Ranking the Last 14 Presidential Marriages

Ranking presidents is old hat—what's interesting is their marriages.

Posted Apr 22, 2017

We are used to seeing the latest compilation of historians' ranking of U.S. presidents. These sometimes change in surprising ways.  A recent survey — after placing Lincoln, Washington, and FDR in their traditional top spots — included Eisenhower, Truman, JFK, and LBJ in the top ten.  Lost from the top ten in recent years have been Woodrow Wilson and Andrew Jackson, the first due to his documented racism, the second because of growing revulsion towards his role in Native American genocide and dislocation.

Where will Donald Trump rate?  Although he won't be saddled with maintaining slavery or decimating the Native American population, his despicable arrogance, ignorance, carelessness, and inhumanity will surely place him at the bottom for time immemorial.

But I'm not here to debate presidential ranking.  Far more interesting to me, given such recent developments as the film, Jackie, and the stunning step down after Barack and Michelle Obama to the abortive coupling of a second-string — beautiful and vacuous — international model and a man who views women as trophies and sexual playthings.  But more about that loving couple at the end of this list.

I restrict myself to the 14 presidents who have served during my lifetime (I was born January 8, 1946 — okay, I cheated on FDR, about whose marriage quite a bit has been written and depicted, including Ken Burns' PBS series, "The Roosevelts"): Franklin Roosevelt (Eleanor), Harry Truman (Bess), Dwight Eisenhower (Mamie), John Kennedy (Jackie), Lyndon Johnson (Lady Bird), Richard Nixon (Pat), Gerald Ford (Betty), Jimmy Carter (Rosalyn),  Ronald Reagan (Nancy), George Bush (Barbara), Bill Clinton (Hillary), George W. Bush (Laura), Barack Obama (Michelle), and Donald Trump (Melania).

1.  Barack and Michelle Obama.  The Obamas stand out as a beacon of mutual respect and support, devotion to family and children, and strength as individuals.  Of course, even reports of their early relationship point out that Barack needed husbandly training, particularly when he spent so much time in Illinois's capital, Springfield, as a state legislator.  But in the White House, the two worked as the most smoothly functioning couple since, perhaps, John and Abigail Adams (who, actually, spent very little time together during John's service as the second president).

2.  George W. and Laura Bush.  George W. is ranked quite low as a president, based on both his foreign and economic policies.  But he and Laura operated successfully as a couple, enjoying and admiring one another, providing support (well, mainly coming from Laura), and successfully raising two children in the White House.  It is impossible to see the two of them together and not to notice their ease with, and enjoyment of, one another.

3.  Harry and Bess Truman.  This is a shout back to the old days.  The Trumans knew one another since grade school.  And there was no pretense, no claim, that Bess was to play a public role.  Indeed, in a famous incident, Harry defended his daughter, Margaret's, singing.  His defense indicated the strong feeling at the time that Truman's family had nothing to do with his presidency, and should be shielded at all costs from public scrutiny (a privacy that has been strangely reversed today with Donald and Melania Trump, where the presidential daughter, Ivanka, has become a constant presence in the administration as wife Melania is invisible). Nonetheless, Harry and Bess had a long, trusting, and warm marriage.

4.  Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter.  Rosalynn Carter was more an example of a presidential partner than Bess Truman — albeit a largely silent one.  Her and Jimmy's partnership became even more evident following Carter's defeat by Ronald Reagan, after which the couple wrote books together, partnered in a variety of social activism projects, and were generally seen as a single, collaborative unit who were rarely apart.

5.  George and Barbara Bush.  For their sheer length of time together in the public eye, George and Barbara deserve our affection.  Like their son, the two formed a smooth unit, devoted to parenting, with Barbara firmly in the background.

6.  Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.  Okay, Franklin and Eleanor bring to the fore that old quandary — true for the next four Democratic presidents listed. Can a man be said to have a good marriage to a woman when he regularly seeks sex outside the marriage? In the Roosevelts' case, the marriage ceased to be intimate, with each instead selecting another person to be their primary emotional partner (Lucy Mercy Rutherfurd and Lorena Hickok, respectively).  Nonetheless, both Roosevelts (and, yes, that was Eleanor's maiden name) were seminal American political and social leaders, a feat that may never be replicated to the extent the two of them succeeded at doing.

