Friday, November 21, 2014
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Exit the Political Wife

NEW YORK – France’s new president, François Hollande, is not married to his partner, the glamorous political journalist Valerie Trierweiler, and no one seems to care. Germany’s president, Joachim Gauck, is not married to his partner, the journalist Daniela Schadt, and no one seems to care. Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, is not married to his partner, the domesticity guru Sandra Lee, and no one seems to care. The list could easily be continued.

Is the adoring political spouse – so much a part of the political landscape that she has her own iconography, from knit suits to the dreamy upward gaze at her man – receding into the past?

It is true that in America, at least, hay can still be made from the role of political wife. President Barack Obama may have experienced his first major dip in the polls – and his first real slide with women voters – when a partisan supporter, Hilary Rosen, said that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s wife, Ann Romney, had never worked a day in her life. But the response to Rosen’s remark underscored the relative absence of the usual heightened scrutiny of the political wife’s hair and clothes, profession and cookie recipe.

It was only 20 years ago that, during Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign, his wife Hillary’s career – that is, the fact that she had one of her own – sparked wild and vituperative debate. There was even her absurd “bake-off” against First Lady Barbara Bush, in which she had to produce her own cookie recipe in order to appease a lingering cultural demand for domesticity in the role.

Those days now seem like another age. In America in this election cycle, as in Europe, headlines are absent that in the past would have raised questions about an unmarried female partner, a working woman, a woman with a life of her own.

So, what accounts for the sudden disappearance of the adoring political wife?

The role achieved its apotheosis with someone who, perhaps not coincidentally, was trained as an actress. Nancy Reagan codified the misty-eyed gaze at the rugged man, the demure demurrals, and the aggregation of power behind the throne, while claiming, in interviews, interest in nothing more serious than the White House’s latest china patterns. “I don’t talk about political matters,” she famously said. “That’s not my department.”

It is not surprising that this role has recently vanished. For starters, recent events have made it highly unappealing to any woman who has any alternative to assuming it. In recent years, the role of the traditional spouse has been, most visibly, to stand by (or not) while some excruciatingly embarrassing foible or betrayal by one’s husband is publicly aired in mortifying detail.

What woman would want to risk that role – one that has become increasingly likely in an age when surveillance by political opponents has become increasingly sophisticated and extensive? Smart women may be unwilling to marry high-profile political men these days, owing to the tremendous potential downside. Other domestic arrangements might be easier than taking the matrimonial plunge, with its prospect of thankless exposure in the event of a scandal.

Another reason for the not-necessarily-married and not-necessarily-full-time political spouse has to do with simple generational change: the role of adoring wife that Nancy Reagan perfected is a time-consuming profession. Most men who are ready to seize the reins of national power will be with women of their own generation, who are likely to have plenty to do on their own trajectory. We do have Clinton (as fraught and self-involved as her journey around these issues was) and Cherie Blair to thank for clearing away the cultural detritus.

In a way, voters may find this evolution reassuring: when every male politician had to be equipped with a smart but underemployed full-time adoring wife, there was reason to be uneasy about the unseen influence of an unelected adviser hovering around cabinet meetings. But when a political leader’s partner is a full-time journalist – or a full-time lifestyle guru – one’s fears of a power behind the throne diminish: the woman, presumably, is too busy to meddle excessively in affairs of state.

Finally, what smart contemporary woman wants to take on a one-step-down role? It is taxing to spend all of one’s time making one’s husband look good, and it is demeaning to have to feign a lack of interest in issues that doubtless were part of the attraction to one another in the first place.

If the traditional political wife is vanishing, it is voters’ own fault: we set it up to be a thankless and infantilizing position. Why should we expect our leaders’ partners to perform, on a massive public stage, social roles that we no longer accept in our own lives? The adoring political wife was always more caricature than character. Now, fortunately, she can finally retire.

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