Sean O'Grady: First ladies are America's royals

Jackie Kennedy was the most regal, sometimes eclipsing the famous dynasty she married into

It has been said Betty Ford was the first First Lady to leave a larger mark on American life than her husband. Gerry Ford, as the New York Times put it, "served a mere 896 days, much of it spent trying to restore the dignity of the office of the president." After Watergate and Nixon, 1974 to 1977 was a "time to heal", the title Ford gave his memoirs. He largely succeeded, and, even against his wife's laudable works, it was no mean achievement.

Betty Ford was also into healing, best exemplified by the Betty Ford Clinic, later Center, a subtle nudge to the idea that the best way to deal with addiction is damage limitation and treatment rather than ridicule and punishment. Mrs Ford was a compassionate and progressive Republican of a kind almost extinct now. It is difficult to believe that a Republican First Lady could tell a TV interviewer, as she did in 1975, that the Supreme Court's decision to allow abortions was "the best thing in the world... a great, great decision."

A fringe of conservative Republicans called for Betty's "resignation". Well, she couldn't, short of divorcing President Ford. The First Ladyship is the nearest thing the Americans have to UK royalty – a post that is symbolic, a national representative at home and abroad, supported by the taxpayer, but with no salary or formal powers, just the chance to provoke thought and debate. Its occupants are unelected; there purely by chance. Jackie Kennedy was the most regal, sometimes eclipsing the famous dynasty she married into, just as Princess Diana did, and retaining fame and glamour long after the passing of her formal role.

But Jackie, like Diana, had no political influence, and not much private influence, over a philandering husband. The abiding legacies of the first ladies are scant: a century ago Nellie Taft organised the planting of the 3,000 Japanese cherry trees that still delight visitors to Washington; Lady "Bird" Johnson limited the size of billboards on freeways; Barbara Bush gave birth to George W. Mostly, echoing British royalty, it's all about charity; Michelle Obama's campaign to improve children's diets, ex-librarian Laura Bush's work on literacy, Rosalynn Carter's on mental illness, Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" to drugs, Pat Nixon's honouring of volunteers.

Few have been "powerful", even when given the chance. Mrs Carter sat in on cabinet meetings and policy discussions, but made no discernible impact on husband Jimmy's (lack of) success. Hillary Clinton's assignment to reform heathcare for Bill has only just, two presidents later, been completed.

Hillary now exercises executive office in her own right, and is a plausible candidate for the White House herself, the second First Lady to do so. Eleanor Roosevelt, distant cousin and widow of FDR, was approached by his successor, Harry Truman, to be vice- presidential running mate in 1948. She declined, but went on to be first US Ambassador the UN and head of the UN High Commission for Refugees.

So Hillary and Eleanor, both long-suffering victims of infidelity, acquired power after the White House. What of the two first ladies who were "secret presidents"? Even to her hostile biographer Kitty Kelley, Nancy Reagan's malign presence had only minor effects – encouraging Ronnie's already high susceptibility to astrology, say. Woodrow Wilson's second wife, Edith Bolling, acted as gatekeeper for him, but was no more able than him to ensure America took a positive international role after the First World War when public opinion was so hostile.

Said Betty Ford: "I am an ordinary woman who was called onstage at an extraordinary time. Through an accident of history, I had become interesting to people". Interesting, yes, like our royals; but not very important.