Suddenly, Michelle Obama is everywhere: Hosting ABC’s “The View”; dissected on page one of the New York Times; occupying movie-star space on the cover of US Weekly magazine. And with a straight face, Barack Obama declares his wife “off limits” for political attacks? Then he coyly adds, “I will never consider making Cindy McCain a campaign issue.”
Never mind that the Democratic National Committee has already made an issue of Cindy McCain’s refusal to make her tax returns public, Obama knows full well that his wife is fair political game like any other of his surrogates. After all, he could fire Samantha Power, his foreign-policy adviser who called Hillary Clinton a “monster” – not so Michelle Obama.
The same is true of Cindy McCain, who also took on “The View’s” host duties and recently detoured off the campaign trail to Vietnam, visiting one of her charities in a not-so-subtle reminder of her husband’s war record. Both candidates’ wives – and it is still wives – will be scrutinized as if they were running for the top job themselves. That’s the way it has been since the beginning of the republic.
When Martha Washington arrived in the temporary capital of New York as the original first lady, she knew from experience that anything she said, did or wore could make headlines. A lover of fine silks, she had the public-relations sense to make her inaugural appearance in simple homespun, a precursor to Pat Nixon’s plain cloth coat.
Voters figured then, as they do now, that the woman sharing the president’s bed can exert great influence – something Abigail Adams took no pains to hide. Her Federalist ardor was so public that a member of the Republican opposition groused she was, “Mrs. President, not of the United States but of a faction.” And when, with Abigail off in Quincy, Mass., John Adams surprised and dismayed war hawks in his own party by appointing a peace commission to France, the consensus was that he never would have dared do it if “the old woman had been there.”
Anyone who thinks candidates’ wives were once spared the scathing attacks of political campaigns needs to read some history. When James Madison ran for president, his wife was judged “overly sexed” and said to have “unsexed” him because he had no children. The wildly partisan and unscrupulous newspapers accused Thomas Jefferson of “pimping” Dolley Madison and her sisters in exchange for votes in Congress. Talk about nasty!
But Dolley Madison was considered fair game because she was such a public woman, the person who brought men of both parties together to promote her husband’s political career. After Madison’s first presidential win, his opponent, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, concluded that he “was beaten by Mr. and Mrs. Madison. I might have had a better chance if I had faced Mr. Madison alone.”
That’s of course the reason why wives are subject to scrutiny – they can affect the outcome of a presidential election, though it’s hard to measure how much sway they actually hold. In an ABC News poll taken in December, 16 percent said they gave a “great amount” consideration to the spouses of the candidates, but that’s when Bill Clinton was still one of that number and before he had angered many Democrats during the primary season.
Still, in the very personal vote that Americans cast for president, a wife can help us as we seek to know more about the man. The fact that the affable and intelligent Laura liked George Bush meant some skeptical voters gave him the benefit of the doubt. It’s no accident that he started every speech in his first campaign making a self-deprecatory joke about Laura’s advice.
The spouse can help, and she can hurt, as both Hillary Clinton and Teresa Heinz Kerry learned the hard way, and Michelle Obama’s had a taste of it already in this campaign. Her remark about being proud of her country for the first time in her adult life created fodder for the attack machine, with the National Review running her picture on a cover entitled “Mrs. Grievance.”
But she has time to remake that image, which is why we’re seeing her everywhere. How voters relate to her – or to Cindy McCain – could make the difference in a close contest. What the wives do or say can change the course of history.
“Mrs. Madison saved the administration of her husband,” James G. Blaine wrote of Madison’s second election. “But for her DeWitt Clinton would have been chosen president in 1812.” And that was even without “The View.”
Steve Roberts’ latest book is “My Fathers’ Houses: Memoir of a Family” (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2008, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.