Michelle Obama and Ann Romney: Humanizers-in-chief

September 5, 2012

The political gap between Democrats and Republicans is wide and deep, to the detriment of political accommodation in the United States. An idea to solve this: Dispense with Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, and let Michelle Obama and Ann Romney run instead. They, at least, agree on some things.

Both think they have been given an “extraordinary privilege.” Both claimed they started married life without much (Obama was the more credible on this); both said they were so much in love (with their husbands) they got married despite their circumstances; and both thought their husbands were men of extraordinary, fine character, and intelligence, dedication and warmth.

This remarkable bipartisanship is, however, the fruit not of a reflection on politics but the thinking of their husbands’ public relations teams on what best would help each in the race to the White House. Both women, who appear to possess intelligence and character, have been corralled ruthlessly into a role that insults those gifts: the political spouse.

Political spouses are – pardon the surrender to temptation – spice: They are there to spice up the campaign and, in both the present cases, to “humanize” men apparently seen as remote. This reading, now passed into unquestioned acceptance by the news media, is an absurdity. Both Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney are clearly, recognizably, all too human. Mrs. Romney’s husband is a figure – the hard-driving financier who makes huge sums for his company and for himself – now better known and understood than he has ever been. Mr. Obama is a clever, ambitious lawyer who preferred, at least initially, community work to corporate or private law practice – then went into politics. That most people aren’t either of these doesn’t mean we can’t relate to them. Most people aren’t doctors, farmers or astronauts, but we generally relate positively to them as human beings, without their wives telling us that they’re still in love with them.

The speeches were, as the Romneys like to say, “built” – but not just by them. They were built by the campaign’s public relations strategists engaged in the greatest challenge their craft still has in the contemporary world – convincing the people of the United States to elect their candidate as president of the United States.

Public relations surrounds every post of power in most parts of the world now, and not always for the worse. But for present or prospective first ladies, the daily production that is the public appearances of the president and contender for the presidency can only be a shock in the completeness of the control it exercises. The aspirant for high office cannot be ignorant of what awaits him – even if he may believe he can control more than he will. No matter how savvy the wife, however, her life, in most cases, is largely elsewhere.

Of the 12 U.S. presidencies since the war, one can detect three broad categories of first lady:

1. The not-so-public first lady: She who performs the duties of hostess only when entirely necessary. The retiring Bess Truman, reportedly a hater of the role, is the patroness of this group. Mamie Eisenhower, Pat Nixon, and Barbara and Laura Bush also fall into this category.

2. The semi-public first lady, including Jacqueline Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson, Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan and Michelle Obama.

3. The entirely public first lady: a category of one – Hillary Clinton.

Kennedy, whose husband was the first TV president, was also the first TV first lady – presenting her comely form and the redecorated White House to the nation through that medium. After her, from the late sixties on, the first ladies were enrolled more and more in overt political support, a duty shouldered even by shy women like Laura Bush. Mrs. Clinton had the hardest row to hoe in this regard – twice “standing by her man” (in the expression she hated), the second time to be humiliated by the brazenness of his public lying about his affair with Monica Lewinsky. It did not, however, destroy her and seems to have made her stronger: She is the brightest star in the present U.S. administration and remains a contender for the highest office.

The Europeans, often using the same spin doctors’ advice for their campaigns, are pulled toward American archetypes; and some, in a very minor key compared with the U.S., are of some help. But some have been disasters. Nicolas Sarkozy’s marriage to the singer and model Carla Bruni was the fusion of political and show business celebrity. It contributed to the impression he cared more about wealth and glamour than about France. Worse was the revenge Silvio Berlusconi’s wife, former actor Veronica Lario, wreaked on her unfaithful husband, publicly accusing him of having sex with minors – a charge still being played out in the Italian courts.

The three “best” consorts are or have been men: one, Joachim Sauer, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s husband, a professor of chemistry, who hates publicity as much as Bess Truman three-quarters of a century earlier, rarely appears with his wife and certainly gives her no cause for public disquiet. Tim Mathieson, husband of Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, is an estate agent who’s not much seen. More positively – indeed, a model for consorts – the late Denis Thatcher was his wife’s greatest fan, supporter and encourager but played no formal public role and slotted neatly (if unfairly) into the much-loved role of boozy old buffer. I once sat in front of him at a press conference his wife gave while running for re-election in 1983: At the hint of a challenge in any reporter’s question, he would audibly mutter “really!” or  “disgraceful!” The prime minister seemed to gain strength from it.

The rest of the world’s first partners take their cue from Germany’s first (invisible) man. Liu Yongqing and Zhang Peili, the wives, respectively, of Chinese President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, have their own careers and occasionally travel, often unsmilingly and always silently, with their husbands. Wen Jiabao is said to have been irritated by his wife’s use of her position to boost her jewelry business, but don’t look to have that discussed in the People’s Daily.

Lyudmila Putin has become less visible over the years. Her husband’s rumored affair with the spy and model Anna Chapman does get an airing in the Russian dissident press but has received no public comment from her. Gursharan Kaur has been married to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for over half a century. She is hardly known outside of her country and little in it. Dilma Rousseff, president of Brazil, is twice divorced.

No other political system in the world inflicts the U.S. order of humiliation on their political leader’s partner. No other culture supports a woman (usually) corralled into making of a marriage a piece of sugar candy. Marriages are an inevitable mixture of love and hate, exhilaration and revulsion, achievement and frustration, admiration and contempt. The first, or would-be first, lady’s speech must contain only the first element in these contrasting pairs.

Only in America. The position of first lady is unique, as is the hypocrisy it demands. Given Ann Romney’s humanizing intervention, Michelle Obama could hardly have stayed home. But wouldn’t they hate it? Shouldn’t they hate it?


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