Wednesday, January 29, 2014



Following the recent soap opera at the Elysée Palace in Paris, I dug from the Internet an article titled First Ladies: A Vanishing Species, which I wrote in 2007. At that time, I was hinting that president’s partners were using their first lady function as a launching pad for more prestigious pursuits.  The article needs only marginal updating.

Act one: During two weeks in January 2014, the world was entertained by revelations of the sexual escapades of the French president, François Hollande, and the fate of the cuckooed first lady, Valerie Trieweiler, the president‘s concubine.

Act two: In the ancien regime during the French monarchy, unwanted wives were repudiated and the lucky ones dispatched to a convent. This philandering president just followed the royal tradition and discarded his de facto first lady. Exit the first lady function. According to a recent poll, 54 percent of the French people appreciate the resulting budget savings. The president will remain, so he claims, celibate in the Elysée Palace.

Act three: Ms. Trierweiler seems to have nicely negotiated her departure from the president’s life. After her 17 month stint as the Elysée first dominatrix, Ms. Trieweiler certainly pocketed a first lady severance package. If Hollande had been president of Brazil, he would not have escaped so lightly and would have paid even more. In Brazil, when you dump your significant other, the price is steep. Recently enacted legislation provides the dumped one 50 percent of the joint asset as long as she or he can prove a stable relationship for over six months. When Dilma, the president of Brazil, was spotted cruising in Brasilia on the back of motorbike, she claimed that she needed fresh air. She will seek a second term at the end of this year. She may not afford a boyfriend!

Act four: Valerie is reincarnating herself as Mother Theresa in India.  Is she proving me right? Is the fiery tempered Rottweiler in the dog house?

Well, many first ladies did not make the leap. Cecilia ex-Sarkozy lives in New York City with her former lover and new husband.

Cristina is a widow and in her second term as president of Argentina. Her government has grossly mismanaged the economy. Inflation is reported at 26 percent and the currency continues to slide downwards; its black market value is twice the official bank rate.

There is a new president in Kenya, and Lucy Kibaki is no longer first lady.

Laura Bush is a housewife in Texas.

As far as Hillary Clinton is concerned, will she run in 2016? She keeps silent but charges $ 200,000 per speech.




It is about time, too! 

What do Cecilia Sarkozy of France and Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner of Argentina have in common? Both stylish women wear Prada!  Both are also former first ladies who discarded their first lady title for other pursuits. Cristina will certainly be elected president of the republic of Argentina to succeed her husband.  After a decade spent in grooming Nicolas for the top job, enigmatic Cecilia divorced him to go into private life. 

The first lady is an American invention. Legend has it that the first “first lady” was James Madison’s wife Dolley. Actually, when living in the White House, she was unaware of the privilege; the prestigious title was posthumously bestowed on her in 1849 when resting in her coffin.  Nowadays, the wife of a male head of state, whether dictator or democratically elected qualifies as a first lady.  In all the countries which are nominal republics, first ladies are sitting on top of the prestige heap.  American first ladies are still a breed apart. Only in America has the position retained its ceremonial and full regalia as well as its somewhat obsolete sense of purpose.  

With a few exceptions, 19 and 20th centuries American first ladies have been outstanding women in their own rights.  Many wives were unenthusiastic first ladies, resenting public exposure as well as their loss of freedom. They nonetheless established strong role models for American women.  First lady Jackie Kennedy even attained iconic status worldwide.  The president and his wife commonly worked as a team, with a caveat: the first lady is an unpaid position.  Lady Bird Johnson expressed her view on this matter: “The first lady is, and always has been, an unpaid public servant elected by one person her husband”.   

Subsequently, the freshly elected Bill Clinton famously announced that the American people got two for the price of one! A dutiful first lady is someone exclusively dedicated to promote the fame and grandeur of her husband the president.  To meet their goals, first ladies commonly conscript the other dwellers of the presidential palace such as first daughter, first cat, or first dog.   

