If we are to believe the latest round of political wife coverage, Callista Gingrich is the new face of her husband's presidential campaign, and Maria Shriver is a former first lady lost in transition.
Neither of these story lines passes the straight-face test, but they fit the traditional narrative that casts such wives as either props or problems. Some habits die hard, no matter how many times Michelle Obama expresses an independent thought.
The question of the week hovers over Callista Bisek Gingrich, who, we are told, broke up Newt Gingrich's second marriage to become Wife No. 3. Is she (problem!) a reminder of her husband's philandering past, or is she (prop!) his new secret weapon that will propel him into the White House?
Let us put to rest, please, the notion of the husband-robbing harlot. Mrs. Gingrich III didn't break up Mr. Gingrich's second marriage. He did, and in an impeachable fashion, if he meant what he said about Bill Clinton at the time.
We really don't know what Mrs. Gingrich thinks of her husband's candidacy, or her role in it, because she isn't talking. This frees up everybody to speculate on the secret codes embedded in her appearance. There have been observations about her frozen smile, stiff hair and the string of pearls around her neck. Her old college chum, Tim Peter, is all over that one.
As he explained to the New York Times, "That's a role she has had to assume because that one morning you go out for the paper without your makeup on, that's the day you wind up on the front page."
Yikes. I'm married to a senator, Sherrod Brown, and I never wear so much as lip gloss to pick up the papers. Not once has this sacrilege landed me on the front page of anything. But then again, I know a lot of senators' wives — and congressional wives, too, who do the same thing. I suspect this stubborn strain of common sense also afflicts Mrs. Gingrich. I don't know what it's like to be described as perfectly coiffed, but I understand that it's an impossible standard and a cliche.
Which brings me to the new standard, as personified by women like Maria Shriver. Ms. Shriver and her husband, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, have separated. News articles depict Mr. Schwarzenegger as infused with a bright new brio, cutting movie deals and flitting about the globe. Ms. Shriver, on the other hand, is coming off as a female Eeyore, described as "adrift" and "somewhat at sea."
In less than two years she lost her mother, father and uncle, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. Now her marriage is unraveling, and she is trying to figure out what comes next — for her and her family. Drawing on her reporting impulses, she posted a YouTube video in March asking viewers to share tips on how they handled big transitions in their lives.
Politically speaking, she is way off script. Thank God. And I'm cheering her from the sidelines, just as she did for me four years ago.
In January 2007, I had just returned to my job at the Cleveland Plain Dealer as a newspaper columnist after a year's leave of absence during my husband's race.
That morning, the Plain Dealer ran an article noting that combining the roles of wife and columnist "could be complicated," but that I would be ever vigilant in avoiding conflicts. I appreciated the word "complicated," rather than "impossible." It reflected an editor's faith in me, and one I knew was not universally shared in my profession.
After I sat down at my desk in the newsroom, readers, mostly women, started calling to welcome me back. One of them was Maria Shriver.
We had met only once, and briefly, at a crowded event years before. She had no reason to remember me, but I certainly knew who she was. As a columnist married to an elected official, I was keenly aware that Ms. Shriver put her career on the back burner after her husband became governor.
She introduced herself over the phone, told me she had read the article and welcomed me back. Then she got to the point of her call.
"Please don't leave the profession," she said. "Don't let anyone tell you that you can't do this job."
We talked for about a half-hour, and in that time I got an inkling of what Ms. Shriver had sacrificed for love. She never once complained, but she talked at length about her days as a reporter, and why she missed them. And she made it clear that I should follow a different course.
There have been times since that call when I've felt the weight of responsibility, and the sting of unkind speculation about my marriage. At such moments, I pinch myself that I'm so lucky to have such problems, and think of that call from Ms. Shriver.
I'm not worried about Maria Shriver. She'll continue to write her own script as most of us women have come to expect.
That applause you hear is ours.
© 2011 New York Times