The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pantyhose

The press promised a lot when it came to Michelle Obama’s “reintroduction.” It failed to deliver.

She hates pantyhose! She loves her girls! She shops at Target…and pronounces it Tar-get, not Tar-jay! She loved Sex and the City! She eats bacon for breakfast (no halal food here, folks)! She’s not above talking with her mouth full…of granola!

As they’ve been reported yesterday and this morning in the mainstream (read: non-US Weekly) media, the details of Michelle Obama’s famed “reintroduction tour” (see Liz’s breakdown of those details here) have often been framed as Lofty Philosophical Questions About the Role of the Presidential Spouse: in this instance, to what extent is it fair to analyze the statements, beliefs, and overall character of that spouse? To what extent is—and should—a Life Partner be a Political Partner?

Last night, the Huffington Post ran a homepage-published story about Obama’s “reintroduction,” the story’s banner headline begging the Spousal Role question. The New York Times’s Alessandra Stanley, through the lens of Obama’s and Cindy McCain’s appearances on The View, gave us a breakdown of The Press Treatment of the Campaign-Trail Spouse Through History. We got blogged analysis of that tour here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here. On the cable news channels last night and this morning, we got the regurgitations of Michelle-O’s appearance on The View, segments’ guests—political strategists, historians, etc.—arguing about whether and how political spouses should exercise their membership in the Heard Wives Club.

The role of the political spouse is a fair subject of debate, to be sure, one that deserves discussion and dissection in the media. And those media, in this case, deserve some credit for couching a story whose main reportorial details involve pantyhose and cured pork products in terms of Profound Political Discourse. Conversations can always be elevated. So, you know, kudos.

But loftiness can’t exist on its own (pesky gravity!): news stories can truly be elevated only when the press provides enough substance to bolster them. And in this case, generally, it did not.

The “philosophical” questions about the Role of the Candidate’s Counterpart have been grounded, instead, in the triviality of the answers offered to them: we were promised Rhetorical Loft; we got instead microscopic analyses of fist-bumping and cat-fighting. We got a lot about Cindy McCain’s latest response to Michelle Obama’s months-old “for the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country” comment (the peg being that said comment was mentioned during the View appearance); we got the campaigns’ Official Responses to the she-said/she-said back-and-forth, with little further commentary. We got, in short, the same regurgitated, reiterated squabbles—spiced with assorted inanity (pantyhose? Really?)—that we’ve come to expect, though not accept, in our campaign coverage.

None of which is terribly surprising. The “reintroduction tour” coverage was a matter of M.O. in every sense. But that’s particularly unfortunate, in this case, because the questions whose discussion we were promised is a good one: What is the role of the presidential spouse these days, both on the campaign trail and in the White House? Will our First Ladies continue to populate the political ghetto of “women’s causes”—literacy (Laura Bush), children’s issues (Barbara Bush), mental health (Betty Ford)—or will they, as a rule rather than an exception, begin to take a more active role in their husbands’ administrations, à la Eleanor Roosevelt or Edith Wilson or Hillary Clinton?

Here’s the Times’s Stanley, assessing Obama’s view appearance this morning:

The amount of scrutiny the two spouses face is not commensurate—Mrs. Obama has endured far more virulent attacks by her critics—but it is somehow symmetrical. Mrs. Obama went on a popular television talk show to combat the notion that she is a little too authentic to be a first lady, while Mrs. McCain did it to undercut the image that she is too fake.

It is a familiar pattern. Democratic candidates’ wives—from Rosalynn Carter and Kitty Dukakis to Hillary Rodham Clinton and Teresa Heinz Kerry—are almost invariably characterized by opponents as too feisty and too outspoken, a little too radical for mainstream America. Betty Ford was an early exception to the Republican rule of bland, self-effacing homemakers; as the Equal Rights Amendment faded as a cause and conservatism made a comeback, Republican spouses became ever more careful to stay three steps behind their men and the times. And some have become so intent that they are accused of playacting.

All true—and it’s certainly worth considering why our expectations for Democratic and Republican wives are so wildly, ridiculously divergent. Yet part of the reason the current Michelle-O coverage has faltered is that “is the spouse fair game for coverage and criticism?” is, in general, the wrong question for us to be asking ourselves.

