The First Ladies' First Lady: Creating an Undefined Role in the White House

FILE - In this July 7, 2012 file photo former first lady Laura Bush is seen in Arlington, Texas. Bush spokeswoman Anne MacDon
FILE - In this July 7, 2012 file photo former first lady Laura Bush is seen in Arlington, Texas. Bush spokeswoman Anne MacDonald said Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013 that the former first lady wants to be removed from a pro-gay marriage group's national advertising campaign featuring prominent people speaking on the topic. MacDonald says Bush "did not approve of her inclusion in this advertisement nor is she associated in any way with the group that made the ad." (AP Photo/LM Otero, File)

When their husbands win the presidency, American first ladies are thrust into the spotlight, forced to take a position with no job description and no pay. Put on a stage without a script, the country's First Ladies are required to use their newfound influence to leave behind a legacy.

And it's not an easy task.

Anita McBride, former chief of staff to First Lady Laura Bush from 2005 to 2009, knows what goes on behind closed doors: endless meetings, little sleep, and an enormous pressure to look fabulous on a daily basis.

"The American First Lady is recognized around the world -- she has an incredible visibility," McBride said at a recent event at American University, where she serves as executive in residence in the School of Public Affairs. "Every word she utters, everything she wears, everything she does is scrutinized and sometimes criticized."

As the kick-off speaker for an AU series titled "American Women: Conversation's with AU's Inspirational Women" moderated by Iris Krasnow, McBride gave an intimate account of her years in the White House, where she witnessed the first ladies panic over how to define their role.

While each first lady grows into her own unique style and launches her own initiatives, all 46 of them have come to the White House with a fierce dedication to the success of their husbands. Not all of them came willingly -- and not all of them enjoyed life in the spotlight. Some have fainted at the news of their husband's election, while others -- like Michelle Obama -- contemplated staying home.

"[Mrs. Obama] was a reluctant warrior in this campaign: she never really liked politics, she never came here to Washington in the years that her husband served in the Senate, she was not part of the Senate Wives' Club -- none of those things. She stayed home in Chicago," McBride said. "In some ways, that was Barack's world -- not hers."

But despite Mrs. Obama's initial hesitation to move to Washington with her husband, she has fully embraced the role of First Lady and outshone many of her predecessors. Only 13 percent of Americans have an unfavorable opinion of her, while the majority continues to look up to the woman whose every move seems to land on the cover of a tabloid.

Initially, Mrs. Obama felt an immense pressure regarding how an African-American First Lady should look and dress, prompting her to pay special attention to fashion, McBride said.

"There was a tremendous expectation and a fear that she had that if she didn't do this right, that it would be difficult for her," McBride said. "So the decision to be deeply engaged in fashion, to give an interview to every single fashion magazine that exists, was really made during that transition period."

And her fear turned her into a fashion icon with an affordable, accessible style that American women can easily copy. That icon appeared on a stage that no other First Lady has ever tread upon when she emerged in a silver sheath to announce "Best Picture" at this year's Oscars.

"What woman doesn't want to feel beautiful when you're on the world stage like that?" McBride said.

Even former First Lady Laura Bush was vexed about how to dress for public events. McBride recalled an occasion during which Mrs. Bush asked the president what to wear for their first state dinner in Mexico. The president, George W. Bush, told her to "just wear black."

"And she was not happy with that response," McBride said. "So she showed up coming down the stairs at the state dinner in the brightest red-orange gown you would ever want to see in your life. That was her statement and her opportunity to shine."

But first ladies are expected to do more than just look good. They wake up at the crack of dawn, follow a full schedule of the day's events, and come up with their own initiatives. Mrs. Bush championed literacy and education, while Mrs. Obama advocated health and fitness and support for military families.

And while the first ladies sacrifice their personal lives for the sake of their husbands' presidency, McBride herself embodies an equally ambitious woman. While the first ladies made sacrifices to help their husbands, McBride made sacrifices to help them, ever since the got the call that changed her life.

"I was driving carpool, picking up the kids, and the phone rang," she recalled. "It was the White House operator saying Mrs. Bush wants to talk to me ... And I dropped the phone, and I picked up the phone from the floor and it was Mrs. Bush's outgoing chief of staff saying, Mrs. Bush wanted to meet with me and talk about considering being her chief of staff for the second term."

Working at the White House every day starting at 6:30 a.m., McBride spent four years serving as the first lady's chief of staff from 2005 to 2009 -- planning trips, attending meetings, and briefing Mrs. Bush. She had worked in the White House before, during both the Reagan administration and Bush's first term -- but never as the first lady's chief of staff.

"My day was just a nonstop meeting. You could pivot from planning a secret trip to Afghanistan, which I did in my first two months of being her chief of staff, to planning a state dinner for Queen Elizabeth -- all in the same day," she said. "I think the key at any White House job -- not just the chief of staff for the first lady -- is a lot of stamina and incredible flexibility."

McBride was the mother of two young children at the time. But there was never a spring break, never a summer vacation. Her children spent four years under the care of her husband and numerous nannies that cost nearly much as she made at her job.

"[I knew] this was not going to be an average little job in the East Wing, cutting ribbons at new libraries and planning tea parties," McBride said, describing how she felt when she got the job offer. "This was going to be a serious, all-hands-in, important effort during the second term."

From planning the First Lady's unannounced trip to Afghanistan to accompanying her on overseas trips, McBride never had a moment's rest. But she never forgot where she was and always remembered the value of her experience. The FLOTUS chief of staff recognized that few people have the opportunity to work in the White House -- and she remains patriotic about the country that provided her with so much.

"My family was dirt poor -- they [immigrated] here, they made their life here, in this country," McBride said. Now, the Italian-American mother of two once again has time for spring breaks and summer vacations -- but remains an active voice on the role of First Ladies.

At American University, McBride launched a program studying the legacy of America's First Ladies. And she continues to be a leading voice on their role, discussing the first ladies in an ongoing CSPAN documentary series that started airing this month.

"It's a topic near and dear to my heart," she said in a previous speech addressing AU about her program. "I hope by the end of the day it is to you too."