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Book tells how first ladies wield hidden power

They are among most powerful in world, author says

SHARE Book tells how first ladies wield hidden power

HIDDEN POWER, Presidential Marriages That Shaped Our Recent History; by Kati Marton; Pantheon Books; 414 pages. $25.

Harry Truman's mother-in-law didn't care for him. For the most part, she avoided speaking to him. She thought her daughter Bess was too good for Truman — even after he was elected president of the United States.

The sweet thing is: Truman agreed. Late in their marriage, when Bess was matronly to the point of frumpiness, Truman looked at her and still saw the slim blond girl of his youth.

When they were growing up, Bess Wallace was one of the best athletes in Independence, Mo. She could beat any boy at tennis, a game Truman didn't even play. She was the daughter of the town's leading family. He didn't go to college. His family couldn't afford to send him. Besides, he was needed on the farm.

So why did Bess Wallace deign to marry Harry Truman? For the same reason Jackie married Jack, and Rosalynn married Jimmy, and Lady Bird married LBJ: Love. Love and a sense that this man was on his way.

As she is portrayed in Kati Marton's new book "Hidden Power: Presidential Marriages That Shaped Our Recent History," Bess craved adventure. In Truman, she saw a man who was destined for someplace beyond Missouri.

Marton zeroes in on 11 recent presidential marriages. She begins with the Wilsons. She skips the Hardings, Coolidges and Hoovers because "they do not resonate today." She skips the Eisenhowers because "they did not leave a deep historic imprint." She writes of President Bush and Laura Bush only as an epilogue.

But she believes the others "each have something to teach us about the intersection of power and marriage and the evolving role of women in society." As Marton describes these women, most are amazing in their ability to foresee the future of the men they love. Take Hillary Rodham. Back before she and Bill Clinton were even engaged, back when they were both just students, she told her friends, "My boyfriend is going to be President of the United States."

It is also uncanny at how adept the men were, these men who would be king. They chose just the right woman to give them the balance they needed.

The story of any marriage is a story of balance. But with presidential marriages, Marton ups the ante. The president is a powerful man. The wife of the president wields incredible power, too, whether or not she wields it in public.

Marton explains the ways in which all first couples are alike: They are isolated. They are often beleaguered. No one understands the demands of the presidency better than the first lady. No one understands the man who fills the job better than she does.

In the process of describing these marriages, Marton reveals a lot about the kind of man who becomes president: In general, he has a huge but fragile ego. He is in danger of losing sight of who he is and what Americans need him to be. Almost every president, with the tragic exception of Richard Nixon, relied on his wife to keep him in touch.

There is not much new in this book. Everybody who is old enough to vote will know the specifics — which presidents had affairs and which presidents failed in their bids for re-election. Marton's strength is in in pulling it all together. She compares Jackie to Eleanor to Nancy to Lady Bird. She compares the marriages of the Trumans and the Fords — those who did not seek the office — to the marriages of the Carters and the Bushes and the Clintons.

If you never before understood the women behind the womanizers, this book will help. Marton demonstrates that the presidents who had affairs also needed their wives — sometimes desperately.

In her version of history, Harry Truman and Gerald Ford are the heroes. They are good husbands. Ford is especially dear because he was good to Betty even when her drinking problems threatened to embarrass them both.

Barbara Bush comes off as the wiliest first lady of all. (Lady Bird Johnson is first runner-up; and LBJ was a difficult man to manage.) The fact that Laura Bush married Barbara's son, means she, too, is a force to be reckoned with.

Whether or not the public ever sees Laura Bush exercise her might, if you read Marton, you'll realize she — or any first lady — is one of the most powerful women in the world.

E-mail: susan@desnews.com