The logic of the argument Obama made on Good Morning America last week—which was, in essence, “lay off Michelle, everyone”—is flawed. Of course the spouse is fair game, for both political opponents and the press: Once you put yourself out on the campaign trail as both advocate and surrogate of your husband, you’re a public figure. In politics, as in most things, the benefit of advocacy comes at the cost of privacy. That’s obvious enough.

The real, and more interesting, question here is how, specifically, the spouse is fair game: How should we cover the candidate’s wife—as a political figure unto herself, or as an appendage to the campaign? Do we cover her (or, to be fair, him—but Bill Clinton is a statistical outlier in every sense) only as she relates to her husband, or, instead, as she relates directly to us? And if the answer is “both,” then where does the one stop and the other begin?

In light of those questions, coverage of Michelle Obama’s “reintroduction” becomes both more revealing and more frustrating. Yesterday’s flurry of media appearances is ostensibly about “softening” Obama—which is pretty much a euphemism for feminizing her, which is pretty much a euphemism for rendering her less problematic for the voting public and the press. (When’s the last time we heard about a male politician’s reputation in need of softening?) One general takeaway from Hillary Clinton’s campaign, after all, is that we still treat the Strong Woman, both in idea and in practice, as something of a paradox; see the Times piece on the “reintroduction tour,” which refers to Michelle-O’s nickname as “The Taskmaster” and notes that, “in her commanding cadences, some people—and not just conservatives—hear a lecture.”

That rash of appearances is about diffusing Obama as a singular political entity and focusing on her instead as a member of a family that just happens to be involved in politics. Relax, the Obama campaign is saying, through signing Michelle up for The View and putting hers and Barack’s just-quirky-enough, romantic-comedy-worthy love story on the cover of US (Celebrities: They’re Just Like Us, Only Better!) Weekly. Michelle’s just like you, only famous! She’s struggling, just like you, to balance her job—which just happens to be campaigning for her husband—and the needs of her family! She, too, is a Modern Woman! Or, as the presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin put it on an MSNBC appearance this morning, “She has a story to tell that I think will resonate with a number of people….That’s a story that’s a woman’s story.”

But it’s worth noting, as far as political strategy goes, that the rumors about and criticisms of Michelle Obama that the “reintroduction tour” is ostensibly meant to combat have focused not on her role as wife and mother, but on her patriotism (secretly hates America!) and her racial attitudes (“Whitey”!). Though the rumors have thus far been entirely unsubstantiated, they’ve been character-focused and relatively deep in their scope, as far as that goes.

Yet the Obama campaign’s strategy for repositioning Michelle in the public mind is not to slap a flag pin on her demurely Jackie-esque dress or to arrange photo ops of her hugging white people, preferably while sporting something from Ralph Lauren’s latest line; it’s been, rather, to render Michelle, the 5’11” Princeton-and-Harvard educated lawyer and business executive, as…girly. The Obama campaign is, in essence, fighting the charges of racism and lack of patriotism leveled against Michelle not on their head, but from their side: with feminism. Or, rather, with something related yet almost contradictory to that. Call it femininityism.

The Obama campaign is betting, on the one hand, that “softening” Michelle, for all that implies, will make her a more empathetic figure for the Legions of Ladies who had supported Clinton in the Democratic primaries and will likely be a key demographic in the general election. But it is also, apparently, assuming that such a feminized portrayal will render Michelle less problematic as a political figure in general, diffusing her famously strong opinions in the fog of femininity and suggesting that those opinions are tangential, not central, to who she is as a person. It’s assuming not only an inversely proportional relationship between being feminine and being threatening, but also that that relationship is a causal one. Even TNR’s excellent Michelle Cottle, analyzing Obama’s View appearance yesterday, subscribes to that logic (emphasis mine):

Watched Michelle O on “The View” this morning. I’m sure the crazies will be parsing her appearance for signs of black rage or hormonal imbalance that I failed to pick up on, but she certainly seemed to do a fine job: she said nothing newsworthy, played nice with Hasselback, graciously acknowledged Whoopie’s praise for helping dispel some of the more pernicious stereotypes of black women (but in no way advanced that line of discussion), and mentioned daughters Sasha and Malia every chance she got. Her black-and-white floral frock (sleeveless, of course) made her look pretty but not threatening, and she and Babs even had some girly discussion about the evils of pantyhose. What gal can’t relate to that?

Again: She said nothing newsworthy. She was pretty but not threatening. Thus, she did a fine job.

Indeed, what gal can’t relate to that?

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.