Anita McBride draws on her White House experiences and scholarship to co-author two books on America's First Ladies

The First Ladies of the United States present a fascinating group of talented and influential women. Nevertheless, with the exception of a few familiar figures like Dolley Madison, Eleanor Roosevelt and Michelle Obama, they have been largely overlooked in our country’s history.  Spring Valley resident Anita B. McBride, with her co-authors, aims to correct that with two new authoritative books on the subject. The two volumes present the fruits of scholarly historical research with the interests of their respective target audiences in mind — one as a college textbook, the other as a book for general readers.  
McBride champions inclusive history, which “includes these women and the partnership they have with the president.” She has an enviable vantage point from which to consider the role of First Lady, having served in three Presidential administrations, most recently with Laura Bush as her Chief of Staff.    
The first of McBride’s books, U.S. First Ladies: Making History and Leaving Legacies (Cognella 2023), co-authored with Diana B. Carlin and Nancy Kegan Smith, is a college-level textbook that is relevant to courses and programs in American history, American studies, women’s studies, political science, and media and communication studies. It is the first ever of its kind, and fills the need for a textbook on the subject. First Lady Jill Biden, herself an educator, wrote the foreward and gave an interview for the book. McBride’s hope is “for students and readers to have an open mind about these women and the responsibilities, opportunities, and challenges they faced.”
The book is organized thematically. Chapter titles include “Creating and Refining the Role: the First Three First Ladies” and “World War II Wives: Bridging the Generations and Moving the Model Forward.” In our technologically-savvy age of publishing, the contents can be tailored and customized for delivery to an academic institution’s needs. It has been classroom-tested here at American University and four other colleges. After reading the engrossing book, students ask, “Why did we not know about this before now?“  
The co-authors’ second book, Remember the First Ladies: The Legacies of America’s History Making Women (Cognella 2024), treats the subject in a more accessible way for a general readership. It spotlights themes associated with individual First Ladies — the activism of Eleanor Roosevelt on human rights, Lady Bird Johnson’s environmentalism, Betty Ford’s support for the Equal Rights Amendment, and the breakthroughs achieved by Michelle Obama, who was the first first lady to use social media and new technologies to champion her various causes including childhood obesity.
When asked about the potential challenge of writing with two other co-authors, McBride responds that “it was a great collaboration amongst the three of us. We each brought a different expertise to the table.” A plus was that they shared similar writing styles. Co-author and retired college professor Diana Carlin had taught First Lady classes, and co-author Nancy Smith led the Presidential Materials Division at the National Archives and fought for the inclusion of the First Lady papers as part of presidential records. In addition, Diana brought her experience with writing textbooks to the enterprise. Furthermore, the three had written an article for together in 2021 about First Ladies and Civil Rights.
American University’s Legacy of First Ladies Initiative 
The co-authors of these books are founding members of the First Ladies Association for Research and Education (FLARE), affiliated at American University’s School of Public Affairs. The team’s op-ed and the establishment of FLARE drew the attention of their future publisher, academic publishing house Cognella, resulting in the publisher's request to write the books.
McBride is Executive-in-Residence at the Center for Congressional Presidential Studies at AU’s School of Public Affairs, where she once was an undergraduate in their Washington Semester Program. She is the Director of American University’s Legacy of First Ladies Initiative (FLI) since it was launched in March 2011. The initiative partners with the National Archives Presidential Libraries and other academic and historical institutions, including the White House Historical Association, to host national conferences on First Ladies and their historical influence on American Politics, policy and diplomacy. Subsequent conferences have been held at several presidential libraries, and the National Archives co-hosted the 2016 FLI conference highlighting the First Ladies’ role as spouse of the Commander-in-Chief, and their support for America’s service members, veterans, and military families. In 2021 the Initiative co-hosted the First Ladies Symposium of scholars and experts with the White House Historical Association.
Anita McBride has a deep resume of engagement not only in the academic field, but also with high-level personal experience. Her position as Chief of Staff to Laura Bush during 2005-2009 took her to 67 countries and all 50 states with the First Lady. The overseas travels supported U.S. foreign policy objectives in human rights, women’s empowerment, global health and education, and human freedom. McBride says Laura Bush maintained her composure in all events—it was part of her resilience and grounding.
Anita's experiences in the White House prior to working directly with Laura Bush include conducting correspondence review in the Ronald Reagan administration and serving as Director of Personnel under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush. She also served as the Director of White House Management and Administration for George W. Bush and as the State Department's White House Liaison.
Mirrors of Their Times -- Pushing the Nation Forward
Anita observes that a number of First Ladies promoted important issues and managed to “push the nation forward.” In some cases, their actions have been obscured until now. Bess Truman resisted Congressional calls to tear down the existing White House when it had become structurally unsound and instead promoted its preservation. When segregation was still widespread, Mamie Eisenhower saw to it that the popular Easter Egg Roll held on the White House grounds was racially integrated.  
Nevertheless, the post of First Lady is still regarded by some as a merely a ceremonial and social position, although many of the First Ladies have made it much more than that. It is an unelected role, and not recognized in the United States Constitution; it owes its “soft power” ultimately to the political power of the sitting President. The incumbent draws no salary for her work. As McBride puts it, “there is no position description for First Ladies.” Yet some First Ladies (for example, Edith Wilson, who is said to have largely run the government during Woodrow Wilson’s period of incapacity, and Eleanor Roosevelt, the energetic social activist for the 12 years of FDR’s precedent-breaking four terms) became trailblazers in their own ways. Various First Ladies demonstrated great resourcefulness in influencing the political and social dialogue of their particular era, and in communicating their ideas. As the foreward to the textbook notes, “First ladies are said to be mirrors of their times, and also leaders.” 
