Life Inside the ‘Glass House’ : Simi Valley: Presidents’ daughters gather at the Reagan library to recall growing up as part of America’s First Families.
Luci Baines Johnson remembers going to sleep to the echoes of protesters outside the White House yelling, “Hey, hey, L.B.J., how many kids did you kill today?”
Peggy Hoover Brigham, granddaughter of President Herbert Hoover, recalls a time during the Great Depression when the mother of a childhood friend forbade them to play together. “She’s responsible for your father losing his job,” Brigham remembers the woman telling her friend.
At an unusual gathering Friday at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, women who grew up in the White House talked about how the experience was decidedly a mixed bag.
Susan Ford Bales, daughter of Gerald Ford, got to have her senior prom at the White House. And Luci Baines Johnson’s marriage was the first White House wedding in 50 years, one that was celebrated on the cover of Life magazine and beamed to every television in the country.
But Johnson also recalled when a Secret Service agent yanked her out of her high school Spanish class after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
“I knew right at that moment that my life would never be the same, and it wasn’t,” she said.
Former First Lady Nancy Reagan introduced the panel, saying each woman would bring a “human dimension to the presidential events of the last six decades”--a history, she said, that was “too important to leave to the historians.”
Bales remembered being the first person to throw a Frisbee on the Great Wall of China with cartoonist Garry Trudeau and shaking hands with Chairman Mao, whom she remembers as overly forward to her.
Bales and Johnson were both teen-agers in the White House and shared a similar discomfort with spending their formative years in what they called the nation’s “glass house” and “fishbowl.”
Bales said there were wonderful benefits to being the President’s daughter, like meeting celebrities and receiving VIP treatment at rock concerts.
“I loved Rod Stewart and was ecstatic when I got to go backstage,” she said. “The flip side of that was that the tabloids were reporting a week later that I was engaged to Rod Stewart.”
Both Bales and Johnson recalled going on dates while being shadowed by Secret Service agents and having their personal lives reported in the media. But Brigham, who lived at the White House from age 3 to 6, said she had only nannies keeping her in line.
“Later on we did get driven to school by the Secret Service,” she recalled. “I remember they had a big blue roadster with a rumble seat, and if we were good they’d let us sit back there.”
Maureen Reagan, who was grown and married when her father took office, said her memories centered on the White House itself.
“I don’t think there is a warmer or more hospitable place,” she said. “I was always aware that our time there was finite, and I felt privileged. When it came time to leave, I cried.”
The same emotions overcame Johnson as she watched the inauguration of President Richard Nixon in 1969.
“I remember standing there, tears welling up in my eyes, and Tricia (Nixon) hugging me, saying: ‘Don’t worry, we’ll invite you back,’ ” she said.
Most of the more than 450 people who heard the discussion seemed impressed by the insiders’ view of history.
“It really was magnificent,” said Vee Rosevear of Modesto, who came with her husband. “I found myself in tears more than a couple of times. I wish everyone could have heard this. It really shows the personal side of things, to see the humanity of these people we read about.”
The event was held to kick off a new exhibit at the library that organizers hope will illuminate the personal side of presidential families.
Titled “Madame President,” it is the largest show on First Ladies and their families ever exhibited outside the Smithsonian Institution. The show includes more than 200 objects of personal memorabilia, from Martha Washington’s petticoat to Hillary Clinton’s law degree.
Library Director Richard Norton Smith said the event and the exhibit were meant to bring history to life. He said the shared experiences of the women on the panel and the more than 40 First Ladies featured in the exhibit transcend politics.
“It is a special relationship that binds them all together,” he said.
“Madame President” will run for six months at the Reagan library. General admission is $4, seniors $2. Children under 15 are admitted free. On Mother’s Day, all mothers will be admitted for free. Library hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and Sunday noon to 5 p.m. For more information call (805) 522-8444.
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