Michelle Obama vs. Rahm Emanuel: A History of First Ladies Feuding With Staffers

What Women Really Think
Jan. 10 2012 11:47 AM

Michelle Obama vs. Rahm Emanuel: A History of First Ladies Feuding With Staffers

Slide Show: Michelle Obama and Nine Other Fightin' First Ladies

In New York Times correspondent Jodi Kantor’s new book, The Obamas, one of the juiciest revelations is that Michelle did not get along with her husband’s most volatile former adviser, Rahm Emanuel. According to Kantor:

Michelle and Rahm Emanuel had almost no bond; their relationship was distant and awkward from the beginning. She had been skeptical of him when he was selected, and now he returned the favor.

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Kantor says that Emanuel entered the Obama White House already wary of first ladies. When he served as an adviser to Bill Clinton, his clashes with Hillary were so rancorous that Hillary reportedly tried to get him canned. Though Emanuel allegedly tried to avoid Michelle, he couldn’t avoid sparring with her. They fundamentally disagreed over how Barack should handle issues from immigration to health care reform, and according to Kantor, Barack sided with his wife. (For his part, Emanuel, who is no longer working at the White House, says that he is great friends with the Obamas—both of them).

We’ve heard much about the influence wielded by modern first ladies like Hillary Clinton and Nancy Reagan. But the spitfire first lady is not a new development: Martha Washington told people that her husband’s former secretary of state Thomas Jefferson was a "vile demagogue." Even more extreme was Elizabeth Monroe, who simply decided that, White House protocol be damned, she would not return any social calls because she didn’t feel like it. Though she was socially a washout on the party scene, according to Rating the First Ladies: The Women Who Influenced the Presidency by John B. Roberts, she may have been quite politically astute—there is some evidence that she had a hand in shaping the Monroe Doctrine.

Herewith, from Michelle to Martha, a slide show of first ladies and the staffers they scrapped with. Though Michelle has those famous biceps, the wife I’d be most frightened to step to is grandmotherly Barbara Bush. As Marjorie Williams once wrote in a great 1992 Vanity Fair profile, "Even Barbara Bush’s stepmother is afraid of her."

Thanks to L.V. Anderson and Katy Waldman for their research assistance.

Jessica Grose is a frequent Slate contributor and the author of the novel Sad Desk Salad. Follow her on Twitter.