It is worth pointing out that many US presidents owe their position to the relentless campaigning of their wives.  These women achieved first lady status by propping hubby to the top job! The first lady is de facto an elected official!  One usually acknowledges that there is always a strong woman behind a powerful man; this saying rings particularly true for American presidential couples. Florence Harding made this point very plain: “I know what’s best for the president. I put him in the White house. He does well when he listens to me and poorly when he doesn’t.”  She was more outspoken than most.  The current campaigning for the US presidential primaries shows that there are many potential svengalis among the candidates wives, most of whom had high-powered jobs before giving them up to boost up their husband’s presidential bid. 

In the rest of the world, first ladies carry less visibility and prestige; they go quietly about their business.  Some have careers; others are home buddies; others stay in the shadow of their husbands.  A trade unionist by marriage, Marisa Leticia the first lady of Brazil is just happy to log miles on AeroLula the presidential jet.  She does not get her script from “Desperate Housewives”!  If loose cannons are the exception they have nonetheless made headlines.  Danielle Mitterrand of France was a noteworthy example.  She pushed her independence to the limit by publicly endorsing political causes contrary to her husband’s policies. Lucy Kibaki, the official wife of the current president of Kenya is the poster girl for dysfunctional first families.  She commonly berates diplomats, slaps the face of journalists, and consistently bullies her husband. 

If Jackie Kennedy attained iconic status, Eva Peron of Argentina reached divine standing! Part Cinderella, part Cruella, her political legacy remains controversial at best.  She became the spiritual leader of the Peronist movement, the Mother Teresa of politics.  Her bid for vice president was nonetheless thwarted.  Several factors came into play, including the dithering of her envious husband, and the misogynous mindset of the military brass.  Her early death at 33 left her followers with an unfathomable grief.  Her funeral was a state affair, and her coffin was kissed by half a million people.  She became a saint and a legend.  

Some 50 years later, the funeral of the “People’s Princess” produced a comparable emotional outpouring.   During her short life, Princess Diana another popular cultural icon, indulged in a celebrity cult.  Gossip has it that she fantasized about becoming an American first lady and to go about redecorating the White House.  She planned to achieve this status by marrying an American billionaire who would subsequently buy his way into the White House!  It is the Jackie Kennedy Onassis saga in reverse! 

Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner strongly rejects the Evita parallel.  She does admit to a certain resemblance with the career path of Hillary Rodham Clinton.  Anointed by her husband, Cristina will succeed where Evita failed.  Hillary Clinton’s presidential quest is far thornier and success is still very uncertain. 

Is the first lady sinecure losing its appeal?  Not really, the function is evolving.  Laura Bush claims “The role of first lady is whatever the first lady wants it to be.” Therefore ambitious first women increasingly regard the job as a launching pad for more hands-on and executive duties.  In this Eleanor Roosevelt showed the way.  President Truman called her the first lady of the world.  After the death of her husband she increased her civil rights advocacy and became a U.S. delegate at the recently created United Nations. She is known to have given some 350 press conferences!   

Many first ladies are more popular that their husband.  Laura Bush who has been enjoying an approval rating twice as high as that of George should join the Republican candidate’s fray. This is a nightmarish proposal, America deserves better than George as first gentleman! To watch George adoringly gaze at Laura will be unbearable.  

B. L., October 26, 2007.  

Sunday, January 19, 2014

New Year’s Eve Toast: Take Two in Riga


On New Year’s Eve in Riga, the capital of Latvia, my friends and I went to a renowned restaurant in the old town. The seven-course Réveillon dinner attracted revelers from many nationalities, with the largest group from neighboring Russia. The band was playing oldies and the waiters were busy refilling our champagne glasses, when at 11 pm all the Russian patrons boisterously stood up. After kissing and hugging one after another came over to us for a toast. Sensing my surprise, a young blond woman pointed to the time on her Rolex gold watch: 12 am. It was midnight in Moscow! We kissed (the Russians no longer kiss strangers on the mouth like the Soviets did) and hugged. Then everyone sat down and resumed dinner and conversation. At midnight Riga time, we all got up again for a second toast, just as jolly as the previous one.

