C-SPAN launches new 35-part series to tell the stories of the presidents’ wives

First ladies are finally receiving their due, thanks to a new two-year, 35-part series that launched Monday on C-SPAN.

“First Ladies: Influence and Image” is a collaboration with the White House Historical Association (WHHA) that tells the stories of all the women who have served as first lady of the United States, from Martha Washington to Michelle Obama.

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“They bring a lot to the table in terms of resources and their collections,” said executive producer Mark Farkas.

“First Ladies,” airing Mondays at 9 p.m. on C-SPAN, is the latest in a long line of network productions for Farkas. He’s also produced series on the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Alexis De Tocqueville, American presidents and American writers, as well as individual programs on the U.S. Capitol, the White House and the Supreme Court.

Farkas is the son of Ray Farkas, the Emmy Award-winning producer for NBC’s “Today Show” and documentary maker who died in 2008. As a young boy, Farkas often traveled on location with his father, including a trip to cover Richard Nixon and the drought in the Everglades in the 1970s.

“It struck me how interesting his job was. I always knew I wanted to do something similar to him,” said Farkas.

Like his father before him, Farkas has a unique ability to get his subjects on camera talking by making them feel at home, striking up a conversation and helping them to forget about the lens.

Asked why he’d want to embark on another historic journey, Farkas said it was a unique opportunity to retrace the first ladies’ footsteps and relive the past.

“When you really think about all these names — some lost to history — there’s so much to dig into, so many stories, how they influenced their husbands and their stewardship of the White House,” he said. “This series is just another chance to go back to school.”

Farkas and fellow producer Andy Och have spent the past several months walking in the footsteps of the first ladies, filming places of significance in their lives and talking to archivists, curators and historians to unearth stories from the past and weave a narrative that tells America’s story through the eyes of these women.

“I’ve held people’s hair in my hands, held their earrings and read their letters,” said Och.

Then Och, without prompting, quotes from one letter in particular, written by a grief-stricken Jane Pierce, wife of President Franklin Pierce, to her dead son Bennie, who was killed in a train derailment in January 1853. 

“My precious child — I must write to you, altho’ you are never to see it or know it,” wrote Pierce.

“The letter was written in pencil,” he recalled, “an indication that it was not intended to be published.”

Months earlier, during the campaign, Bennie had expressed his fears about his father’s prospects in a letter to his mother.

“I hope he won’t be elected,” Bennie wrote, “for I should not like to be at Washington.  And I know you would not be either.”

C-SPAN’s reliance on such primary sources only enriches the storyline of America’s first ladies.

The role of first lady has no job description, and so it has been left to its inhabitants to define it — and each has in her own way. Martha Washington complemented her husband in assuming the role of social partner and hostess of the nation. Signs that Abigail Adams would be different, however, were clear to the founding generation early on.

She wrote to her husband, John Adams, in March 1776, while he was serving as a Massachusetts representative at the Continental Congress:

“Remember the ladies, and be much more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such power into the hands of the husbands. Remember all men would be tyrants if they could.”

“This is only the tip of her conversation with him on that topic,” said Farkas.

Adams continued with her counsel into her husband’s presidency.

“She established the role [of first lady] as political partner. Her critics often referred to her as ‘Madame President’ — which was not a term of endearment,” said Edith Mayo, curator emerita in political history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and former curator of the First Ladies Collection. She is featured in the series.

If Washington was a social partner and Adams a political partner, Dolley Madison learned from both women as she helped Thomas Jefferson, whose wife had died, and her own husband when he succeeded to the presidency.

“Dolley is the first one to combine these roles, the social and the political,” said Mayo. “She lobbies, not overtly, for her husband through entertaining. It’s what I call ‘party politics’ ... she brings people together. She’s very socially adept and politically savvy.”

C-SPAN viewers will be quickly dispelled of the notion that America’s first ladies have been idle bystanders to their powerful husbands. They offered advice, edited speeches, lobbied on behalf of their husbands and were a force to be reckoned with.

Prior to James Polk’s election in 1844, Sarah Polk laid down this marker to one voter who said he couldn’t vote for her husband because the wife of Polk’s opponent made better butter: “If I get into the White House, I will neither keep home nor make butter.”

When Mayo shared this story with Hillary Clinton’s mother, Dorothy Rodham, as she escorted her around the first ladies exhibit at the Smithsonian, Rodham responded, “I can’t wait to go home and tell Hillary.”

Clinton herself gave voters a taste of the kind of first lady she would be in an interview with Steve Kroft on “60 Minutes” in 1992, when questions were raised about her husband’s infidelity. “I’m not sitting here like some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette.”

She would go on to be the first first lady to have a West Wing office and spearhead the ill-fated healthcare reform effort in 1994.

“The first lady doesn’t exist in a vacuum. ... It obviously has evolved just as the presidency has evolved,” said presidential historian Richard Norton Smith, who’s also featured in the series. “So many of these women have led more interesting lives than their husbands.”

Lady Bird Johnson stands out in Smith’s mind in the modern era.

“She was at once a traditionalist in that her first priority was the welfare of her husband and her family, and yet that traditional role did not preclude her from becoming an activist and at times a partisan political campaigner,” said Smith, referring to Johnson’s environmental work and her train trip to the south in 1964 to win votes for her husband, Lyndon Baines Johnson, to preach reconciliation and to defend the Civil Rights Bill.

Put simply, “if proximity is power, then the first lady becomes the president’s most trusted adviser because in a way she’s the only one he can really trust,” said White House Historian William Seale.