7.  John and Jackie Kennedy.  The remarkable film, Jackie, expresses the question raised with the Roosevelts in a different way for John and Jackie Kennedy.  They loved, respected, and supported one another — including Jack regularly turning to other sexual partners.  As I have pointed out, this seems to have been the Kennedy family coda through three generations.  But Jackie loved Jack and was secure in their marriage, to which Jack was likewise devoted, as a husband and co-parent.  Go figure.

8.  Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson.  The remarkable Robert Caro multi-volume biographical series on Johnson is, often, a portrait of a marriage.  When Johnson served away from Washington during the war, Lady Bird stepped in and ran his office flawlessly — as though she had been studying in the wings for the job (which, in a sense, she was).  When Lyndon returned, she quickly and completely stepped aside.  Likewise, she let Lyndon carry on a love life completely separate from her, resulting in a several major affairs, including one that almost led Lyndon to divorce her and remarry.  (According to Caro, Alice Glass was the great passion of Johnson's life, and he of hers.)  But he didn't, and Lady Bird would never demand that he did.

9. Bill and Hillary Clinton. The Clintons have had more intimacy than the Roosevelts and the Johnsons but perhaps less than the Kennedys and certainly the Carters.  Bill's affairs are a matter of public record. Still, Bill and Hillary have partnered to become one of the premier power couples in American—indeed, in world—history.  Hillary's last campaign, unfortunately, did not demonstrate the Clintons at their best.  Hillary and her people tried to shut Bill out, with Bill acting almost like an outside commentator during the campaign, and the results weren't good.

10.  Richard and Pat Nixon. Recent biographies have done little to rescue the dark picture that Oliver Stone painted of Richard Nixon in his 1995 film, Nixon.  But there has been some revision of the view of Richard and Pat's marriage.  Despite Nixon's alienation from everyone (including himself and his wife), the two seemed to have had a deep connection and mutual understanding, however poorly realized in warmth and emotional sharing.

11.  Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower.  Ike's affair and infatuation with his British adjunct and secretary, Kay Summersby, cannot be denied.  Nor that Eisenhower planned to divorce Mamie, but was discouraged, for career military and political reasons. (A faint lover, he.)

12.  Ronald and Nancy Reagan. The Reagans were close — almost inseparable.  Ah, but therein lies the problem.  They were so close that little light could enter their relationship.  Indeed, their children, both by Reagan's first marriage to Jane Wyman (Michael and Maureen), and their two children together, were shut out of the couple's intimate inner circle, with somewhat disastrous results for daughter Patti Davis (but not for the buoyant Ron, who got the best deal of the four offspring).  Of course, Nancy's devotion to Ronald after his Alzheimer's became apparent is touching — as it was throughout his life.

13.  Gerald and Betty Ford.  As people may know, I am not Betty Ford's biggest fan ("Betty Ford isn't a role model for my daughters — sorry!").  More to the point, where was Gerald while his wife was suffering?  He seems to have been missing in action, having three-martini lunches and playing golf with his pals.

14.  Donald and Melania Trump.  Speaking of missing in action, quite a bit of attention is now being directed at Donald and Melania's strangely separate existences.  Melania seems to have made a deal to be taken care of by a man who has little interest in being with her, who doesn't respect her, and who certainly doesn't treat her as an equal.  (See this remarkable analysis of Melania's tweeted photos.)

Unlike presidential rankings, I don't expect these marital ones to change much over time.

P.S.  Here's how Archie answered the question:

I’ve ranked the presidents whose personal lives we know something about, i.e., the modern presidency dating from FDR.  Of course, there’s a lot of judgment here, with little to choose between adjacent names, which could just as well be flipped.  Some of my choices may be surprising.  To explain, the absence of negatives (e.g., having affairs) is not the only criterion.  There’s also the positive criterion of closeness between the spouses (personal and/or in public purpose and related values—Obama had both, FDR and Clinton the latter) that can counterbalance personal difficulties.  There was nothing left in some marriages (the last two) by the time the man reached the presidency, even without adultery, and Ike had wanted to dump Mamie after the war but Truman wouldn’t let him.

I’d say Trump’s marriage is an unknown—unclear what her staying in NY means.  Bess Truman preferred to live in Independence, but she and Harry were emotionally close.

1. Obama
2. Carter
3. Johnson
4. Truman
5. Bush I
6. Ford
7. Reagan
8. Bush II
9. FDR
10. Clinton
11. Kennedy
13. Nixon
14. Eisenhower