Spouse Rules

It’s gotten catty out there. Jeri Thompson is a trophy wife, as is Cindy McCain. Michelle Obama is too offhand and irreverent when speaking of her husband, and Judith Giuliani is a puppy-stapling princess. Even Hillary Clinton was a focus, for wearing an outfit that suggested, however faintly, that underneath her clothing she may be naked, and have breasts.

Why these stories? Because it’s August and no one wants to think. Because the campaign is too long and reporters have to write about something. Because cable news has an insatiable need for guests, and if you write a story cable producers can easily find tape for, you get to go on Olbermann or O’Reilly and seem to publicize your paper, which will please your bosses, with the added benefit of giving you personal face time, which essentially asserts, in the world of high-level politics, that you exist.

None of these stories have come from blogs but from Pulitzer Prize winners at major newspapers and veteran journalists at magazines. For all their harrumphing about the crucial role they play in democracy (and it is crucial) and the seriousness of their professional intent (and it is sometimes serious), the mainstream media is full of the cattiest human beings in history with the exception of the vast political consulting/advising class of Washington, i.e., the gargoyles with BlackBerrys in the back of the SUV, whose job is not only to help their guy but hurt the other guy. Their email gossip reminds me of Johnny in the movie “Airplane!” When the frantic wife of a pilot rushes into the control tower, Johnny solicitously removes her coat and then reveals his actual interests: “Where did you get that dress?”

However. It is also true the press is paying attention to prospective first ladies because in an age in which presidents are always in your face, first ladies are often in your face. It actually matters if people like them, and it can hurt, on the margins, if they don’t. And these days wins are marginal.

The challenge for the spouses of modern candidates is that what is expected of women in general has changed. This is reflected in the first lady’s role, and the role of the candidate’s spouse.

Mamie Eisenhower was a housewife, Bess Truman so ordinary that she didn’t want to live in Washington preferring the more normal humans of Missouri. Lady Bird Johnson lived for Lyndon. Eleanor Roosevelt was the exception, a groundbreaker. But Jackie Kennedy shivered at the thought of being compared to Mrs. Roosevelt, and said Jack doesn’t want to talk politics when he comes home.

First ladies were once more or less average, and were expected to be. Now they are accomplished, worldly, and expected to be. Candidates for the first lady’s job have to find a balance. It’s delicate. Strong is good, aggressive not. A person who cares, yes; a person who pushes an agenda, no.

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Some old rules apply as the transition from old style to new style continues.

  • Lady Bird and Laura in 1997Americans would prefer a first lady who doesn’t seem like she ever hungered for it. They don’t want someone who needs the job, they want someone who puts up with it with grace. This gets us to Laura Bush, who seems from the beginning to have had no particular desire for the White House. She always telegraphs that she’d have been happy staying home, smoking cigarettes, and admiring her family. First lady is an elevated title. We’d rather elevate someone who’s making a sacrifice, not someone who’s grabbing a rung.
  • Detached good nature goes far. From the beginning of her public life, Mrs. Bush has operated as if she had an invisible shield around her, her own invisible popemobile with thick plastic windows that kept her from getting the gunk on her. She never let it touch her. “Your husband is the savior of mankind”—she’d smile pleasantly and not let it touch her. “Your husband is the spawn of Satan”—she’d smile and not let it touch her. This took profound discipline, some wisdom, and perhaps a natural detachment. Mrs. Bush should be studied. She never attacked, rarely defended, and only carefully shared. Connected to this:
  • “They do not want your drama. They do not want your mess.” The presidency is a complicated job. Since we have to have presidents, we’d prefer they come with something like domestic peace. They don’t want unneeded temperament, high jinks, vanity or acting out. If you can’t be normal, imitate normal.
  • Just because it’s true doesn’t mean we have to know it. We do not want to hear all that much about your relationship. We actually do not want you making out in the pages of Harpers Bazaar. On so many issues the unspoken American attitude, and not only on the romantic aspects of your life but on most of the private life of their leaders is: Get a room. Put your grievances, vanity and temperament in it. Close the door.
  • We don’t want to think you’re a policy maven too deep in the game. We don’t want to think you’re leading the inside movement to get rid of the veep or the spokesman. At the same time we like to think, and assume, that you have views that you share. It’s your job. But we want you to know we elected him, not you, and that you know it. This of course was Mrs. Clinton’s problem: she thought it was also about her. She took on an extraconstitutional role in the White House. Ever since, she’s had to work to overcome the impression made in those days.
  • People respect you when it gets out that there are areas of your life that are off-limits. Pierre Salinger had to wait until Mrs. Kennedy was out of town on vacation to get the kids in a picture. Mrs. Bush has made it clear that her girls deserve a private life. The Clintons protected Chelsea. At the same time, never say “off-limits.” Forget those words. Just tell the press guy no, and in time everyone will get the message.
  • Redirect the spotlight. There is a famous TV journalist who, whenever she is photographed with her husband going to something swell, does not walk forward smiling in a beautiful dress. Instead she pauses and drapes an arm around him, subtly redirecting the cameras toward him. Redirecting the camera is a form of love. People like to see love, and respect it when they see it.

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Is Bill Clinton an exception? Of course. He’s always been an exception, that’s his history. He’ll never dodge the spotlight. If his wife is elected, he will speak at conferences and be ambassador to the world. Will he bring drama and mess? Yes. He brings drama wherever he goes because wherever he goes, there he is. Will he bring the particular drama everyone expects? He is officially and forever The Rogue. If Americans hire her as president they will do it knowing he is going to bring his Billness with him.