At dinner, we were treated to French champagne, but the previous night at the opera we tasted the Latvian variety, Ŝampanietis Rīgas, or champagne Riga. If the wine is imported from France, Spain or Italy, the bubbles are Latvian. The result is a light sparkling wine of decent taste. I am sure that the prickly French will soon object to the fact that the Latvian call the stuff champagne!

Over the Christmas and New Year holidays, Riga was brimming with tourists, mainly from Russia. This Baltic nation, and Riga in particular has always attracted Russian interest. At the beginning of the 18th century, Peter the Great snatched Riga from the kingdom of Sweden. He even contemplated moving his capital to Riga. His second wife, the future Empress Catherine I, was possibly Latvian. During the Russian occupation thanks to its port and industrial activities, Riga was the third largest city of the Empire and was never a backwater place. Very much to the contrary, the Russians regarded Riga as their cultural playground, both by aristocrats during the Czars period or retired armed forces personnel during the Soviet regime. According to an American friend of mine who was studying in Moscow in the 1960s and travelled to Riga, the city “was a whiff of Europe in the grey lands of the USSR”.


Russian immigration was encouraged during the Soviet occupation which in turn dispatched train loads of Latvian citizens to Siberian gulags. Now about 30% of Latvia’s two million inhabitants are ethnic Russians. The Baltic States were independent between WW I and WW II and they became independent again in 1991. Since the mid-2000, Latvia has once again become one of the most popular destinations for Russian tourists principally during the Christmas New Year period.

Riga has been designated 2014 European Capital of Culture (jointly with Umeå in Sweden). A tourist windfall is expected during the celebrations. January 17 has been earmarked as the official kick off. Tourists will discover the city’s well preserved historic center and its rich collection of Art Nouveau buildings which illustrates its pre-Soviet bourgeois past.


Classical music is also high on the city’s agenda. Performances of Rienzi, Wagner’s first opera will start the musical festivities. In 1837, when Wagner was working in Riga, he began composing Rienzi but had no time to finish it. In three years he had accumulated huge debts and as no one wanted to bail him out, he decided to flee Latvia to avoid prison. During his entire life, Wagner lived beyond his means and was always on the move running away from either his creditors or his mistresses’ irate husbands or both.

On January first we lived an historic moment: Latvia switched to the euro to become the 18th member of the much maligned currency club. At the stroke of midnight we could use euros and were given the first shiny coins featuring the Latvian maiden and the Latvian’s coat of arms. At first, the local population was not keen on the euro fearing price increases. The switch apparently went well and now the Latvians are warming up to the euro. A new prime minister has been elected, a lady who will have to make sure that Eastern European “financial tourists” don’t flush too much dirty money into Riga’s banks, otherwise Latvia risks becoming the Cyprus of the Baltic.

                    latvian euros

Riga is branding itself as the stag party capital of northern Europe, possibly as a way to separate themselves from Eastern European tourism. Hordes of British men lured by cheap booze and friendly party girls visit the city, courtesy of low cost airlines. This is not lost on the zealous Russian mafia, which is welcoming them with its dedicated staff of blond beauties. Many stag party goers get caught in the girls’ nets and return home with an empty bank account.

The three Baltic States, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, are always lumped together by the ignorant rest of the world. They couldn’t be more distinct, culturally, linguistically and religiously. The Baltic Sea and the three-century long Russian and Soviet occupation are their only shared links. According to cognoscenti, Latvia is the most Baltic of the three countries, Estonia and Finland were separated at birth and Lithuania is Poland’s baby sister.

In 2010, I visited Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania which is smaller than Riga, less touristy, slightly provincial but with a more picturesque historic center. Riga’s so-call medieval old town is a bit of a letdown; however the Art Nouveau district compensates for the disappointment. I have read many positive comments about Tallinn, the capital of tiny Estonia; coincidentally stag parties are not yet the rage in this city. A 2015 New Year toast in Tallinn looks like a worthwhile option to consider.