MacNeil/Lehrer Productions’ First Ladies series looks at the lives, both public and private, of some of America’s best-known presidential wives. Often relegated to a symbolic, near-regal role, many of the modern first ladies actually played significant parts in their husbands’ presidencies. This series of documentaries aims to both honor the first ladies’ contributions to the White House and to humanize them, showing the people behind the title. Thus far, MLP has produced three full documentaries on Lady Bird Johnson, Betty Ford and Nancy Reagan, as well as a NewsHour special that looks at the traditional and evolving role of the first lady.
The First Lady: Public Expectations, Private Lives
Produced as a special part of the NewsHour’s 2004 election season, The First Lady examines the public’s expectations about the role of the first lady and compares it to the lives led by the actual women. In collaboration with USA Today, the program polled Americans about how a first lady ought to behave, and found that many believe it inappropriate for a first lady to hold a job outside the White House, but supported her role as “trusted confidante” – as long as she stays behind the scenes.
Hosted by actress Stockard Channing, The First Lady contains interviews with Laura Bush, Teresa Heinz Kerry, Barbara Bush and Hillary Rodham Clinton, with extended interviews available online, and with historian Allida Black and authors Gail Sheehy, Ann Gerhart and Kati Marton.
MLP’s first entry in what would become the First Ladies series, Lady Bird follows the life of Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson from her birth, through meeting Lyndon Johnson, to her growth from a shy wife to a bold campaigner and adviser for her husband. A political figure in her own right, Lady Bird launched her own legislative campaign for the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 – the first ever by a first lady – and in doing so forever changed the role of a first lady to include participation in the political process.
Online, the Lady Bird site contains a complete history and biography of the first lady. It also features in-depth information on several key topics in her life, both political and personal. The documentary, hosted by presidential historian Michael Beschloss, features exclusive interviews, excerpts from taped White House conversations and Johnson home movies.
Betty Ford: The Real Deal
Narrated by award-winning actress Jane Alexander, Betty Ford: The Real Deal explores the life of one of the most influential first ladies. The program traces Mrs. Ford’s outspoken life in the White House and her public battles with cancer and addiction that captivated and changed the lives of millions.
From her diagnosis through her intervention and recovery, to the establishment of the treatment facility bearing her name, Betty Ford: The Real Deal features never-before-seen photos and film footage, interviews with Mrs. Ford, her four children, close friends and many others, including former White House photographer David Hume Kennerly and presidential historians Michael Beschloss and Richard Norton Smith.
Nancy Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime
One of America’s most politically-involved first ladies, Nancy Reagan held a powerful role in her husband’s administration – one that often went unnoticed during his presidency, but which historians recognize greatly affected his policies and helped ensure his success. Nancy Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime examines her influence, which had an impact on everything from Reagan’s cabinet appointees to the creation of the “Just Say No” campaign. The program also explores Nancy Reagan’s personal life, from her early life to her advocacy for Alzheimer’s research in the 2000s.
Online, the documentary site features a complete script of the show, annotated with references and links. Visitors can view photo essays on Nancy Reagan’s life, her time in Hollywood, and the Reagan family’s state dinners and travels around the world. The site also features additional information about Nancy’s influence on the AIDS crisis in the 80s and links to information about her Alzheimer’s disease advocacy.