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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

When the spouses are more interesting than the candidates
Posted by Jill | 7:12 AM
Perhaps it's just how political coverage in this country has evolved, but it seems to me that despite the fact that all of the Democratic candidates for president are intelligent, qualified people (yes, even Hillary -- it's not her intelligence that bothers me), their spouses are the ones who are the most interesting?

We'll see during the general election campaign if the notion that the first spouse still has to be of the Nancy Reagan mode -- gazing adoringly at her supposedly more-accomplished spouse in public no matter who's actually running things behind the curtain. Theresa Heinz Kerry probably wasn't the best example of the Accomplished Spouse and certainly had no gift for dealing with the media. But even leaving aside the former president who's the most gifted sheer politician of his or perhaps any generation, the Democratic spouses are at least as interesting, and sometimes more so, than the actual candidates.

Elizabeth Edwards is the Stealth Soccer Mom -- a ferociously intelligent and energetic woman whom everyone forgets was a damn good attorney herself before deciding to devote her energies to her family. Having had the privilege of hosting a fundraiser for her husband in which she was in attendance, I can tell you that you could drop her off at the Kohl's store in Ramsey, NJ and no one would even recognize her, so completely would she blend in with the rest of the store's clientele. But if you saw her eviscerate Ann Coulter on national television, you too know that this is not someone you want to push around.

Today Rebecca Traister in Salon focuses on Michelle Obama, and after reading this article, I found myself wishing that she, instead of her careful, cautious, Let's Play Nice with the Republicans husband, was the candidate:

In her first address, she flatly notes that one of her husband's proudest achievements was passing ethics reform. A beat. "In Illinois." Ba-dum-bum. The line gets a good laugh, because Iowans know Chicago's history of corruption, and that Ilinois' most recent ex-governor is in federal prison. But apparently, Obama is not satisfied. In later versions, she more thoroughly explains herself, noting that "Illinois doesn't do ethics really well."

Obama's staff tells me about a couple of lines that have been dropped from the speech -- one about how when she met her husband, she thought, "No one lives in Hawaii!" and one about how she first realized that she could go to Princeton after her brother got in, because "I'm smarter than him!" But as with many gifted comedians, most of the mirth is in the take-my-husband-please Borscht Belt delivery. Obama has laid off a lot of the domestic complaints since her run-in with Dowd, but comes closest to the kind of "emasculating" riffs that made MoDo sniff when she tells one crowd, "I didn't marry [Barack] for all his degrees. Certainly he's made less money over the years, as my mother has pointed out."

Then there is the steady drumbeat of discontent about the process she's living through. "I'm not doing this because I'm married to him," she tells listeners again and again. "Because truly, this process is painful. If you have a choice, America, don't do this! Teach! Do something else. I tried to [tell] Barack -- there are so many ways to change the world. Let's do them!" In another version, she says, "I [didn't] want to run for president! Life was comfortable! It was safe! Nobody was takin' pictures of us!" This sing-it-sister refrain goes over well, in part because it's something with which everyone in her audience can relate. Who the hell would want to live this way? To give up their privacy, security, routine, all in a bid to watch their mate get attacked for a living and take on the most high-pressure, all-consuming job on the planet? It doesn't matter if Obama is black, if she is a Harvard Law grad, if she is wearing Jimmy Choos. She is communicating to her audience a reluctance that makes good common sense to them.

These moments of relatability give ballast to her big sell, that when push came to shove, she shelved her trepidation. "I took off the Michelle Obama hat," she says, "the selfish hat, the one that says 'no,' and put on my citizen hat, my hopeful hat, and realized that I want Barack Obama to lead me ... Even if it's inconvenient. We have to be bold."

Fifteen years after Bill Clinton rattled the country by announcing that thanks to his marriage to a policy wonk, it would be getting "two for the price of one," Michelle hits a similar note on her own behalf. If the nation elects Barack, she says, "I can guarantee you that you won't be disappointed. Not only will you get to hang out with me -- cause I'll be there; I'll go to the White House with him -- but we have a chance to fundamentally change this country."

At the senior center in Davenport, they're thrilled to hear about hanging out with her. She receives a chorus of affirmative "Uh-huhs" after nearly every statement, and when she's finished, the crowd of geriatric fans swarm her, putting her on the phone with their loved ones, having her pose with toddlers, the arm of a stuffed monkey draped around her neck. Sixty-two-year-old Mary Anderson, retired from Ford Motor Credit, tells me, "She reminds me of Jackie Onassis. She's a dignified, high-class lady."


Ron Hughes, a small business owner in Dubuque, tells me that he's a Biden man through and through, and his wife, next to him, is totally apathetic about the political process. "She just comes for the socializing," Hughes assures me. But as Obama begins the most rollicking rendition of the stump speech that I will see on this visit, Hughes leans in to me and acknowledges, "I do like her sense of humor."

By the time Obama gets into the part about how fear is used to bully and divide us, Hughes' purportedly apathetic wife is nodding in assent, and leans in to her husband to say, "She's right on."

Tonight, Obama lingers on the cowardice of her husband's opponents in their votes for the Iraq war, arguing that Barack, though he was not yet in the Senate to cast a vote of his own, acted courageously by coming out against the invasion during his tight Illinois primary race. "That race looked a lot like this race," she says. "He wasn't supposed to win. He had a funny name, he was too young. We've heard it! Been there! Done that! But even in the middle of all that, he said no, the war was a bad idea."

She remains insistent -- despite the flak she's received for minimizing her husband's deity-like status -- on being realistic. "It's not that we're going to elect a president who will deliver us from evil," she tells the Jochum fundraiser. "We are our own evil. We have to be engaged and passionate." Without courage, she says, we will never get anywhere.

"I think I found my candidate," says Hughes' wife, 59-year-old Suzette, a retired physical therapist, as Obama receives a standing ovation. "I hadn't felt the need to make a decision until tonight. I hadn't been moved until tonight."

The next morning, Michelle is about an hour north of Dubuque, in a restaurant that overlooks a broad, sinuous Mississippi River. She's taking a fresh dig at George Bush as she discusses her husband's respect and passion for the Constitution, "something that would be nice in a president these days." The crowd is nodding enthusiastically at her.

While Michelle is hugging after the speech, I overhear a group of four women gossiping about the Clintons, speculating rather ungenerously about why Hillary might be running for president. One of the women, who is wearing a precinct captain button, boils down the differences between the former first family and the Obamas: "Michelle and Barack are like us," she says.

"Like us." In IOWA, of all places. What's so mindblowing about this article is partly that at least in Iowa, Obama's race appears to not even play into people's considerations. That we have lived long enough for Iowans to say that a black couple is "just like us" is gratifying, if long overdue. But it's also that in Michelle Obama, we have a woman who goes in front of crowds and does what SHE wants -- not what handlers want, or not what she thinks the Fox News crowd won't object to. She's a "This is me, take it or leave it" kind of gal.

I only wish her husband was more like her.


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