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Watch ‘First Ladies’ tonight: These women faced an impossible challenge

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The role of first lady of the United States is one of the most visible public positions in the world. From the moment votes are counted, and often during campaigning in the preceding months, the spouse of a newly elected president is thrust into the spotlight, where she remains for the duration of his term.

Throughout history, we’ve witnessed the breadth and depth of scrutiny withstood by the women who have so far held the position. From her mannerisms, to her physical attributes, to the way she chooses to dress, the first lady is thoroughly examined by the public, the media and those surrounding her on the political stage. And this is even before people begin assessing the work she is expected to carry out as an unpaid, unofficial public servant.

Many a first lady has felt the warm glow of public adoration, only to have it quickly flicker out when it is decided that she does not fit the image created for her.

Image, in this case, isn’t just about clothing and looks, but also a more nuanced notion of the impression she’s thought to give off. It’s an air around her that is made of both physical and personal traits. And a number of first ladies have fallen victim to aspects of their image that have been both celebrated and weaponized, depending on the onlooking crowd.

In “First Ladies,” a documentary series now airing on CNN, we see this paradox play out during six presidencies. The stories offer an ongoing reminder that a woman’s public image is inextricably linked to her success and the level of respect she receives from the outside world.

“As a black woman, too, I knew I’d be criticized if I was perceived as being showy and high end, and I’d be criticized also if I was too casual.”

Michelle Obama

So, why do critical voices repeatedly pass such undeserved judgment on these women? Leah Wright Rigueur, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, offers her answer early in an episode about Michelle Obama: First ladies are meant to be the “representation of American’s better selves.”

When Americans elected their first Black president in 2008, the country’s first Black first lady Michelle Obama was, to many adoring fans, a symbol of hope, opportunity and change. Girls and women around the world looked up to this smart, determined woman from Chicago’s South Side who now lived in America’s most famous house.

Michelle Obama poses for her official portrait in the Blue Room of the White House in February 2009.

Michelle Obama poses for her official portrait in the Blue Room of the White House in February 2009. Credit: Joyce N. Boghosian/The White House/Getty Images

But her critics had a different take on her conviction and strength of character, and they were not afraid to make their often racist and sexist ideas known. On the campaign trail she was labeled “angry,” and her love and loyalty for America was questioned.

During the first few months of the Obama presidency her preference for sleeveless looks also drew extraordinary criticism. It was a phenomenon recalled by Robin Givhan, a Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion editor and critic-at-large for the Washington Post, during an interview for “First Ladies.”

“People zeroed in on her arms because they were not the arms of a fragile damsel who was White,” she said in the episode about Obama. “Non-White Americans have for years looked at a White first lady and were still able to say that she represented them. But I think it becomes a much more challenging thing for some White Americans to look at a Black first lady and see themselves in her. Instead, they simply saw her as an alien.”

By way of contrast, Jackie Kennedy had been mostly idolized for her beauty and style. While she did face flak from critics on the campaign trail for her expensive taste, from the moment she took to the stage on inauguration day in her now-iconic pillbox hat, Kennedy became the First Lady of Fashion. At age 31 — young enough to be the daughter of the departing Mamie Eisenhower — she was also seen as a symbol of youthful rejuvenation. She appeared on Capitol Hill for her husband’s inauguration like “the gorgeous petal in a dowdy bouquet of fur,” wrote historian Thurston Clarke in his 2004 book “Ask Not.”
Jackie Kennedy on inauguration day in 1961.

Jackie Kennedy on inauguration day in 1961. Credit: Leonard McCombe/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

And as journalist Evan Thomas notes during an interview for the CNN series, she “was the perfect prize of the WASP establishment.”

“She also knew that the Kennedy family was using her,” Thomas added. “She once said, ‘the family treats me like, like a thing. Like an asset. Like Rhode Island.'”

The designer behind Jackie Kennedy’s iconic pillbox hat Credit: CNN Films/Halston

Complex legacies

If history had played out differently, Jackie Kennedy’s legacy might have been reduced to the story of a pretty object with a flair for interior design (she dedicated much of her time in the White House to renovating the official residence). Tragically, however, she had the opportunity to show the world what she was made of on the day of her husband’s assassination. Hours after President Kennedy was shot beside her, she made a powerful decision: to face the public again in the same blood-stained pink dress she had worn during the attack, famously telling her staff, “I want them to see what they’ve done to Jack.”

President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jackie on November 22, 1963, just after their arrival at the airport for the fateful drive through Dallas.

