Friday, November 25, 2022

"The First Lady" and Marijuana

The remarkable Showtime series "The First Lady," interweaving the stories of Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Ford, and Michelle Obama, illuminates how First Ladies have been able to advance progressive causes in the US, rocking the establishment boat and sometimes causing backlash. 

Marijuana is mentioned twice in the 10-part series.


Flashing back to 1975 in the series, Republican operatives Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney are depicted saying Betty Ford (Michelle Pfeiffer) needed to stop talking about progressive issues like abortion rights and marijuana, after she gave a candid 60 Minutes interview shortly after becoming First Lady. Asked by Morley Safer what she thought about her children possibly using marijuana, Betty replied, "I think if I were their age I probably would have been interested to see the effect." She compared the use of marijuana at the time to her generation's consumption of beer. 

Ford's poll numbers soared, helping to heal the nation from the lack of trust in the Nixon administration, but there was also backlash from more conservative groups. Two weeks later, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. Her candor and frankness about her condition won her the support of women everywhere. 

Ford also campaigned for the Equal Rights Amendment, staging phone banking from the White House. "The president needs to get his plucky wife and her dirty hippie phone telethon under control," says Rumsfeld in the series. A 1977 Women's Convention in Houston was attended by Ford, Rosalyn Carter and Coretta Scott King, but Phyllis Schlafly's counter convention held sway, as depicted in the 2020 series Mrs. America.

Depicted in the series is Jill Ruckelshaus, the Republican feminist activist who was instrumental in planning the women's convention, as well as holding womens' or civil rights positions in the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations. Nancy Howe, Ford's friend and assistant who helps her stand up to those who would sideline her, is played in the series by Judy Greer. Howe's husband committed suicide in 1975 while being investigated for accepting gifts from a South Korean businessman. A chilling scene in the series with Ford and Rumsfeld at Howe's funeral makes one wonder how far the Rumsfeld/Cheney gang would go to seize and keep power.  

The rise of Ronald Reagan and the conservative right is shown as eroding support for Gerald Ford's presidency, which he lost to pro-marijuana-legalization Jimmy Carter in 1976, in part because voters objected to Ford's pardoning of Nixon. After Reagan won the presidency in 1980, we got "Just Say No" Nancy as our First Lady. And Betty ended up in rehab for her addiction to alcohol and pain medications, starting The Betty Ford Center to help others with similar addictions. 


Flashing forward in the series to 2010 after the disastrous midterm elections in which the radical right wing backlash to a black president resulted in the loss of 63 Democratic Congressional seats, Michelle asks Barack how she can help. "Have you got a time machine?" he asks her. "Because I wanna go back to being a teenager, lying on a Honolulu beach. No job, right? Doobie in hand. Two hours. That would fix me." 

"I got ya," Viola Davis as Michelle responds, opening the drawer of the nightstand next to their bed. "Really?" he asks. But instead of pulling out a joint, she's just looking for her phone. 

Barack Obama was the first successful presidential candidate to admit he inhaled ("That was the point," he said). But whether or not this exchange happened in the White House between Barack and Michelle probably falls under the disclaimer shown at the beginning of each The First Lady episode: "While this series is based on actual events, dramatic license was taken with certain scenes, dialogue and characters."

Obama was named Tokin' Woman of the Year in 2018 after she released her memoir Becoming containing a passage about her high school days when she and a boyfriend named David “fooled around and smoked pot in his car.” Asked by Robin Roberts of ABC's 20/20 why she didn't leave out the marijuana mention, Obama replied, "That was what I did. It's part of the 'Becoming' story....Why would I hide that from the next generation?" While President Obama's approval rating averaged around 40%, Michelle's was more like 66%.


Eleanor Roosevelt (played by Gillian Anderson) redefined the role of First Lady as a champion of civil and women's rights, but as to marijuana, she lived in different times. 

Her uncle Theodore Roosevelt, who gave her away at her wedding (as depicted in the series), convened an international conference in 1909 in Shanghai to help China eradicate the problem of opium addiction among its inhabitants (brought about by the British in the Opium Wars where they forced opium on the populace to balance the trade in tea). Attempting to impress the Chinese and embarrassed by its lack of an anti-opium law, the US Congress quickly criminalized it (except for medical use), leading to the 1914 Harrison Act which made criminals of US drug users and sellers. 

When Eleanor's husband Franklin Roosevelt took office, he inherited Federal Bureau of Narcotics Chief Harry Anslinger from the Hoover Administration. Anslinger would go on to serve every president through Kennedy, as no one was willing to challenge his campaign against drugs, which in the 30s targeted marijuana with a "Reefer Madness" campaign. FDR signed the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act, effectively enacting a federal prohibition on marijuana. 

In her column "My Day" from June 22, 1951, Eleanor wrote:

I am sure that many people feel as I do that the marijuana weed everywhere should be destroyed. If a quantity of this weed is needed for medicinal purposes, then it should be grown under strict control and supervision. It should certainly not be available to our young people.

Apparently she swallowed Anslinger's propaganda, although she does make an exception for medical use and expresses concerns about the young, two things that remain at the forefront of the marijuana policy debate. Eleanor's comments were possibly made in support of the Boggs Act of 1951, which amended the Narcotic Drugs Import and Export Act to set mandatory sentences for drug convictions. A first offense conviction for marijuana possession carried a minimum sentence of 2 to 10 years and a fine of up to $20,000. It should be noted, however, that Eleanor only called for destroying the "marijuana weed," not locking up its users. 

I can find no source for another quote attributed to Roosevelt: "A candle can bring light to dungeon but it can also be used to light a deadly marijuana cigarette." I think perhaps liberties were taken with this quote in the way that her of-repeated line, "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent" isn't quite what she said. Another quote attributed to her is, "The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience." 

The series depicts FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who reportedly despised Roosevelt's liberalism and her civil rights stances, showing up in FDR's office with pictures of her and a purported lesbian lover (Associated Press reporter Lorena Hickok, who resigned her position with AP covering Roosevelt). One wonders what other effects Hoover's snooping had. 


In the end of the series, Roosevelt and Ford are shown accepting accolades, while Obama is back talking to school children and signing her book to a woman who was meant to be her college freshman roommate, until her mother objected. The election of Trump looms over the series, with Malia opening a Twitter account to declare, "Trump is evil" and Michelle backing her daughter up by speaking out against Trump. 

I found the acting and writing in the series excellent, though I was a little disoriented by the constant jumping around between the three First Ladies' stories and the timeline. It worked well in places where the stories built on each other, such as episodes showing the marriages of all three women, and a nice scene where one of the Obama daughters is listening to Marian Anderson and Michelle relates how First Lady Roosevelt championed her, as the series just depicted. 

Showrunner Cathy Schulman and director Susanne Bier announced earlier this year that they were exploring potential future installments of the series, featuring Jacqueline Kennedy, Hillary Clinton, Dolly Madison, Edith Wilson, Martha Washington, Rosalynn Carter or Melania Trump. But in August, Showtime announced it would not be producing a second season. 

Schulman re-teamed with The First Lady executive producer Viola Davis on this summer's blockbuster film The Woman King. To heck with First Ladies, let's go right for Kingships next. 

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