Why being a first lady is complicated, according to the chiefs of staff for the last three

First lady Michelle Obama delivers remarks during an event in the East Room of the White House. Photo / Getty Images
First lady Michelle Obama delivers remarks during an event in the East Room of the White House. Photo / Getty Images

Being president is hard. (See the graying heads of commanders-in-chief for proof.)

But an even more complicated gig might just be that of first lady - according to the chiefs of staff to the last three women to hold down the job, who gathered on Wednesday night for a panel at Georgetown University.

Starting with the fact that it's not technically a job at all.

"There is no job description," noted Melanne Verveer, who worked for Hillary Clinton in the East Wing. "There is no salary. There is no appointment. There is no election. And everybody in the United States has an opinion, I swear, about what the first lady is supposed to do - and they're all in contradiction with each other."

Bill Clinton in the White House Roosevelt Room with Hillary Clinton by his side. Photo / Getty Images
Bill Clinton in the White House Roosevelt Room with Hillary Clinton by his side. Photo / Getty Images

First ladies have traditionally picked a few issues to focus on that complement their husbands' agendas, using the spotlight that comes with their positions for the good of their causes. And in the modern era, the chiefs agreed, being first lady really is a full-time job.

"There's a greater expectation that Americans have of what the people who occupy this position are doing with it," said Anita McBride, who was chief of staff to Laura Bush. "Long gone are the days when Mamie Eisenhower used to say, 'Ike runs the country, and I turn the pork chops.'"

Laura Bush and George W. Bush speak at the White House Literacy Conference. Photo / Getty Images
Laura Bush and George W. Bush speak at the White House Literacy Conference. Photo / Getty Images

Another difficulty of the office? First ladies have to look flawless. Staffing for one means not just making sure your boss' speech is on-message, but that her hair is on fleek - which isn't, the women agreed, as frivolous a matter as it might sound.

"It's down to 'what's the ground like that she's going to have to walk across, because can she wear heels? Or does she have to wear flats?'" said Tina Tchen, the top staffer to Michelle Obama. "When you have the cameras of the world on you, and you are representing the United States of America in a foreign country, the ability to carry yourself down that walkway is critical."

McBride concurred: "For us, the equivalent of the nuclear football was that makeup bag. When you are the representative of the United States and its people ... you feel the pressure to be as perfect as you can."

- Washington Post

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