Recently a Democratic operative, Hilary Rosen, was furious that Mitt Romney had made reference to his wife’s opinions on women’s issues and the economy. So Rosen blurted out on a cable news show that Ann Romney “hasn’t worked a day in her life.”
All hell broke loose. Some liberals doubled down and claimed rich women were out of touch with contemporary women’s dilemmas. Conservatives screamed about liberal bias against traditional lifestyles. A compromise view soon emerged, voiced by President Obama himself, that the wives both of presidents and of presidential candidates should be off limits to public criticism. But should they?
Such blanket sanctuary is not quite fair — at least not in the way that we should avoid all criticism of presidential children not of an age to engage in politics. From 1993 to 2001, attacking Chelsea Clinton, who was twelve years old when her father took office, was a cheap shot; but attacking Hillary Clinton was not necessarily.
The answer to the question of how to treat a first lady or potential first lady depends on the degree to which she interjects herself into politics in ways that transcend just supporting her husband.
We can all agree that Bess Truman, Mamie Eisenhower, Jackie Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson, Pat Nixon, Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter, and Laura Bush for the most part avoided political controversy. They were political only to the degree that every wife in some ways shares in her husband’s career and wishes to defend him when he is attacked. They deserve a degree of latitude, both to defend their husbands and to do so without commensurate rebuttal.
But how about a far more ideological and engaged profile like those of Eleanor Roosevelt, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton, and Michelle Obama? In their cases, they saw the role of the first lady as something that transcended support for their husbands, or advocacy for nonpolitical causes such as highway beautification, the arts, literacy, or the campaign against substance abuse. Eleanor Roosevelt waded into all sorts of class, gender, and race issues of her time. She was both blamed and praised for her activism in the cause of equality for women and minorities, and she was often consulted by party bosses about left-wing political appointments and endorsements.
As a gatekeeper, Nancy Reagan apparently made critical decisions about presidential staffing, both enraging and delighting her husband’s subordinates. Many tried to go around Ronald Reagan by lobbying Nancy on key policy issues, on the hunch that she was more liberal than her husband. She often befriended pundits in hopes of gaining political savvy — and support. It seems, then, that a fired chief of staff Don Regan had a perfect right to let loose on her.
Barbara Bush weighed in politically all the time on matters from homosexuality to abortion. When she called the Democratic party’s vice-presidential nominee, Geraldine Ferraro, either a bitch or a witch (“rhymes with rich”), she too became fair game, and for a time was — until advised to tone down her invective. If you sensed that Barbara Bush represented the view of the hoity-toity Eastern Seaboard patrician and blueblood Republican establishment, you might not have been far off the mark.
When Bill Clinton was campaigning in 1992, he bragged that if the nation elected him it would get two Clintons for the price of one. Almost immediately he entrusted his wife with reforming the nation’s entire health-care system. The term “Hillarycare” was a fair indictment of the subsequent debacle. Hillary herself was determined to put herself forward as an unapologetic liberal in times of her husband’s triangulation — no doubt to help him calm his itchy left-wing base. She was more than a fair target for any critic opposed to such an ideology or to her own incessant politicking (“vast right-wing conspiracy”). It was no accident that she saw Eleanor Roosevelt, not Bess Truman or Pat Nixon, as her role model.
Michelle Obama was a lightning rod on the 2008 campaign trail. At times she lectured on American unfairness (“raising the bar”) and reminded America how lucky it would be if Barack “deigned” to run for office, given his singular intelligence. She went from one controversy to another, with near constant commentary on her relative lack of pride in the United States, and her own previous attitudes about its apparent meanness. She has become somewhat less political in the last two years, but she still editorializes during fundraisers and interviews about race and contemporary political issues.