Secrets of Scandal: Everything's Coming Up Mellie

By Jess Brownell, Researcher Nov 15, 2013

In 1962, Jackie Kennedy made television (and White House) history when she led a documentary crew through the halls of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, welcoming the public into the home of America’s most powerful couple. Jackie’s televised White House tour was, at the time, the most-viewed documentary ever, and revealed her significant redecorating and restoration efforts, which have famously left a mark on the look of the White House to this very day.

Taking inspiration from Mrs. Kennedy’s landmark tour, this week’s episode puts the focus on the first lady as a television crew invades the White House, with Mellie as their host.

Although she fakes it well, our first lady isn’t quite as gracious about having to entertain her guests as Jackie appeared to be in 1962. As Mellie tells Cyrus, it’s bad enough that she has to spend her days redecorating or gardening, but now she has to pretend to enjoy all of it for the cameras.

But is being first lady really just about rugs and roses? What is her job exactly? For this episode, we looked into biographies of first ladies and spoke to former members of first ladies’ staffs to define a day in the life of the “Nation’s Hostess,” as she is sometimes called.

What we found is that, first of all, the role of first lady is undefined in the Constitution, and as such, there truly is no official job description. The role has evolved over time, with first ladies taking on more political platforms and getting more involved with the president’s agenda.

Most first ladies do take on one or two central issues. As far back as 1825, Louisa Adams took on women’s rights; Jackie Kennedy was, as mentioned, famous for her involvement with historic preservation and White House redecorating; Nancy Reagan launched the “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign; and Laura Bush championed reading.

Hillary Clinton, during her time in the White House, took her role as first lady to a new level by moving her office from the traditional spot in the East Wing over to the West Wing, to be closer to the action of the president’s work. Like Jackie Kennedy, Hillary focused her work on historic preservation, as well as on health care and foster care for older, unadopted children.

Besides championing important issues, what else happens in a typical day in the first lady’s office? Robert P. Watson, a professor of political science, breaks up the first lady’s day into three categories: social affairs, press relations, and policy issues.

That means an average day can involve hosting a tea for visiting dignitaries, planning a state dinner, directing renovations of a room within the White House, advising the president, delivering a statement before a few dozen TV reporters, or spending time in internal meetings on policy issues.  In other words, there is no typical day for the first lady.

And for Mellie, her day with the television crew is similarly atypical. That’s because, for once, Fitz shows up. And he doesn’t just show up in person, he shows up and defends Mellie in the face of criticism of her handling of their “marital dirty laundry.”

Is this a new leaf for Fitz and Mellie? Will their temporary truce prove permanent or will it be right back to their old, bitter standoff? Tune in next week to find out!