Thursday, February 22, 2018
Opinion

Spouses issue presidential seal of approval

Look across the breakfast table. There she is, and she's not happy. You just forgot your anniversary, after forgetting her birthday, and your mother-in-law thinks you're a dope. This is not good.

Now imagine you are a presidential candidate, and in just a few hours she is going to ascend to a stage. Before a national television audience, she is expected to tell everyone you are wonderful and wise and brilliant. This is really not good.

Oh, and you just noticed you've lost your wedding ring and have no good explanation why. You are about to have a very lousy day.

Odd, isn't it? The president of the United States has the wherewithal to obliterate the world, kill people with drones and influence the global economy. Yet the difference between sitting in the Oval Office and sitting in a rocking chair in the living room can largely be determined by whether his spouse can make him seem all warm and cuddly.

It is one of the odder disconnects in American presidential politics that someone can spend years campaigning for the job and years more actually in office, yet the perception persists that he remains an unknown, almost J.D. Salinger-esque figure to the public.

President Barack Obama has been a face on the national stage since 2004. Mitt Romney has been around, it seems, since the Nash Metropolitan was all the rage. Yet both these chaps still need their spouses to "humanize" them to the body politic?

The spousal "I want to testify!" on behalf of their big lug is a relatively new nominating convention phenomenon. Eleanor Roosevelt was the first first lady to speak, briefly (they were using separate bedrooms by then), about Franklin's charms at the 1940 convention in Chicago.

But it wouldn't be until 1992 that Barbara Bush revived the practice, to reintroduce George to the public. Bush was already president in addition to having served as vice president, CIA director, envoy to China, U.N. ambassador, chairman of the Republican Party and member of Congress. Had everyone forgotten the resume?

Since then, just about every presidential wife has stood upon the podium to rebuff the party opposite's suggestion that her husband is a complete dolt who will turn the country into a banana republic if he's elected.

As you might imagine, this task was particularly daunting for Laura Bush.

Last week, Ann Romney delivered an impassioned tribute to Mitt, endeavoring to extol the humanity of a fellow who comes off in public as more robotic than HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, only without the sense of humor.

She waxed poetic about the couple's early days and the rigors of getting by on a stock portfolio, while subsisting on tuna fish and pasta. It was a real Woody Guthrie moment.

This week came Michelle Obama, who retold (again) the tale of her husband's early childhood being raised by a single mother and her commitment to rearing her own daughters.

Good speeches by both women? Sure.

And perhaps that might explain why most opinion polling indicates Michelle Obama and Ann Romney are more popular than their husbands.

For some inexplicable reason, if the wife can reveal to voters that her husband likes pork rinds, or leaves his socks on the floor, or is partial to meat loaf, or once drove a rusted jalopy, or prays even more than the pope, this translates into him being just the man jack to be leader of the free world.

It's hard to imagine Mary Todd Lincoln pumping up Abe's penchant for squirrel-du-jour. Or Mamie Eisenhower going on and on about what a prankster Ike was in private. Or Bess Truman revealing Harry's inner feminine side. Or Pat Nixon riffing on Dick's all-too-passionate love affair with wing tips. Those crazy guys!

But this is an entirely new generation of presidential campaigning. It's not enough to have killed Osama bin Laden. The voters also need to know the presidential candidate also has a favorite pair of shoes that are half a size too small.

We know where all this is probably heading, don't we?

As presidential campaigns take on the aura of a group therapy session, isn't it only a matter of time before the aspiring first ladies are also called upon to debate each other?

Oprah could moderate. Or perhaps the spouses could show up together on The View to explain their other half's positions not only on the national debt, but on whether the PGA tour should ban the long putter.

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