President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jackie on November 22, 1963, just after their arrival at the airport for the fateful drive through Dallas. Credit: Art Rickerby/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

It was a catastrophic moment in American history. And it was also a devastating example of the power of clothing: A dress can send a message.

In Michelle Obama’s memoir “Becoming,” the former first lady reveals the lengths she went to when styling herself for public appearances, finding it impossible not to look across the room at her husband: “I sighed sometimes, watching Barack pull the same dark suit out of his closet and head off to work without even needing a comb,” she wrote. “His biggest fashion consideration for a public moment was whether to have his suit jacket on or off. Tie or no tie?”

She also discussed the particular challenges she faced as an African American. “As a black woman, too, I knew I’d be criticized if I was perceived as being showy and high end, and I’d be criticized also if I was too casual. So I mixed it up. I’d match a high-end Michael Kors skirt with a T-shirt from Gap. I wore something from Target one day and Diane von Furstenberg the next.”

She knew society wouldn’t bend for her. So, in a move that was at once inspiring and saddening, she bent to fit society.

But Michelle Obama won in the end. Her layered legacy, which will be defined by her work around issues of health, education and race, also acknowledges how graciously she used her platform to celebrate young, diverse fashion designers alongside the more established set. She wore Jason Wu, Prabal Gurung and Tracy Reese, offering them a moment in her limelight and helping their careers as a result.

“For me, my choices were simply a way to use my curious relationship with the public gaze to boost a diverse set of up-and-comers,” she wrote.

“As a woman running for President, I liked the visual cue that I was different from the men but also familiar. ”

Hillary Clinton

Like Jackie Kennedy, Michelle Obama took the fact that she was being scrutinized and itemized for everything she wore and used it to her advantage. This, arguably limited power remains one of the ways that women in politics can make a statement without saying a word.

‘First Ladies’: Reagan’s inauguration was ‘very Hollywood’ Credit: AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Conflicting expectations

Nancy Reagan was seen as a relic of old Hollywood when she entered the White House. The inauguration celebrations in 1981 were, by all accounts, lavish and glitzy affairs. Around 700 private jets flew into the city that weekend, and Reagan’s gown — a white beaded one-shouldered sheath of lace over silk satin, made by high-society couturier James Galanos — was a show-stopper.

She and her husband, President Ronald Reagan, were both former actors who had met in Los Angeles in the 1940s, and their love for each other was like that of the silver screen. Her critics initially mocked the adoring way she looked at her husband, calling it “the gaze,” and she was seen as too wifely, too 1950s, too concerned with frills and the finer things in life, which seemed at odds with a country plunging into recession.

Nancy and Ronald Reagan arrive at the inaugural ball in the Washington Hilton on January 21, 1985.

Nancy and Ronald Reagan arrive at the inaugural ball in the Washington Hilton on January 21, 1985. Credit: Ira Schwarz/AP

But, through the course of her husband’s eight-year presidency she proved herself to be more than the outdated embodiment of a wealthy suburban wife. According to their son, Ron Reagan, who features in the documentary series, she wanted the President “to be the frontman, and she wanted to be the producer/director behind the scenes.”

It was, perhaps, a precursor to the Clintons half-jokingly campaigning under the slogan “buy one get one free.” Indeed, it’s well-documented that Hillary Clinton often felt the scorn of the American public, due in part to her career-woman image. Ironically, while Reagan was criticized for being a 1950s housewife, Clinton was told she wasn’t domesticated enough.

Hillary and Bill Clinton leave the White House after the Democratic Business Leaders event in September 1998.

Hillary and Bill Clinton leave the White House after the Democratic Business Leaders event in September 1998. Credit: David Hume Kennerly/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Her aggressors painted her as being too strong to stand back and let her politician husband call the shots and too weak to walk away when he was unfaithful.

For the most part, she rallied against these judgments. Clinton’s pantsuits became her emblem — her way of reminding people that she was a first lady with a law degree, an independent career and, ultimately, her own agenda, which she proved when she left the White House as Senator of New York, not effectively jobless like her husband. So, when her official portrait was released in 2004, Clinton was of course depicted wearing her signature black pantsuit, another first for a first lady.
Hillary Clinton greets supporters during a rally in Cincinnati, Ohio, for her 2016 presidential run.

Hillary Clinton greets supporters during a rally in Cincinnati, Ohio, for her 2016 presidential run. Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

She took her signature look on the road again during her 2016 presidential campaign. In her book “What Happened” she explained: “As a woman running for President, I liked the visual cue that I was different from the men but also familiar.”

