All the presidents’ women
Jacqueline Berger remembers walking home from grade school on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, the day Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated President John F. Kennedy.
The girl’s home was already under a cloud of sadness. Berger’s father was dying, she says, and her family was preparing to lose him.
For the next four days and four nights, the young girl watched the news coverage on television: the state funeral, the iconic salutes, and the world’s most horrific instant replay. "Her husband’s head was literally blown up in her lap," Berger says of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, who sat beside her husband in the Dallas motorcade. "I thought if Jackie could watch her husband’s head be blown off and still hold the nation together, I could be strong too."
Jackie O., as JFK’s widow was later known, was not Berger’s namesake, but she was the first person Berger knew who shared her name.
"I knew [actors] Jackie Gleason and Jackie Cooper, but they didn’t count because they were men," Berger said. "She was so smart. She was so sophisticated."
Inspired by the First Lady’s example example, Jackie Berger spent the next decades of her life immersed in the lives of the First Ladies of the United States. She would think of them as she studied for tests and attended school dances. A Pentecostal might turn to Jesus in difficult times. Berger saved her existential questions for the First Ladies. What Would Elizabeth Monroe do to get ready in the morning? How would Eliza Johnson write an essay? How did Nancy Reagan just say no? How did Betty Ford not?
Now middle aged, Berger has amassed 250 books on the First Ladies and recently released her own. "Loves, Lies and Tears: An Intimate Look at America’s First Ladies, Volume I" tells the stories of each First Lady from Martha Washington to Helen Taft.
The second installment covers the modern First Ladies and is due for release in the spring of next year.
Berger, who has a home in Park City, is scheduled for a brief talk and book signing at the Park City Library and Education Center on Aug. 14 at 6 p.m. in Room 109.
Berger will give a full lecture Aug. 13 at the Main Library in Salt Lake City at 7 p.m.
Berger admires the First Ladies, but she said wouldn’t want to be one. "You start to understand how these women did it in the spotlight," Berger said. "It’s a no-win position . . . Americans want everything. They want you to be educated and they want you to share your opinion, but they want it to be their opinion. I would never want to be in that position. It is a tremendous sacrifice."
For the book, Berger focuses on the lives of the women before, du and after their stay in the White House. "Take ordinary lives, women and mothers, and the fact that their husbands were presidents is a small part of their lives," she said.
Berger doesn’t talk politics. As a historian, she said she is concerned with the life and character of those women in the nation’s most prominent sorority, not their party affiliations. She praised Hilary Clinton’s mettle for championing her beliefs despite being harangued by some Democrats, Conservatives and members of the press. "I think their lives do represent what women go through in general in society," Berger said. "They are indicative of what’s going on in the country. If we’re going to college and earning degrees, we want our First Ladies to do the same. But it’s a fine line because if they do become lawyers and physicians people say, ‘Who do they think they are?’"
Berger said historians don’t know enough about Hilary Clinton, Laura Bush and prospective First Ladies Cindy McCain and Michelle Obama to assess their personal and private legacies.
"The sad part about today’s First Ladies is that by the time they get to the White House they already have so many handlers and people telling them what to do. For historians it makes it difficult to figure out what they actually think."
Berger did offer some notes on the legacy of Clinton, who would likely be remembered as a strong mother who protected her teenage daughter, Chelsea, from the White House press. no coincidence, Berger said, Clinton had a personal relationship with Jackie Kennedy.
Jackie took a more hands-on approach than other First Ladies, such as Lady Bird Johnson, and is often remembered for keeping her kids, Caroline and John Jr., from reporters, according to Berger. "Jackie said, ‘It doesn’t matter what else you do in life if you don’t raise your children well,’" Berger explained.
She added that the legacy of First Ladies can often be a reaction to who came before them. Clinton, in her memoir, addresses the rumor that she communed with the ghost of Eleanor Roosevelt while in the White House.
A more pedestrian case of reacting to predecessors is Laura Bush’s impassiveness compared to Clinton’s firebrand personality.
Part of Laura Bush’s appeal, and one of the reasons the public approves of her with such fervor, has to do with her refusal to state her opinion publicly. "She will not make waves," Berger said. "Some people want her to be more vocal, but she will not say anything against her husband."
A word about the author
Jacqueline Berger left her post as one of the vice presidents of a major real estate lending and financial institution after 25 years to pursue her passion for First Ladies.
She started giving lectures about six years ago and sat down to write a book about four-and-a-half years ago. She said she was tired of kiss-and-tell books about the First Ladies. At the same time, she wanted something more entertaining than a straight history text. "It’s told in the form of stories," Berger said. "It’s not a history text in that it’s not boring and dry and dull. But it has historical facts."
The First Ladies are grouped chronologically and each section ends with a paragraph about what Berger personally learned from writing about them. "I try to use these women’s lives and experiences as examples," she said. "I do think it’s quite different from other history books. I try to put these women in the context of the era. I want to bring these women to life."
"Loves, Lies and Tears: An Intimate Look at America’s First Ladies" is available in trade paperback for $22.95. It is available in local bookstores and online at firstladieslady.com.
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