When Michelle Obama took the stage at the Democratic convention earlier this week to play the role of Barack’s wife, her carefully crafted public persona came with her. It’s not just that Obama’s digs at Mitt Romney were subtle and functioned simultaneously as praise of her husband, allowing her to avoid being labeled Mrs. Grievance as she was in 2008. It’s also that, like virtually every successful first lady or wannabe first lady in recent decades, she has now perfected the narrative of a candidate’s wife who is reluctant, self-sacrificing, and humbled by her political experience.
Did she want to run back in 2008? She did not. (“I loved the life we had built for our girls,” Michelle told the crowd.) Did she go along out of loyalty, but was filled with misgivings? She did and she was. And does she now see why it was precisely the right call—not just for their daughters, but for the country—why “my husband, our president” is the only man for the job? You bet.
If this sounds like a familiar narrative, that’s because we just heard it last week about Ann Romney. She, too, is said to be reluctant and self-sacrificing, a private person who’s stepped forward in duty to her country to channel a natural warmth and charm on behalf of her husband. “I need to have you answer one thing,” Ann has said she told Mitt when he wanted to run again in 2012. “If you win the nomination and if you can beat Barack Obama, I need to know: Can you fix America? And he said, ‘Yes.’ And I said, ‘OK, let's go.’ ”
In fact, this narrative has become a sort of fool-proof formula for contemporary presidential candidate’s wives since Laura Bush perfected it in 2000. After the damaging image of a power-mad Hillary Clinton, spousal reluctance has become a requirement, a kind of necessary modesty. That it’s so pervasive, despite the nagging voices in the back of our heads telling us it’s all PR, says a lot about what we still believe, or want to believe, about the modern first lady—how much we expect of her, and how little.
If political operatives work hard to fit a specific candidate’s wife into a general mold, it’s the media that solidifies the story. Even before Laura Bush, first lady coverage had become like a Mad Libs exercise, with newspaper profiles and TV reports just filling in the blanks. Almost always, the would-be first lady is described in terms that are at once mystical, worshipful, and subtly condescending, a little in the tradition of cinema’s Magical Negro. When she travels with the campaign, for instance, she is said to have a soothing and calming influence on her husband, something aides marvel at and can’t quite articulate. She is said to be able to home in on her husband’s faults and compensate for them. On the stump, she is said to have an ability to be “real” that her husband lacks, and this realness lets her connect with voters. (Politico recently observed that both Barack and Mitt are “dependent on their wives to channel their feelings to voters.”)
Herewith, a breakdown of the formula for a successful first lady.
She humanizes, softens, and grounds.
The political wife is repeatedly described as a kind of human emery board, trotted out to smooth the candidate’s rough edges and make him more accessible to voters. During Bob Dole’s creaky 1996 run, the Austin-American Statesman called Elizabeth a “softening agent,” praising her charm and her accent (“like sorghum syrup on grits”). Tipper Gore was seen in the same terms—so much so that when the New York Times’ Frank Bruni found her “tense” in a 1999 interview about her depression, he seemed mystified. Tipper “is supposed to be earthy, unguarded effervescent,” serving “as the essential antidote to Al, the unlabored warmth to his unyielding chill.” Bruni wrote.
The first lady’s public persona, narrowly delineated as it is, can be a straitjacket: she is forever serving others; she can never be in a bad mood. (Or, as the Washington Times wrote of Laura Bush in an implausible bit of hagiography from 2004, “She’s never in a bad mood.”)
In 2008, John McCain was said to benefit from Cindy’s “calming presence on the road.” Similarly, Ann Romney’s job in the months before this election is to attest to how “loose and funny and spontaneous” her husband is, while at the same time acting as a “Mitt Stabilizer,” soothing him whenever he gets too “energetic.” CNN described this soothing power of Ann’s as a mysterious and magical talent: “When asked her secret, she couldn't really explain it.” Still …
She hates politics!
There are a few reasons for wannabe first ladies to avoid saying anything that suggests personal ambition. There’s the lesson of Hillary you’ll-get-no-cookies-from-me Clinton in 1992. In vastly different ways, both she and Nancy Reagan were seen as power-hungry when their husbands first entered office, and both had to remake themselves. Americans still seem to prefer their first ladies, no matter how professionally accomplished, as wives and mothers first (Michelle Obama’s self-proclaimed title: Mom-in-Chief). Also, it is far easier for the political spouse to connect with voters if she, too, evinces slight disdain and wonder at the political process. (The husbands say this, too, but no one believes them.) She must always stress how reluctant she is to campaign, and how “shaky” she gets doing a big speech, as Ann Romney recently confessed to Diane Sawyer.
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 …
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.