WASHINGTON — Never-married Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham wasn’t far off the historical mark when he said he might have a “rotating first lady” if his long-shot presidential bid ends with his election.
Daughters, daughters-in-law, sisters and nieces all have subbed as first lady for America’s bachelor and widowed presidents.
James Buchanan, a Democrat who served one term just before the Civil War, never married. His niece, Harriet Lane, filled the first lady’s role.
Grover Cleveland, a Democrat who served two non-consecutive terms after the war, started his first term as a bachelor and ended it as a married man. His sister, Rose, was the hostess until Cleveland wed 21-year-old Frances Folsom a year into his first term.
The scenario that Graham outlined in an interview with Daily Mail Online “is not without precedent, but it sure has been a long time,” said Robert Watson, an American studies professor at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida. Not since Woodrow Wilson, in the early 1900s, has a president been without a first lady.
“It’s been a century, basically, since we’ve had this kind of a situation,” Watson said.
“I’ve got a sister. She could play that role if necessary,” Graham, 59, said in the interview. His parents died when he was in college and he became guardian of his younger sister, Darline. “I’ve got a lot of friends. We’ll have a rotating first lady.”
After Buchanan took office, his niece, Harriet, carried out first lady obligations. Buchanan had become her guardian after she became an orphan at age 11, and he was her favorite uncle, according to a biography of Lane on the White House website.
The administration of Buchanan’s predecessor, Democrat Franklin Pierce, was marked by sadness. Pierce took office shortly after his 11-year-old son was killed in a train wreck. His wife, Jane, avoided social functions for much of her first two years as first lady.
When Buchanan arrived on the scene with his niece, “the capital eagerly welcomed its new ‘Democratic Queen’ in 1857. Harriet Lane filled the White House with gaiety and flowers, and guided its social life with enthusiasm and discretion, winning national popularity,” her biography said.
Anita McBride, director of American University’s first ladies’ program, said Graham’s comment shows he understands the importance of first ladies.
No one is closer to the president than his wife, who is an important sounding board during his tenure, McBride said. First ladies often stand in for the president, and they use the platform that comes with their position for the good of the country. Laura Bush promoted literacy, which fit with her husband’s education agenda. First ladies receive no salary.
Mrs. Bush made 26 trips to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, McBride said, adding that no president could have visited that often because of job demands.
“You cannot imagine that position (of first lady) not being there to help the president do what he wants to do,” said McBride, who was Laura Bush’s chief of staff.
Wilson, a Democrat who served two terms from 1913-1921, was without a wife for a brief period. His wife, Ellen Louise Axson, died in 1914. The following year, he met and married Edith Bolling Galt. As a widowed president, Wilson asked his daughters to serve as White House hostesses, Watson said.
The daughter-in-law of President John Tyler, a member of the Whigs, assumed hostess duties for his ill wife, Letitia. She was the first president’s wife to die in the White House.
Should former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton win the presidential election next year, daughter Chelsea could be called upon to do the kinds of things her mother once did. It likely would be an unnatural fit for her dad, former President Bill Clinton, to oversee the East Wing of the White House, where the first lady is based and social functions are planned, after heading up the powerhouse West Wing.