Obama's visit fits in with first lady lore

Friday August 3, 2012

They've come to admire the undulating and untouched hills, to visit friends and cultural institutions, to shine a spotlight on myriad causes.

Democrat and Republican alike, they've come to ask for votes and money.

They are nearly a dozen of the nation's first ladies, and in the past 100-plus years, they've visited Berkshire County either once or repeatedly.

Today, Michelle Obama will become at least the 11th first lady -- and the fourth in a row -- to set foot inside the county either during or after their time at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

The wife of President Barack Obama will be in Western Massachusetts all day on a star-studded fundraising tour for her husband's re-election campaign.

The first lady's day will start in Springfield, where she'll attend a $2,500-a-plate luncheon at The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. She'll then head to the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield for a 3 p.m. reception and one-hour concert featuring James Taylor; tickets for the event range from $125 to $10,000.

Obama will end her day in Richmond, where Gov. Deval Patrick will host her and an invitation-only group of 20 people for a $20,000 per-person dinner. (No public appearances are scheduled for her time in the Berkshires.)

Pittsfield Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi said the visit will be great for the city.

"It's a wonderful thing that she's coming," Bianchi said. "She has been just a tremendous champion for so may causes -- literacy, childhood physical fitness, all things I'm interested in, but more importantly, the city is."

When put into historical context, Obama's visit stands in contrast to the early sojourns by first ladies.

Inferences can be drawn about how campaigning and celebrity have changed the responsibilities of this ceremonial position, but the long list of visits speaks more to the draw of the Berkshires than to the people it has drawn, according to Carl Sferrazza Anthony, historian for the National First Ladies' Library in Canton, Ohio.

Anthony said first ladies have been traveling with their husbands or independently for more than a century -- for pleasure and for business -- and the Berkshires happens to be one of those places.

"When you look at that history, it says more about the Berkshires than it does about the first ladies," Anthony said. "When they get to a beautiful place like the Berkshires, even if it's business, it becomes pleasure."

Anthony said there also is an idealized vision of Main Street America that brings first ladies to these types of communities as a surrogate for their spouses.

"It's important for first ladies, who have generally spent most of their adult lives in major cities, to come to small-town America," Anthony said.

The earliest trips here for first ladies were purely for pleasure.

Ida Saxton McKinley was the first to visit, in 1897, when she and her husband, William, came to escape the trappings of Washington in his first year as president and relied on the hospitality of local textile magnate William B. Plunkett.

Eleanor Roosevelt, whom Harry Truman dubbed "the first lady of the world," was the first first lady to bring politics and personal crusades with her to Berkshire County.

She came to support the Girl Scouts of America in 1941 and helped pack Pittsfield High School for a rally for presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson in 1956.

Two years before that, she made a one-hour speech, also at Pittsfield High, where she told the crowd of 1,440 visitors to the Berkshire County United Nations Institute about the need for a unified Germany and the intent of Soviet Russia to spread communism throughout the world through internal uprisings.

She urged support for the United Nations and told people they need to trust that people eventually will do what's right.

"You must believe in that, or else you're going to have to give up the belief in the democratic process," Roosevelt said.

Often a first lady's visit provides insights into the issues that matter most to her.

Lady Bird Johnson's legacy of beautification and conservation efforts was evident after her first visit to the area in 1967, when she received an honorary degree from Williams College.

In a letter written that fall to Congressman Silvio O. Conte, Johnson appeared to be in tune with an ethos that still shapes the Berkshires:

"I did get a chance to see more of the lovely foliage at Mount Hope Farm and on the drive to New Haven, and it is good to see that much of the countryside is unmarred by commercialism. Let us hope that citizens will continue their efforts to protect the beauties of the Berkshires for future generations to enjoy."

Johnson came back several times after that, regularly visiting Hancock Shaker Village.

Some first ladies also show their political acumen and lend some charm to make up for their spouse's mistakes.

Barbara Bush, for example, was in Pittsfield in 1991 for a campaign rally to support Steven Pierce in his campaign to fill the congressional seat vacated by Conte, who had died.

George H.W. Bush had ruffled some feathers when he said he was going to Boston instead of the Berkshires because this area was too hard to get to.

When Barbara Bush took the stage, The Eagle said she "brought down the house" when she told the audience Berkshire County was one of the most beautiful places she'd ever seen, noting that it "wasn't hard to find at all."

The next two first lady visits to the Berkshires are credited with helping resuscitate flagging local treasures.

Hillary Clinton came to Pittsfield and Lenox in 1998 as part of the "Save America's Treasures" tour. She presented a $2.9 million challenge grant to The Mount and gave a speech at the Colonial in which she described the space as "a rare jewel of architecture" -- a speech many see as one of the key pushes to making the theater's $21.6 million restoration a reality.

Laura Bush visited The Mount in 2006, again as part of the "Save America's Treasures" program, to commemorate the return of Edith Wharton's 2,600-book private library from England.

Susan Wissler, executive director of The Mount, said the visits by both first ladies was a boon to their restoration efforts.

"It helps immensely with skeptics," Wissler said. "It sort of is an instant stamp of credibility to have the endorsement of such a high office."

Lila Berle, co-chair of The Mount's board of trustees, was there for the Bush and Clinton visits, and she said both women couldn't have been nicer or more personable. Berle described Bush, a librarian by trade who now is honorary chair of The Mount's National Committee, as being very down to earth.

Berle got to spend about 15 minutes alone with Clinton, even telling the first lady that her husband, who was mired in a scandal at the time over his relationship with intern Monica Lewinksy, should be better behaved for her.

"We had a really nice time," Berle said. "She had a long day, but she just couldn't have been more generous. Both [first ladies] were very gracious."

