Admittedly, the divorce was one step too far. But right up until the French first couple announced their permanent separation, I was rooting like mad for Cécelia Sarkozy. At last, a prominent wife of a prominent politician who did not pretend to be totally absorbed by her husband's career! During the few months she spent married to the French president, Mme. Sarkozy did not entertain, did not campaign, did not give interviews, did not show up for lunch with George W. Bush, did not even live at the Élysée Palace, the French equivalent of the White House. She certainly did not craft policies: "As far as nominations and decisions go, I keep the door of my office closed," she declared, post-divorce announcement, last week.
See no politics, hear no politics, and above all, speak no politics—and whatever else she was doing, she didn't keep the press informed, at least not on purpose. Yet her silence didn't prevent her husband's election, perhaps because most of her countrymen wholeheartedly approve. The vast majority of the French—89 percent, according to one poll—think that their president's marriage is none of their business.
Increasingly, much of the rest of the Western world feels the same way. The husband of Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, grants no interviews, makes no public appearances, and teaches chemistry at a Berlin university, just as he's always done. Though she had some unfortunate tangles with the press, Cherie Booth, otherwise known as Mrs. Tony Blair, went on practicing law while her husband was prime minister of Britain. And here I declare a personal interest: Though I am married to a Polish parliamentarian, I played no part whatsoever in his recent election campaign. Nor did anyone expect me to. In fact, whenever I do appear at Polish political events, people seem mildly surprised to see me—which is how it should be.
By contrast, Americans appear to care very deeply about their president's spouse and family. This is a quality we share with developing countries such as Argentina, which just elected its former first lady to the presidency, and it gets worse with every electoral cycle. Paying homage to the American public's interest in their husbands' personal affairs, five of our many would-be first ladies even appeared together last week for a "debate," which ex-journalist Maria Shriver, herself the wife of a prominent California politician, declared was a landmark event: "Never before in the history of our country," she said, "have the spouses … gathered together to talk about their lives." As if this were some sort of positive development.
The result? There was Michelle Obama, an impressive woman who has put her career on hold to attend events like this; Elizabeth Edwards, who gamely endures this sort of thing despite her cancer; and poor Jeri Thompson, who admitted to sheer terror ("I'm afraid of embarrassing Fred … you don't want to let everybody down"). Nothing of relevance was said, of course. How could it be?
None of these women wants to appear too opinionated, lest she be labeled Lady Macbeth. None wants to appear too fluffy, either, since that wouldn't reflect well on hubby. Above all, none wants to appear genuinely independent, since genuine independence isn't a quality that Americans, though they nowadays tolerate women in all kinds of roles, actually admire in first ladies. After all, even Hillary Clinton—whatever her educational qualifications, rhetorical gifts, or feminist politics—followed one of the oldest and most traditional female paths to power, obtaining her current political influence (and Senate seat) thanks to her role in her husband's presidency, not because she spent her eight years in the White House pursuing her legal career.
At least she survived; not everyone does. Strong but sweet, smart but silly, well-dressed but not too fashionable, family-oriented but civic-minded, busy but not too independent, and always on public display: No wonder so many first ladies and potential first ladies have wound up depressed or even addicted to alcohol or painkillers. It's a job that can't be done, and it's time to admit it.
Imagine, by contrast, how pleasingly low-key it would be to have an uninvolved Cécelia Sarkozy figure—minus the divorce and the love affairs—in the White House. Shunning television, eschewing fund raising, ignoring dull foreign dignitaries, she (or he) could slip off to a day job, unrecognized, and leave the politics to the politicians. Slate's Emily Bazelon has written that we shouldn't demand more from our first spouses—"we should demand less." Or maybe—even better—nothing at all.