History behind the scenes with Showtime’s ‘The First Lady’
By Mace Yampolsky
First Ladies and their teams are often the vanguards of social
progress in this country, despite no budget and no pay,” writes Betty
Ford (Michelle Pfeiffer) to Michelle Obama (Viola Davis) in the tenth
and final episode of Showtime’s The First Lady. The sentiment serves
as the thesis for this anthology series from creator Aaron Cooley and
director Susanne Bier.
Despite its singular title, The First Lady follows three presidential
spouses — Mrs. Obama, Mrs. Ford, and Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt (Gillian
Anderson) — and multiple administrations into each hour-long episode.
The series introduces them at pivotal moments in their husbands’
political career: FDR (Kiefer Sutherland) falling ill with polio and
launching his NY gubernatorial campaign in the 1920s; Gerald Ford
(Aaron Eckhart) being nominated to replace Spiro Agnew as Vice
President in 1973; and Barack Obama (O-T Fagbenle) arriving at the
White House with his wife and young daughters in 2008.
I wasn’t alive during the Roosevelt administration. I’ve read US and
European history but I certainly didn’t see the nuances or the
backstories of events following the Roosevelts, as close to the royal
family as there could be in those days.
Eleanor Roosevelt was a force to be reckoned with. She bore Franklin
five children, but was ill equipped to stand by and let history pass
her by. She was an unofficial advisor to FDR during his
administration. She had her own radio show and used it as a bully
pulpit for human rights and other issues that she held dear.
In the series it depicts Eleanor as being gay, before it was accepted
and trendy. Was she? I don’t know. But the series certainly make the
case that she was. She had a long-time affair with a female that was a
white house correspondent — Lorena Hickok (Hick). She confronted FDR’s
infidelity and was planning to divorce him.
FDR’s Mom stepped in and decreed there would be no divorce. She
threatened to cut off both FDR and Eleanor if they divorced. They
decided to stay together and as they say, the rest is history. She
flew to Europe and acted as an ex-officio ambassador for the United
States while Europe was in the beginning stages of World War II. She
was more popular than FDR. After he passed, Harry Truman made her the
first delegate to the newly formed United Nations. Her fervor and
convictions never wavered.
This story was intertwined with two other first ladies: Betty Ford and
Betty Ford set the style for the white house. She wanted transparency
She was a gifted hostess. The powers that be in the administration
tried to squash her. They did not succeed. One battle that she lost
was Gerald Ford pardoning Nixon. At that time, I didn’t agree. But
retrospectively, as Ford said, the Nation needed to heal
She was blindsided; she did not agree with the decision. She made
Gerry promise that they would have no secrets between them. She led
the fight for ratification of the U.S. equal rights amendment with
Female volunteers manning phone banks from the White House. Eventually
the president forced her to take her volunteers elsewhere. It would be
unseemly to have volunteers of such a divisive issue. In the White
Then there were the issues of her addiction and alcoholism, which she
denied for years. It all started with a shoulder injury and the
painkillers that were prescribed. Lots of her entertaining was
punctuated by her constant drinking. She eventually went to a
facility, kicking and screaming, where she kicked the habit.
That was what inspired her to start the Betty Ford Center (BFC) for
alcoholism and addition which she founded in 1982. The BFC is a
non-profit, residential treatment center for persons with substance
dependence in Rancho Mirage, California. It offers inpatient,
outpatient, and residential day treatment for alcohol and other drug
addictions, as well as prevention and education programs for family
and children. The Betty Ford Center, which is adjacent to Eisenhower
Medical Center but is under a separate license to practice, has 100
inpatient beds available on their campus and additional lodging for 84
clients in the Residential Day Treatment program.
The Betty Ford Center merged with Hazelden Foundation on February 10,
2014, to create the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation (HBFF). This was
her crowning accomplishment. These days There are 15 HBFF drug and
alcohol rehab centers in the U.S.
The final third of the series featured Michele Obama. She was another
force to be reckoned with. Her tireless efforts was one of the driving
forces behind Obamacare. It showed her humble beginnings and how she
became involved in access to health care when her father was afflicted
with Multiple sclerosis and the pitfalls of getting him treatment at
emergency rooms. She was outraged that it took forever for him to be
seen. She was informed that the speed of being seen was dependent on
one’s insurance. She offered to pay for improved access but the was
told “that’s not how it works.”
Multiple sclerosis (MS), also known as encephalomyelitis disseminata,
is the most common demyelinating disease  in which the insulating
covers of nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord are damaged. This
damage disrupts the ability of parts of the nervous system to transmit
signals, resulting in a range of signs and symptoms, including
physical, mental, and sometimes psychiatric problems.
Michelle was no blushing flower. She was a Harvard educated lawyer
specializing in health care issues. Her background proved invaluable
in her fight for Obamacare. Her autobiography, Becoming, became a best
seller. She served as the First Lady of the United States from 2009 to
2017. She was the first African-American woman to serve in this
position. She helped create the most welcoming and inclusive White
House in history while also establishing herself as a powerful
advocate for women and girls in the U.S. and around the world.
So what does it all mean? The show illustrates the importance of the
role of the first lady, an unpaid and undefined position in the
guiding of history. This was a docudrama and poetic license was taken,
but it seemed pretty accurate to me. Behind every great man is a great
woman and behind every great woman is a great woman’s behind.
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History behind the scenes with Showtime’s ‘The First Lady’