I almost became the first lady of Poland.

I almost became the first lady of Poland.

I almost became the first lady of Poland.

Events beyond our borders.
March 28 2010 9:29 AM

The Candidate's Wife

I almost became the first lady of Poland.

See our Magnum Photos gallery on politicians' wives.

Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski (R) shake hands with his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier next to his wife Ann Appelbaum. Click image to expand.
Anne Applebaum, her husband Radoslaw Sikorski (far right), and their children with German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier

The stylist looked over my clothes. "Yes, this is exactly the sort of thing I thought you would have in your wardrobe," he said, eyeing my modest collection of suits with barely disguised disdain. He picked up a blue jacket gingerly, as if the dye might rub off in his hands. "This is a very … difficult color," he said. He grimaced, and removed it to another chair.

That was it: My first, last, and only meeting with the sort of person who spends his days dressing celebrities. By the time it took place, it was already clear that my husband would not, in fact, be his party's candidate for the presidency of Poland. (He's called Radoslaw Sikorski, he's still the Polish foreign minister, and he conceded on Saturday.) This meant that I would not, in fact, be the candidate for the first lady of Poland.  Which was just as well, really:  I didn't like the pink jacket the stylist picked out for me, and I never wore it.

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Blissfully, it was a very short primary, only five weeks. But it was long enough to give me just the barest whiff of what genuine hell presidents' wives must endure in countries where elections last for years. It was also an interesting lesson in how wrongly we perceive the wife-of-the-candidate experience. Perhaps it sounds surprising, but listening attentively on the side of the stage while your husband speaks is probably the least difficult aspect of the whole thing: He talks, you smile, everyone cheers.  How hard is that?

Much harder is the business of actually talking yourself. I'd never done anything like it before: Nobody cares very much about the Polish foreign minister's wife, and rightly so. But as soon as my husband became a presidential candidate, the emotional chemistry abruptly changed.  Even in Poland, where the president is far less powerful than the prime minister, people have a deeper and more atavistic relationship with the person who is a serious contender to become head of state. They want their national leader— the tribal chief—to look like them, to live like them, to reflect their values. They want his wife to do all of that too—especially if she is, like me, a foreigner.  There is no neutral way to deal with this: If you say nothing you are "unhelpful," if you give no interviews (my initial instinct) it means you don't really speak Polish, or perhaps you have something to hide.

And when you talk, you are expected to talk about yourself. As it turned out, I wasn't very good at this. Ask me about, say, the energy policies of the European Union or the significance of the Ukrainian election and I can talk all day.  But ask me "why I fell in love with my husband" and I am utterly tongue-tied.  What is the correct answer? Isn't the truth—"I don't remember, really, it's all rather a blur" —too vague for breakfast television?

Somewhat too late, I worked out that it's not what you say that matters, it is how you say it: Complexity, like ambiguity, sounds bad on camera. Additional details—such as "at the time of our first meeting he was with his girlfriend, whom I rather liked"—tend to spoil the story.  I don't mean that you have to lie;  on the contrary, that would be fatal. But in order to sound "natural" you have to be very well prepared, perhaps with a brief but clever story about how you met. The Obamas have one involving ice cream. I was able to achieve this "naturalness" only with practice and heavy editing.

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It isn't enough just to say nice things, either: Michelle Obama has raised the bar further, and now political wives are expected to observe that the husband also has a few "faults," such as leaving wet towels on the floor. Not wanting to sound like a Stepford wife, Samantha Cameron, wife of British Conservative Party leader David Cameron, recently declared that she had to be "quite firm about him not fiddling with his phone and his BlackBerry too much." Ah yes, so he works too hard, does he?  I really admired that one.

Even harder than talking, however, is the whole business of the news cycle. Before the campaign, my husband was the most popular politician in the country. According to some polls, he still is. But after declaring himself a candidate for national office, a tsunami of negative emotion suddenly emerged from nowhere and washed over both us.  Upon declaring himself a presidential candidate, it suddenly became OK to invent the most ridiculous stories about him— and me—and to place them in the newspaper. They could not be contradicted because to do so would sound silly (He did not say that! I did so drive the car myself! That meeting with Dick Cheney never happened!)

As a result, mythological versions of history attained the status of "fact," and people on television talk shows argued about them with extraordinary passion.  As a journalist, I know what it is like to incur the self-righteous wrath of people who denounce you for things you didn't say or didn't mean. When you add TV, the car radio, and the morning newspapers to the permanent fury of the blogosphere, the echo chamber effect can be overwhelming.  I've seen this happen to people from the outside, but never from the inside. And I can promise that it is very unnerving—almost spooky—to watch an utterly unrecognizable version of someone you know rather well emerge into the public sphere. Of course I wouldn't vote for that Radek Sikorski , the one with the dubious citizenship and the fake diploma.  But then I'm not married to him either, because he doesn't exist.

I am absolutely not complaining about this, and I do not consider anything about the campaign unfair. Clearly, the qualities Poles admire in a secretary of state—foreign languages, diplomatic experience, even sense of humor—are emphatically not those desired in a head of state: So be it. But although one ought to have expected that rapid shift in perceptions, and one should have been prepared for those negative emotions, somehow one didn't and one wasn't.

And perhaps one never is.  Possibly for the first time ever, I find myself in solidarity with Hillary Clinton:  "If you don't like him, don't vote for him." Just don't tell meabout it, OK?

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