, Betty Ford, right, championed women’s issues incongruent with the politics of her husband’s party. “She had guts,” Radcliffe said.

BW Who's your personal favorite?

DR I don't have one favorite, but I do have a candidate for the perfect first lady. My first lady would have Eleanor Roosevelt's social conscience, Jackie Kennedy's sense of White House history, Lady Bird Johnson's reverence for nature, Pat Nixon's stoicism, Betty Ford's candor, Rosalynn Carter's refusal to become a stereotype, Nancy Reagan's recognition of the White House as a stage without equal, Barbara Bush's unpretentious comfortableness and Hillary Clinton's intellectual energy.

BW Do you think we'll ever reverse roles and have a first husband?

DR I asked Hillary that question.

"I probably won't be here," I said, "but I'm sure you will."

Hillary said, "Donnie, I want you to be here."

BW Tell us about the life you and your husband Bob have made in Calvert County.

DR We lived in McLean, Va., and we were looking for a place to retire. Our son, Donnel, came down here to sail and found a piece of property on St. Leonard Creek. We came down to look at it, bought it and eventually built on it. We commuted for a few years.

We've been here eight years, and we're finding so many interesting people. That's partially through getting involved: in my case, through Calvert Library where I'm a trustee on the board, and in Bob's Estuarine Research Center at the Academy of Natural Sciences at Jefferson Patterson Park.

In the Radcliffe home, you'll find paintings and photos that track the careers of both Donnie and Bob. Her large desk sits across from the bookshelves that hold not only her best sellers but also many others on political life and families. There are personal note cards from the desk of Barbara Bush and photos of Donnie and Hillary Clinton, Donnie and Pat Nixon, Donnie and Rosalynn Carter.

On a wall near her computer is a large golden picture the size of an unfolded newspaper. It's the cover of The Washington Post from the day that Nixon resigned.

Down the hall, in a room that's a bit cooler, large utility shelves are lined with boxes marked with the names of Nixon; Ford - whose space is much smaller than the others; Carter; Reagan - who takes up the most room by far, two whole shelves - Bush; and of course Clinton.

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly