It seems unnecessary to recount the psychological torment to which the election process has typically subjected the wives of presidential candidates: the grinding scrutiny, the unrealistic expectations, the conflicting demands, the flesh-melting vitriol. This is, in many ways, the ultimate abusive relationship.
For decades the dynamic had been growing, if not more noxious, certainly more twisted. During the 1992 primaries, Hillary Clinton was pilloried as a scary feminist with a snotty attitude toward stand-by-your-man traditionalists. Fifteen years later, Michelle Obama got scolded by Maureen Dowd for emasculating poor Barack with cheeky stories about his rumpled, smelly dadness, while at the same time voters endlessly discussed her decision to table her career for the sake of his. Plus, there was all the hand-wringing about whether she would tank her man’s chances by coming across as too much of an angry black woman, which, ironically, took place more or less concurrently with heavy chatter about whether her more conventional background would be enough to soothe public unease about Barack’s exotic upbringing.
And on and on it goes. Remember the buzz over whether Judith Dean would be a liability because she wouldn’t abandon her medical career to play Howard’s helpmeet? The anxiety over how Teresa Heinz’s wealth and mouthiness would play with voters? As for 2012, I have three words for you: Callista Gingrich’s hair.
Not that the public’s spousal obsession is always negative. Consider Laura Bush. After eight years of Hillary as First Lady, Laura was embraced by many as a comforting restoration of the more conventional model: a soft-spoken small-town librarian turned full-time mom. But! Laura was also rumored to be pro-choice with generally more moderate politics than George. For voters searching for signs that W. was a kinder, gentler, more modern breed of conservative, Laura’s secret sauciness provided hope. As it turned out, George W. Bush proved a crushing disappointment pretty much across the political spectrum. So perhaps the spousal barometer isn’t that accurate after all.
But this time around, the mates seem to be drawing less scrutiny than usual—and not because the field is any less colorful than previous groups. Spousal résumés this cycle featuring such potentially rousing entries as Miami Dolphins cheerleader, bond-trader, violinist, and supermodel. Indeed, Melania Trump seems made-to-order for public vivisection. But so far, the trolling on this front has been minimal.
There have, of course, been the de rigeur getting-to-know-you profiles, with some spouses getting a more thorough going-over than others. Early on, for the 15 minutes that Jeb! was a contender, the enigmatic Columba Bush was a source of some fascination. More pointedly, Heidi Cruz’s status as a Wall Street player of the type that husband Ted is forever railing against has given the campaign an awkward moment or two. Even so, no spouse has yet risen to the level of bona fide controversy or even provoked the kind of widespread buzzfest common in years gone by.