The tactic didn’t pay off. Throughout one of the ugliest elections in US history, Clinton would come under repeated fire. This time she wasn’t charismatic enough, she was shady, she was “a liar.”

But was the biggest issue, actually, the same one as always? Once again, her image didn’t fit the mold — because the president was supposed to be a man.

Watch CNN Original Series “First Ladies” Sundays at 10 p.m. ET.

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Trump’s misleading tweet about changing your vote, briefly explained

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Searches for changing one’s vote did not trend following the recent presidential debate, and just a few states appear to have processes for changing an early vote. But that didn’t stop President Trump from wrongly saying otherwise on Tuesday.

In early morning posts, the president falsely claimed on Twitter and Facebook that many people had Googled “Can I change my vote?” after the second presidential debate and said those searching wanted to change their vote over to him. Trump also wrongly claimed that most states have a mechanism for changing one’s vote. Actually, just a few states appear to have the ability, and it’s rarely used.

Twitter did not attach a label to Trump’s recent tweet.
Twitter

Trump’s claim about what was trending on Google after the debate doesn’t hold up. Searches for changing one’s vote were not among Google’s top trending searches for the day of the debate (October 22) or the day after. Searches for “Can I change my vote?” did increase slightly around the time of the debate, but there is no way to know whether the bump was related to the debate or whether the people searching were doing so in support of Trump.

It was only after Trump’s posts that searches about changing your vote spiked significantly. It’s worth noting that people were also searching for “Can I change my vote?” during a similar period before the 2016 presidential election.

Google declined to comment on the accuracy of Trump’s post.

Trump also claimed that these results indicate that most of the people who were searching for how to change their vote support him. But the Google Trends tool for the searches he mentioned does not provide that specific information.

Perhaps the most egregiously false claim in Trump’s recent posts is about “most states” having processes for changing your early vote. In fact, only a few states have such processes, and they can come with certain conditions. For instance, in Michigan, voters who vote absentee can ask for a new ballot by mail or in person until the day before the election.

The Center for Election Innovation’s David Becker told the Associated Press that changing one’s vote is “extremely rare.” Becker explained, “It’s hard enough to get people to vote once — it’s highly unlikely anybody will go through this process twice.”

Trump’s post on Facebook was accompanied by a link to Facebook’s Voting Information Center.
Facebook

At the time of publication, Trump’s false claims had drawn about 84,000 and 187,000 “Likes” on Twitter and Facebook, respectively. Trump’s posts accelerated searches about changing your vote in places like the swing state of Florida, where changing one’s vote after casting it is not possible. Those numbers are a reminder of the president’s capacity to spread misinformation quickly.

On Facebook, the president’s post came with a label directing people to Facebook’s Voting Information Center, but no fact-checking label. Twitter had no annotation on the president’s post. Neither company responded to a request for comment.

That Trump is willing to spread misinformation to benefit himself and his campaign isn’t a surprise. He does that a lot. Still, just days before a presidential election in which millions have already voted, this latest episode demonstrates that the president has no qualms about using false claims about voting to cause confusion and sow doubt in the electoral process.

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Nearly 6,000 civilian casualties in Afghanistan so far this year

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From January to September, 5,939 civilians – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded – were casualties of the fighting, the UN says.

Nearly 6,000 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in the first nine months of the year as heavy fighting between government forces and Taliban fighters rages on despite efforts to find peace, the United Nations has said.

From January to September, there were 5,939 civilian casualties in the fighting – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a quarterly report on Tuesday.

“High levels of violence continue with a devastating impact on civilians, with Afghanistan remaining among the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian,” the report said.

Civilian casualties were 30 percent lower than in the same period last year but UNAMA said violence has failed to slow since the beginning of talks between government negotiators and the Taliban that began in Qatar’s capital, Doha, last month.

An injured girl receives treatment at a hospital after an attack in Khost province [Anwarullah/Reuters]

The Taliban was responsible for 45 percent of civilian casualties while government troops caused 23 percent, it said. United States-led international forces were responsible for two percent.

Most of the remainder occurred in crossfire, or were caused by ISIL (ISIS) or “undetermined” anti-government or pro-government elements, according to the report.

Ground fighting caused the most casualties followed by suicide and roadside bomb attacks, targeted killings by the Taliban and air raids by Afghan troops, the UN mission said.

Fighting has sharply increased in several parts of the country in recent weeks as government negotiators and the Taliban have failed to make progress in the peace talks.

