Why Are Presidential Candidates’ Wives All the Same?

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Sept. 7 2012 3:30 AM

Why Are Presidential Candidates’ Wives All the Same?

What do Laura Bush, Michelle Obama, and Ann Romney have in common? Apparently, everything.  

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The would-be first lady is self-sacrificing, and for years she has managed to somehow keep a household running with her husband off in Washington or wherever, and even though it’s nearly impossible, she doesn’t complain too much. The candidate’s job, in turn, is to give her all the credit for raising the kids and opening the mail, and occasionally to say (as Mitt did in his convention speech) that her job was even harder than his. (“She was heroic,” Mitt said of Ann. “Cindy will get her reward in heaven,” John McCain said in 2007.) Perhaps, like Michelle Obama, she complained a little, leaving Post-it reminders for him to pick his underwear up off the floor. But ultimately, she bravely goes along with his ambitious schemes.

Thus, Laura Bush, the “quiet librarian,” as she was inevitably described in news stories, was said by the New York Times to have wished for “long afternoons of reading” instead of national prominence. The 2000 election was thick with descriptions of reluctance and sacrifice, as one scholarly study documented—Cindy McCain was said to have an “allergy to Washington politics,” and The New Yorker wrote of Tipper Gore, “as the stakes rise in Gore's political career, so does the level of Tipper Gore's sacrifice.” As for Ann Romney, Yahoo! News recently ran a story headlined, “How Ann Romney learned to stop worrying and love politics.”

Almost inevitably in profiles of would-be first ladies, there’s a redemption narrative. The wife suffers some excruciatingly humiliating experience in the spotlight that makes her want to swear off politics altogether—think Michelle Obama’s tone-deaf finally-proud-of-my-country remark from the last campaign, or Ann Romney’s disastrous 1994 interview with the Boston Globe—but ultimately she agrees to let her husband run the big race because she knows it’s what’s right for America. Which is great for reporters, who can offer up a redemption tale about how the failed political wife became a “comeback kid”—returning to the stump, practicing her speech, pressing the flesh, and now …

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She’s become his secret weapon.”

This phrase is one of the most overused in descriptions of candidates’ wives. It is often (though not always) an exaggeration, juxtaposed with tales of how her baking Welsh cakes for reporters (Ann Romney), or appearing in a very special episode of iCarly (Michelle Obama), is just the charm offensive her husband needs. In fact, inflating the power of the wife in the political process tends to underscore how little power she actually has, how narrow the parameters for her permitted discourse really are. Which is why, after Michelle Obama’s impassioned, tearful convention address, political scientist Larry Sabato tweeted out a reminder: “Spouses please voters but don’t change votes.” And why, at the GOP convention, Ann Romney stuck to giving a speech about the grand policy debate of our time: “love.”

Still, it’s worth noting that candidates’ wives are permitted a measure of steeliness, within bounds. Anger and bitterness are absolutely verboten. Instead, they must aim for descriptions like …

She has a quiet toughness.

So long as the show of steel is on behalf of family or country, and tempered by ladylike reserve, a measure of fire tends to be praised by profile writers. Thus, Elizabeth Dole was said to be soft except when she was a “steel magnolia.” George magazine reflected that “Laura Bush may not have much to say on her own behalf, but when it comes to defending her husband ... she'll brave any crowd.” During George Sr.’s ’88 presidential race, Barbara Bush was described in almost identical language in a Los Angeles Times piece that called her “reserved” but fiercely loyal, “George Bush's most stalwart defender.”

This is a difficult tightrope to walk. Michelle Obama has flubbed it in the past, but got it just right in her convention speech. Ann Romney, newer to this, is still figuring out the balance. Romney’s defense of being a stay-at-home mom, tweeted in response to Hilary Rosen’s provocation, was well-received, cited as evidence of her capacity to “fight back like a pro.” But Ann’s more recent attempts at aggressiveness—saying, for instance, that it’s time for a “grown-up” in the Oval office—led Politico to observe that she is starting to seem “testy,” and that she’s engaging in “mudslinging.”

The key to Michelle Obama’s convention speech this week was that she showcased a permissible toughness, what Noreen Malone at the New Republic dubbed “muscular mom-ism.” Her strong arms extending from a soft Tracy Reese dress, she camouflaged her attacks on Romney by emphasizing that her greatest concern is the welfare of her daughters. Obama never directly mentioned her husband’s opponent; instead she implied a sharp contrast with his privileged upbringing by reminding voters of her husband’s humble beginnings. And she did it all because of her deep passion for her husband. It is, alas, a well-accepted rule of American politics that whatever the first lady does, she must do out of love.