Finally, in 1978 the White House Personnel Authorization Act for the first time formalized an office of the First Lady, and authorized a budget and staff members for it. This largely happened because of the advocacy of First Lady Rosalynn Carter who also became the first first lady to move her office into the East Wing of the White House.  
Anita McBride was asked if she especially admired an unsung First Lady from the earlier era. Her nominee was Sarah Polk, wife of President James Polk (1845-49) of Tennessee. Why? McBride explained, “As First Lady she helped her husband with his workload by editing speeches; scouring the papers; making notes for him. She used the White House, as she did her time as a Congressional spouse, to bring opposing sides together.… She found the balance between close confidante and political partner while remaining an ideal woman of her time.” McBride is quick to add, however, that the Polks had no children and Sarah was relieved of domestic duties because of enslaved servants. 
Anita's Journey: 
From Connecticut to the White House to the RAND African First Ladies Initiative 
Born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Anita attended the University of Connecticut at Storrs. Her serendipitous switch of majors from premed to international studies left her 12 credit hours short of graduation. At that point, enrolling in the American University Washington Semester offered the ideal solution for her. It provided a pivotal moment in her life, not only helping her to fulfill her remaining credits, but, even more importantly, to pursue her political science interest, opening up a whole Washington career to her.  
She was a Reagan-Bush campaign volunteer in 1980, and then a volunteer at the Republican National Committee. After a stint at the long-distance carrier MCI Communications, she joined the correspondence review unit of the White House for Reagan after serving as a volunteer in the 1984 campaign. She became Director of White House Personnel in the final year of the administration and was then asked to stay on through the transition, and the administration of George H. W. Bush. In the White House she also met her future husband Tim; he was then a personal aide to Mr. Bush as the Vice President and then as the President. On hearing the news of their 1992 engagement, Barbara Bush came to visit her and admired her engagement ring.
After George W. Bush was elected, Anita McBride returned to the White House to assist with the personnel transition, became an Assistant to President Bush for White House Management and worked with Colin Powell at the State Department. In 2004 she was asked by First Lady Laura Bush to be her Chief of Staff, and served there for the second term of George W. Bush’s administration.
Among other credits, McBride co-founded the RAND African First Ladies Initiative and Fellowship program, encouraging African First Ladies to become agents for change, and training their staff and advisors. She is also an advisor to the Laura W. Bush Women’s Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute and is working on a children’s book about first ladies with her daughter Giovanna (Gigi) for the White House Historical Association. Gigi, a graduate of Connelly School of the Holy Child and currently pursuing a degree in elementary education at Texas Christian University, previously published a children’s book Gigi at the White House about her experiences visiting the White House as a little girl. McBride's son Andrew, a graduate of Georgetown Preparatory School and Southern Methodist University with a dual degree in economics and arts management, has worked as a production assistant for HBO and Amazon Prime and lives in Los Angeles pursuing a career in the entertainment industry.  Her husband Tim has an extensive career in government relations and currently serves as Chairman and President of ST Engineering, North America, an engineering and technology company headquartered in Singapore.
Consulting on TV's Veep
Of celebrity note, she was one of several consultants (who were drawn from the two political parties) to HBO’s comedic, Emmy-award winning fictional series, Veep, starring Holton-Arms School graduate and Seinfeld alumna Julia Louis-Dreyfus. She comments that it was hilarious that the Jonah Ryan character “made sure you saw his blue pass at all times so you knew he worked in the West Wing. All of us who worked in the White House knew people like that."  Further, she said she shared some ideas for the Gary Walsh character – [VEEP and President] Selina’s personal aide – that she got from her husband, drawing on his own experience as a George Bush’s personal aide for six years.
Regarding television and film histories generally, she observed, “As with any entertainment, the story may not always be 100 per cent accurate. But it’s good entertainment and some of the programs do encourage people to pay more attention to historical figures and to First Ladies.”
The two books on the First Ladies that Spring Valley resident Anita McBride has co-authored come at a time when the study of history and our knowledge of civics are reported to be in decline, and we are badly in need of illuminating studies such as these. She has drawn on her scholarship and experience in this area to produce useful resources to help educate Americans.  
First Ladies: Trusted advisers, diplomats, legends in their own right
Many different themes in American political and social life run through the books. On slavery, two abolitionist voices among the early First Ladies emerge: Abigail Adams and Mary Todd Lincoln; a full 60 years passed between their times as First Ladies, and by then the nation was embroiled in a bitter Civil War. Modern First Ladies have championed a host of major causes: civil rights, environmentalism, historic preservation, women’s rights, breast cancer, mental health, the war on illegal drugs, literacy, health care, AIDS, health and wellness.
(bio of author to go at bottom of story)
Bob Heiss was born in Washington and has been a lifelong resident of the District. He received his BA with highest honors in history from Williams College and a law degree from Harvard Law School. He was a charter member of the senior executive service of the U.S. government and retired from the Environmental Protection Agency. Bob's wife, Arleen, is a management consultant. They have lived in Spring Valley for 30 years and have two children and one grandchild.