Anthony said the position of first lady often allows the women to champion their causes.

"It's really this golden opportunity to create change for the better on behalf a demographic of the nation that might have been neglected, no matter what it might be," Anthony said.

Anthony said the first lady job comes with some interesting challenges: They owe nothing to the public, but presidents of both parties recognize the political value their spouses bring.

First ladies also are expected to be a symbol of American womanhood, having to balance the impression they're the closest thing to American royalty while also appearing to be in touch with the common citizen.

In 1976, when her husband, Evan, was mayor of Pittsfield, Kit Dobelle met Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter when they came to the city on a campaign stop. (A handful of first ladies, including Jacqueline Kennedy, visited the Berkshires on campaign stops before their husbands were president.)

Dobelle went on to serve as the chief of staff for Rosalynn Carter, and said that each first lady is unique, but they're all strong, independent women who get involved in a variety of issues.

Dobelle said first ladies always have been in the spotlight, but there is increased scrutiny with the 24-hour news cycle of nowadays.

"People still became aware of things, but you had to work at getting the press to cover things that the first lady did [back then], because the competition for news sources was so much greater," she said. "Now everybody has much more availability for them."

That certainly has been the case leading up to Obama's visit, with a mini-controversy arising about efforts to fix potholes near Patrick's home after Richmond Town Administrator Matthew Kerwood reached out to the governor to see if there was anything his town could do to improve the first lady's visit.

Kerwood, a Republican, said he'll let the pundits beat each other up in this election year, because this is a time to put politics aside. Kerwood said everyone in town is excited about the first lady's visit -- a gift basket featuring Richmond wares (including maple syrup) is being put together -- and the visit will be a big day for locals.

"It's probably fair to say it won't happen again for a very long time [in Richmond]," Kerwood said. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime type thing, and we're embracing it and excited."

Regardless of their husbands' political affiliation, first ladies have been greeted by largely apolitical respect for the office. But the tours also come with a reminder that these women share their lives with the leaders of the free world.

"I'm going to let [Michelle Obama] know that Pittsfield and the Berkshires are a great place for couples," Bianchi said. "So I'm going to encourage her that if there's anyone she knows that might want to come back with her, they're welcome any time."

First lady visits

At least 10 first ladies have visited the Berkshires during or after their time at the White House:

  • Frances Folsom Cleveland and her husband, Grover Cleveland (president from 1885-1889, 1893-1897), were guests at Richard Watson Gilder's Four Brooks Farm in Tyringham on several occasions starting in 1899. In later years, en route to her summer home in New Hampshire, a widowed Cleveland would annually stop overnight or for several days at the Aloma guest house on West Housatonic Street in Pittsfield.
  • Ida Saxton McKinley and her husband, William McKinley (1897-1901), made multiple visits to the Berkshires to escape Washington. The couple stayed with the Plunkett family in Adams, and they also visited Pittsfield, Lenox and Stockbridge, where they dined with noted attorney Joseph H. Choate at his summer home Naumkeag.
  • Grace Goodhue Coolidge and Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929) met in Northampton and moved back upon the president's retirement. News reports at the time show that Grace Coolidge made visits to Pittsfield for shopping in 1944 and visited the former Berkshire Garden Center and the Curtis Hotel in Lenox in 1948. She also was a frequent visitor to Tangle wood before World War II and before her health began to decline.
  • Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945), made at least a dozen visits to the area. She toured Camp Bonnie Brae in Otis in August 1941; made multiple trips to Tanglewood, including one in which she narrated "Peter and the Wolf"; gave the commencement speech at her granddaughter Anne's graduation from Miss Hall's at the First Con gregational Church in Pittsfield in June 1960; spoke at a rally for Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson in April 1956; and gave a one-hour speech to the Berkshire County United Nations Institute at Pittsfield High School in November 1954.
  • Bess Wallace Truman joined her husband, Harry S. Truman (1945-1953), on a whistle-stop tour of the area in October 1948, where they stopped at Union Station in Pittsfield. The couple made another brief visit at Williams College in October 1955 while en route from Albany, N.Y., to Boston.
  • Lady Bird Johnson, wife of Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969), toured Hancock Shaker Village several times beginning in 1966. She received an honorary degree from Williams College in 1967 and visited the Clark Art Institute in 1973.
  • Pat Nixon and her husband, Richard M. Nixon (1969-1974), were guests of Mr. and Mrs. Milton C. Rose of Alford in 1982.
  • Barbara Bush, wife of George H.W. Bush (1989-1993), spoke to a crowd of approximately 600 Republican donors at the Berkshire Hilton Inn Pittsfield in May 1991. Bush was campaigning for Steven Pierce, who unsuccessfully ran against John Olver to fill the 1st Congressional District seat vacated by Silvio O. Conte, who had died. Bush also spoke about dropout prevention programs, education for the underprivileged and ending illiteracy.
  • Hillary Rodham Clinton, wife of Bill Clinton (1993-2001), came to Pittsfield and Lenox in 1998. She stopped at The Mount to present a $2.9 million challenge grant from Save America's Treasures. As part of the same tour, she gave a speech at the Colonial Theater supporting its refurbishment.
  • Laura Bush, wife of George W. Bush (2001-2009), spoke at The Mount in Lenox in April 2006 as part of a celebration of the return of author Edith Wharton's 2,600-book library from England. A former librarian, Bush returned for a private viewing of the collection in June 2011.

Note: Several first ladies visited the Berkshires before their husbands were sworn into office, including Ellen Axon Wilson, Jacqueline Kennedy and Rosalynn Carter.

-- Compiled by Trevor Jones from files at The Eagle and Berkshire Athenaeum


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