Between home improvement, health care, and money management, my family has hired a number of professionals over the years. Only twice have I met their spouses and never once did I ask, "How's your marriage?" References, quality of previous work and reputation matter...not how the contractor met his wife or whether he's the same man she married years ago. (The same holds true if the contractor's a woman.)
Similarly, there's no section on a job application that reads "Spouse Endorsement." Resumes never list a spouse as a reference. This would be a ridiculous idea in the private sector. Qualifications, skills and experience matter...not how happy the applicant's family is.
So why do the rules change in politics? We're hiring the candidate, not his family. (I use the male pronoun because men still make up the vast majority of candidates.)
We expect the candidate's wife to stump for him and sing his praises. (This in a country where a spouse can't be compelled to testify against her husband in court.) And it's not enough that she's his biggest cheerleader -- she has to look the part of the gorgeous helpmate with impeccable hair, makeup, and clothing.
For these reasons I typically approach the candidate's wife's speech at the two big nominating conventions with a healthy dose of skepticism. I choose not to watch them live because I don't want to get caught up in the moment or hear the commentary afterwards. I want to make up my own mind.
The morning after Ann Romney addressed the Republican National Convention, I watched her speech. She was radiant as she described the boy she met at a high school dance and returned to that image repeatedly. Though intended to be sweet, the theme was ineffective. If she wanted to tap into a universal truth, that wasn't it. Young love has its charms in fiction but if I'd stayed with "the boy I met at a high school dance" beyond our two month relationship, I would have been a teen mom and that child would be 35 today. (That's what happened to my best friend when he started dating her after we broke up.) Ann and Mitt's story is lovely, but very few young brides marry the governor's son, follow him to Harvard, and end up with millions. Her experience is alien to me, as I'm sure mine is to her.
To her credit Ann was poised, polished and effervescent in her belief in Mitt and her testimony to their love and marriage. I found some moments of kinship with her -- I too had rainy days alone with screaming children, and I also was diagnosed with cancer. But unlike Ann, I've never stood before a crowd of thousands and received praise and applause for handling those challenges. None of my friends who've faced those challenges has. We don't expect that reaction because that's just part of being a woman and a mother.
Ann's struggle with MS is no small thing, but she's able to seek treatment and support without worrying how the bills will be paid or if the costs will be covered by insurance. As a woman raised in a world of privilege, she could only evoke her grandfather's early life as a Welsh coalminer as her sole connection to personal poverty. It was a weak attempt that didn't win any points.
Like Ann Romney, Michelle Obama was poised and polished and genuine when she spoke last night at the Democratic National Convention. But unlike Ann, her theme of struggle -- as exemplified by the economic challenges faced by her family -- hit home for me. (My father worked three jobs and my mother couldn't afford a babysitter so she brought me to her part-time job at a thrift store. For this privilege she agreed not to be paid in cash but to accept a meager credit for clothing from the shop, all of which she spent on me.)
Michelle's description of her father coping with the pain of MS, never letting his disability prevent him from being the primary breadwinner, conveyed the simple pride of a man who refused to let his family down. She did this without a lot of bells and whistles and metaphors such as Ann's "storybook marriage," but it was powerful and memorable.
Ann Romney was picture perfect but few of us felt that we knew her any better. She touched upon the personal, but her reflections were guarded. In comparison, Michelle was intimate on a deeper level that often brought a tremor to her steady voice. Her compassion for the average American was specific; it resonated as heartfelt compared to Ann Romney's broader but emptier declaration, "I love you women!"
In the interest of full disclosure, I have been critical of Michelle Obama as First Lady. As a working mother who juggled family and career, she had the background and the understanding to make this a pet project during her time in the White House. I was disheartened to find that she was no more a champion of working women than Laura Bush was, and instead seemed to lose herself in pursuit of becoming an icon of style and fashion.
Yet in her speech to the DNC, I saw reasons why she shied away from being a policymaker like First Lady Hillary Clinton had tried to be, and stuck with a more traditional First Lady role. She expressed her fears that her daughters would suffer from living in the fishbowl of the White House. First and foremost, she told the audience, she saw her most important job as that of Mom-in Chief. And in that regard, she's accomplished all she's set out to do.
I can't fault her for wanting to protect her daughters more than she wanted to protect the working mothers of America as I'd hoped she'd do. But what I need to remember is that I'm not electing her to run things as I'd like. I'm electing her husband...or Mitt Romney...to fulfill that role.
The candidate's spouse is BOGO -- buy one, get one free. She's a fascinating figure caught in a limelight not of her own making, and we'll never be privy to the fact that there's a lot more frustration than fun in the role. But my interest only goes so far. I've always been more inspired by the women who make their own way in the world and tell their own stories instead of relating the stories of their more famous, powerful and influential spouses...or how they came to be associated with "the great man."
In the wake of Michelle Obama's speech last night, many are claiming that she's won Barack Obama the election. I have a problem with that. Is that an insinuation that to win the "women's vote," all you have to do is evoke an emotional reaction? I teared up at least once during Michelle's address, but I've been known to do the same over an overwrought Hallmark commercial. That doesn't mean I'm going straight out and buying the card.
If the candidate's spouse seals the deal with the American public, then we're being lazy and not doing our homework.
If you're going to choose someone to provide you with an essential service, you look at their skills, abilities, track record and experience. You research as much as you can about them and you make up your own mind based on your findings, not just their promotional materials. The spouse should have nothing to do with it. If you'd do this before choosing a plumber, electrician, or contractor, shouldn't you do the same when choosing a President?
- Related articles:
- A Look at Ann Romney - Does the Candidate's Wife Matter?
- Ann Romney Biography
- Michelle Obama Biography
- Michelle Obama - From Working Class Girl to First Lady
- Michelle Obama to Address 2008 DNC
- Michelle's 2008 Speech and Her 'Softer' Image
- Seeing vs. Reading Michelle's 2008 Speech