Three of America’s most impactful first ladies are ready for their TV close-ups.
Showtime’s “The First Lady” flips the camera’s focus to the women who brought about transformational change from the East Wing of the White House.
The 10-episode biographical drama, which premiered Sunday, follows Michelle Obama (Viola Davis), Betty Ford (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Eleanor Roosevelt (Gillian Anderson) through real history.
The show’s creators used historical fiction to depict behind-the-scenes moments between the first couples by “imagining the kind of conversations – and arguments – that must have happened inside those White House walls between these events we all know,” says “First Lady Producer Cathy Schulman.
The dramatized scenes were governed by one rule: “That the first ladies’ overall attitudes and points of view remained intact,” Schulman says.
So what’s true and what’s fictionalized in the first episode of “The First Lady”? We explore some key scenes:
Be warned, this article discusses events depicted in Sunday’s “The First Lady.” So hold off on reading until you’ve seen the episode.
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Michelle Obama deals with Barack Obama’s heavy security
A major subplot in Episode 1 follows the Obama family dealing with heavy security in their Chicago home while Barack Obama (OT Fagbenle) is still an early Democratic candidate. It is true that Barack was issued a Secret Service security detail in May 2007 – nine months before voting began in the Democratic primaries for president.
“It was the earliest a presidential candidate had been given a protective detail ever, which said something about the seriousness of the threats against him,” Michelle Obama wrote in her memoir “Becoming,” describing an agent “standing guard on the porch” ( less than the phalanx of security seen in their yard in “First Lady”).
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While the tense discussion between the couple is fiction, it does exemplify Michelle’s misgivings about her husband entering politics and the real dangers faced by the promising candidate who would become the first Black president.
“The threats were there,” says producer Aaron Cooley. “That scene explores what it would feel like at home for this woman who had wished her husband de ella had a different career in the first place.”
Michelle Obama turned out to be wildly popular on the campaign trail for her husband, as depicted onscreen. She wrote in “Becoming” that her team de ella “began referring to me as ‘the Closer’ for the way I helped make up minds.”
Eleanor Roosevelt finds FDR’s most famous utterance
Eleanor Roosevelt is shown in “First Lady” as the political partner she was with Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Kiefer Sutherland), who was elected during the Great Depression in 1932. The early episodes deal with Eleanor seeking a White House role beyond that of first lady (she eventually held weekly news conferences and became the first to speak at the party’s 1940 convention) and punching up her husband’s speeches.
In the first episode, Eleanor is shown providing the most resonant words of FDR’s famed 1933 inauguration address.
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“Eleanor Roosevelt was very impressed by his inauguration speech. But she wanted him to add a little bit more verve, as she always did. She always improved his speeches,” says biographer Blanche Wiesen Cook, a “First Lady” consultant. “She had just been reading Henry David Thoreau and she came across the phrase, ‘Nothing is so much to be feared as fear.’ “
Eleanor gave the book to FDR, who then revised his speech to say, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” As seen in “First Lady,” the speech, and that line, was a rousing success.
Betty Ford acknowledges seeing a psychiatrist
“The First Lady” alludes to a historical truth in its opening episode: During 1973 Senate hearings to confirm his nomination as vice president under President Richard Nixon, then-US Rep. Gerald Ford (Aaron Eckhart) was grilled about whether he had ever seen to psychiatrist.
“If one thing was made perfectly clear,” The New York Times’ report of the hearings decreed, “it is that consulting a psychiatrist or psychotherapist is still an unforgivable sin for an American politician.”
It was his wife who sought treatment. Seeing a psychiatrist was one of many revelations Betty Ford made as first lady, taking the stigma off mental health care by bringing it out in the open.
In “The First Lady,” her disclosure comes during a speech in front of congressional wives. In reality, Ford made her remarks about her in a 1975 “60 Minutes” interview with Morley Safer.
When asked by Safer if and why she had needed “psychiatric help,” Ford gave the candid response when discussing a past physical injury:
“I was advised by the doctor who was treating me for my neck and shoulder and back, that perhaps, psychiatric help could help me in getting over this problem. And on his advice I went to a psychiatrist,” Ford said in the interview. “And I found it very helpful, because apparently, I was – I was really giving too much of myself and not taking any time out for Betty. It was all going to the children and my husband. And consequently, I was a little beaten down. And I built up my ego.”
According to “First Lady” historical consultant Catherine Allgor, Betty’s Episode 1 speech helps set the table for other important revelations that made her a social trailblazer – from the Betty Ford Center co-founder’s open struggles with addiction to publicly discussing her breast cancer.
“The ‘First Lady’ scene highlights something astonishing at the time, even talking about going to a psychiatrist at all. But Betty Ford always owned it,” says Allgor. “It sets the template that (Ford) is also going to discuss her own breast cancer, about her problems with alcohol and drugs. People did n’t talk about those things. But Betty Ford talked about the truths in her life de ella and people were just absolutely inspired by that.”
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