At least 24 people , mostly teens, were killed in a suicide bomb attack at an education centre in Kabul [Mohammad Ismail/Reuters]

The Taliban has been fighting the Afghan government since it was toppled from power in a US-led invasion in 2001.

Washington blamed the then-Taliban rulers for harbouring al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda was accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks.

Calls for urgent reduction of violence

Meanwhile, the US envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said on Tuesday that the level of violence in the country was still too high and the Kabul government and Taliban fighters must work harder towards forging a ceasefire at the Doha talks.

Khalilzad made the comments before heading to the Qatari capital to hold meetings with the two sides.

“I return to the region disappointed that despite commitments to lower violence, it has not happened. The window to achieve a political settlement will not stay open forever,” he said in a tweet.

There needs to be “an agreement on a reduction of violence leading to a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire”, added Khalilzad.

A deal in February between the US and the Taliban paved the way for foreign forces to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban, which agreed to sit with the Afghan government to negotiate a permanent ceasefire and a power-sharing formula.

But progress at the intra-Afghan talks has been slow since their start in mid-September and diplomats and officials have warned that rising violence back home is sapping trust.

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Classic toy tie-up: Etch A Sketch maker to acquire Rubik’s Cube

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Spin Master Corp., the company behind the Etch A Sketch and Paw Patrol brands, has agreed to acquire Rubik’s Brand Ltd. for about $50 million, tying together two of the world’s most iconic toy brands.

The merger comes at a boom time for classic toymakers, as parents turn to familiar products to entertain kids stuck in lockdown. Like sales of Uno, Monopoly and Barbie dolls, Rubik’s Cube purchases have spiked during the pandemic, according to the puzzle maker’s chief executive officer, Christoph Bettin. He expects sales to jump 15% to 20% in 2020, compared with a normal year, when people purchase between 5 million and 10 million cubes.

By acquiring Rubik’s, Toronto-based Spin Master can better compete with its larger rivals, Hasbro Inc. and Mattel Inc. All three companies have pivoted to become less reliant on actual product sales, diversifying into television shows, films and broader entertainment properties based on their toys. Spin Master CEO Anton Rabie said he wouldn’t rule out films or TV shows based on Rubik’s Cubes, but he was focused for now on creating more cube-solving competitions and crossmarketing it with the company’s other products, like the Perplexus.

“Whoever you are, it really has a broad appeal from a consumer standpoint,” Rabie said in an interview. “It’s actually going to become the crown jewel; it will be the most important part of our portfolio worldwide.”

Hungarian inventor Erno Rubik created the Rubik’s Cube in 1974, a solid block featuring squares with colored stickers that users could twist and turn without it falling apart. It gained popularity in the 1980s and has remained one of the best-selling toys of all time, spawning spinoff versions, international competitions of puzzle solvers, books and documentaries.

The toy has been particularly well-suited to pandemic conditions. During lockdowns, parents have sought to give kids puzzles that boost problem-solving skills useful in math and science careers. Normally, toys tied to major film franchises are among the most popular products headed into the holidays, but studios have delayed the release of major new movies because of coronavirus. So classic products are experiencing a mini-renaissance.

“The whole pandemic has really increased games and puzzles,” Rabie said. “But whether the pandemic existed or didn’t exist, we’d still buy Rubik’s. It’s had such steady sales for decades.”

Rubik’s CEO Bettin said it was the right time to sell the company, with the founding families behind it ready to move on. London-based Rubik’s Brand was formed out of a partnership between Erno Rubik and the late entrepreneur Tom Kremer, while private equity firm Bancroft Investment holds a minority stake in the company.

Early on, Bettin felt Spin Master was the right home for the puzzle toy, he said. Spin Master, which was started by a group of three friends in 1994, has expanded through the purchase of well-known brands, including Erector sets and Etch A Sketch. Rabie says he works to honor the “legacy” of those products, which Bettin cited as a key reason to sell the brand to Spin Master over larger companies that were interested.

“It was important for us to not be lost in the crowd, and to be sufficiently important and cared for,” Bettin said. “And there’s a balance between being with someone large enough to invest, and agile enough to ensure you are key part of their plans.”

Spin Master won’t own Rubik’s Cubes in time for the holiday season – the transaction is expected to close on Jan. 4. At that time, the company will move Rubik’s operations from a small office in London’s Notting Hill neighborhood to Spin Master’s new games operations center in Long Island.

Some of Rubik’s Brand’s 10 employees will be part of the transition, but they won’t stay permanently, Bettin said.

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