[Viewpoint]The closest advisorEleanor Roosevelt, the wife of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, is still the most beloved first lady among Americans. While the romantic passion in her marriage withered because of the extramarital affairs of her husband, she devoted herself completely to the role of first lady after FDR moved into the White House. She traveled constantly on behalf of her wheelchair-bound husband to review the progress of his New Deal projects.
Through a syndicated newspaper column, “My Day,” Mrs. Roosevelt both supported and criticized FDR’s policies as a way to encourage and stimulate her husband. She was the first American first lady to speak at a national political convention, and her impromptu speech to the Democrats in 1940 helped secure a third term for President Roosevelt. After the death of her husband in 1945, she drafted the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the chairperson of the U.N. Human Rights Commission with Mahatma Gandhi.
Not all wives of world leaders are as active as Mrs. Roosevelt was, but the job of first lady is very challenging. The first lady needs to give up her private life, because the pressure of being the spouse of the chief executive is tremendous.
Cecilia Ciagner-Albeniz, the former wife of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, was once so enthusiastic that she even hired her own foreign policy adviser.
But she separated from her husband only five months after the couple moved into the Elysee Palace; being first lady must have been too stressful for her.
A first lady also needs to know her place and keep a moderate profile. It is easy to draw criticism for being too aggressive or for lagging behind. Hillary Clinton was praised for gracefully controlling her emotions over her husband’s sex scandals, but when she became too politically active, she was condemned by some for taking a policy role.
The job of being a first lady is tricky and challenging. Last weekend, the current first lady of South Korea met with the next first lady at the Blue House, and they must have discussed the hardships of being the president’s wife. The first lady handed over the record of her activities in the Blue House for the last five years. The accomplishments are the result of her efforts and devotion. Now her successor must make her own record, and she must feel the great responsibility that is now hers.
However, there is something else the predecessor must hand over to the successor.
It is also the job of the first lady as to give her frank and uncensored opinions to the president. A man in power might move the world, but it is the woman beside him who moves the man. The first lady is thus referred to often as “the silent authority” because of her role as the president’s closest aide.
The first lady is a quiet woman, but she sometimes made frank comments during her tenure. Especially sensitive to the impact of her husband’s words, she tried to persuade the president that he should refrain from saying things that hurt his own dignity. If the president had listened to his wife, the situation today might have been different and his popularity might not have declined so greatly.
The future first lady also says what she has to say to her husband. During the Grand National Party primary, she advised him not to fight openly with Park Geun-hye since a man cannot win a battle against a woman. Lee Myung-bak accepted the advice and ultimately won the party’s nomination.
Her experience suggests that she will be a good first lady, but what makes the job so difficult is that she has to do it for five years. She should be careful that her criticism doesn’t sound like nagging.
The future first lady can learn a lesson from Empress Zhangsun, the wife of Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty. One Day, Emperor Taizong was furious after a morning meeting with his ministers. When the Empress asked why he was so angry, he said that Chancellor Wei Zheng criticized him at the meeting. The Empress excused herself and came back in full court dress and bowed deeply to the Emperor.
When asked why she made a bow, she said, “When a king is bright, his officials are straight. Wei Zheng is very straight, so wouldn’t that mean you are very bright? I celebrate your brightness.” Emperor Taizong’s anger lifted and he accepted the advice from his officials. The story is instructive not just to the president but to husbands generally. They have nothing to lose when they listen to their wives.
*The writer is a deputy political news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Hoon-beom