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.