America Opts to Leave Its Prospective First Ladies Alone

This election season has been notably free of the vitriolic attacks on candidates’ spouses that have marred recent races.

Ted Cruz with his wife, Heidi, at a town hall event in Sioux City, Iowa (Nati Harnik / AP)

With the presidential deck about to be reshuffled by a small gaggle of Iowans, now seems the perfect time for a quick round of candidate-spouse trivia. Ready? Without going to the Google, who can tell me:

  1. Which candidate’s wife is the daughter of Seventh-Day Adventist missionaries?
  2. Which spouse was such a Sleepless in Seattle fan that her husband-to-be popped the question atop the Empire State Building—and then temporarily took back the ring because he was afraid she’d drop it?
  3. Which one holds a Ph.D. from Union Institute & University? (Bonus points if you know which 2012 contender’s spouse also has a Ph.D. from Union.)
  4. Which spouse is a political consultant whose former clients include one of her husband’s current competitors?
  5. Who once posed for GQ buck-naked on a fur blanket while handcuffed to a briefcase aboard her husband’s jet? (OK. That one’s a gimme. But how’s this for a stumper):
  6. What is the first name of Martin O’Malley’s wife?

Don’t feel bad if you had to cheat on a few of these. On the contrary: Wear your ignorance with pride! Not knowing every last freckle and wart on this batch of aspiring First Ladies is a good thing—or at least a good start. It is a hopeful sign that Americans are at last on the path to treating political spouses as real people entitled to independent lives and a modicum of personal space rather than as creepy appendages meant to serve as windows to the souls of their high-profile mates.

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.

Instead, for the most part the spouses have been treated with a fair degree of respect, even gentleness. Oh, sure, there have been incidents. Last July, Donald Trump tweeted out some nugget of ugliness about how Jeb’s view of immigrants had been skewed by the fact that Columba is Mexican American. Multiple candidates have taken shots at Bill Clinton’s zipper problems. (Now seems like a good place to offer the caveat that Bill occupies a spousal category all his own.) And, during one of the kiddie-table GOP debates, Carly Fiorina cracked wise about how, unlike a certain other woman in this race, she really loves spending time with her husband.

Still, considering the level of trash talk in the air—with the candidates calling one another “jackass” and “clown” and “idiot” and “jerk”—such jabs seem pretty tame. More to the point, looking beyond the rambunctiousness of the combatants themselves, the media and public have been less intrusive than usual, certainly by the toxic standards of the times.

Will the spotlight get hotter as the field narrows? Probably. The mind reels to think of the fun Trump-buddy Sarah Palin might have smacking Bill Clinton. But no one is asking for perfection here, merely progress.

And if that means that no one can be bothered to remember poor Katie O’Malley’s name, so be it.