Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Legacies of America's First Ladies

In addition to events on Italian culture in the DC area, from time to time, we at CiaoDC also like to acknowledge the educational and professional contributions that Italians and Italian Americans make to the nation's capital. Last week, CiaoDC interviewed Anita McBride about the influence of her Italian heritage in her everyday personal and professional life, as well as the conference she just organized on the history of our First Ladies.

The conference, aptly titled The Legacies of America's First Ladies, came to fruition on Wednesday, March 1st at American University, where McBride is an Executive in Residence at the Center of Congressional and Presidential Studies. The four panels of notable guests included included practioners who had worked with first ladies and scholarly observers.

Ms. McBride is no stranger to First Ladies, having served as Laura Bush's Chief of Staff from 2005-2009. She recalled Mrs. Bush's comment, that as First Lady she just wanted to help people everyday. However, finding the right platform and a voice amongst the chaotic nature of the White House is not always easy, and sometimes it is seemingly thankless. Mrs. McBride ended her introductory comments with this poignant and comedic description that had been passed along to her outlining the First Lady's job description.

There were 4 great panels scheduled throughout the day. Panel 1: the First Ladies Throughout History, discussed the changing role of first ladies over time. Panel 2 focused on the First Ladies in the Carter, Reagan, and George H. W. Bush Administrations, while panel 3 emphasized the First Ladies in the Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama Administrations. After an evening reception the conference continued with a final discussion on the way in which First Ladies have been portrayed by the media. It was entitled, Reporters' Notebooks: Covering the First Lady and Anticipating Madame President.

I was most intrigued by the third panel, as the focus was on the legacies of the First Ladies that occupied the White House and livened the American people for most of my adolescent and adult life. Moderated by another notable Italian-American and former Congresswoman from Maryland, Connie Morella, the topics ranged from a typical day in the White House to myths of their bosses, and most entertaining, the slow evolution of telecommunication within the White House. Amazingly, it was only during the Clinton Administration that the dial system was introduced to the White House. Previous to that, everyone had to be first be connected to the White House operator! Panelists included Anita McBride, Susan Cher (Former Chief of Staff to Michelle Obama), and Melanne Verveer (Former Chief of Staff to Hillary Rodham Clinton), all of whom provided candid accounts of high regard for the First Ladies they had come to work with so closely.

The conference was a not only a great salute to the legacies of First Ladies, but also for the celebration of Women's History Month, which began on that very same day. The stories shared throughout the day highlighted the challenges of filling a First Lady's shoes, but also gave credence to the belief that it is one of the greatest clubs to which one can belong.

The conference was an amazing homage to the women that have influenced the country from behind the scenes and also while on center stage. In fact, there is no denying that positive impact of our First Ladies on the way in which women are viewed in U.S. society. While there was a wealth of information gained during the day, there is more to be uncovered. The 13 presidential libraries, who were partners of the conference, are a great way to start that adventure. Other partners that provided support for the event included the White House Historical Association, the American University Library, and let us not forget Ms. McBride's dedicated students at AU.

(check back for video updates!)

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