Should It Unnerve Us That Michelle Obama and Ann Romney Are So Disarming?

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The First Lady and her would-be successor shined this year. And maybe that's a problem for everyone save their husbands.



Aren't they amazing?

Ann Romney and Michelle Obama both gave standout speeches on behalf of their husbands at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. And they're so endearing. I enjoyed listening to both women, much more than most of the politicians who've spoken, and came away with a renewed impression of their seeming integrity, undeniable likability, and overall impressiveness.

 

Perhaps others were less moved.

But who save the most vitriolic among us would criticize either woman?

Unlike their husbands, they didn't affirmatively choose a life in politics, and all the harsh scrutiny and attacks that come with it. It's just unseemly when partisans attack Ann Romney or Michelle Obama, as if the spouse of a political candidate is an appropriate target of partisan rancor.

They shine in part because they're apart from politics.

And that's exactly what the campaigns of their husbands exploit. They use these women to disarm us. They're not mere pawns, of course. They're strong individuals who want their husbands to succeed. Still, it's considered unseemly to treat them like political figures, for who can blame them for speaking up on behalf of their spouse? Wouldn't we all? And if we exaggerated what recommends them or seemed blind to their flaws who would think us disingenuous?

We're all partisans for the people we love most.

For all these reasons, spouses get a pass, and I think they should continue getting one. Were they treated like politicians, who would ever agree to let their husband or wife run for office? Only Callista Gingrich.

We don't want that world!

Still, this conversion of spousal likability into political advantage seems a bit problematic. Says The Economist, "A politician's wife who is not a politician, expected to use the privilege of her position to advance only the most wholesome, patriotic causes (reading, childhood obesity, the welfare of military families), a first lady may still -- with skill and guile -- be used as an effective partisan weapon."

It's a bit like giving a medic a gun so that he can fire once or twice at the other side in the course of rescuing fallen comrades.

Nor is that the only reason it's problematic.

Perhaps Mrs. Romney and Mrs. Obama are exactly right about their husbands. But we all know that spouses are often terrible judges of their partners, or else willing to mislead on their behalf. Think of Hillary Clinton during her husband's sex scandal, Elizabeth Edwards in a similar situation, or to cite a more extreme example that I don't mean to equate with the previous two, think of Mrs. Sandusky, insisting on the innocence of her molesting husband to this day.

Do we want our judgment about the best person for the presidency colored, significantly or even partly, by testimony from someone as biased as a spouse? Someone whose unique stature enables them to disarm? Someone who, deliberately or not, is perfectly positioned to mislead us?

There is, finally, the effect on spouses of potential candidates.

Playing a major role at the convention is fine if you're like Mrs. Romney or Mrs. Obama -- that is to say, if you're confident, excel at public speaking, are possessed of extraordinary charisma, happen to be beautiful, and appear to most people ten years younger than you actually are. But somewhere, there is a political wife who fears that she'd come off less well than these women. Perhaps she is less attractive, or gets nervous in front of big crowds, or is awkward.

Perhaps the cost of our spousal obsession will be born mostly by spouses like her; but perhaps we'll miss out on good candidates because their husbands or wives aren't up for the outsized role partners are increasingly expected to play; or perhaps we'll miss out on electing someone who did run because the candidate's husband or wife wasn't sufficiently superficially likable.

I wonder if we'd be better served if it was considered unseemly for candidate spouses to get major speaking rolls on the campaign trail. Or if their were a more stark choice to face: either play the Hillary Clinton as First Lady role, very much a part of the political process but also deemed fair game for criticism; or else stay assiduously apolitical, and normatively protected from attack.

But perhaps there is no solution. Perhaps it's good that the American public is decent enough to refrain from attacking spouses, and inevitable that politicians are going to twist and exploit every noble impulse in order to maximize the advantage to their careers. At least let us agree to scream bloody hell if a politician ever tries to trot out one of their children to exploit this same dynamic. 

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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