Will Laura Bush be our country’s last traditional First Lady? She is poised, well-read, low-key, and rarely discusses controversial issues in depth. She seems to believe her husband was elected and that, as First Lady, she is there to support him.
That’s how most Americans and, it seems, journalists like it. But the spousal landscape may be changing, whether they like it or not.
We know that most voters don’t want the two-for-one club we were sold with Bill and Hillary Clinton. In fact, a Gallup Poll released last week asked Americans who better embodies their idea of a First Lady, Laura Bush or Hillary Rodham Clinton. More Americans believe Bush fits the bill, 52 percent to 43 percent. Even Teresa Heinz Kerry has suggested she believes Hillary Clinton overstepped her boundaries as First Lady by trying to make legislative policy.
But recently new models have pulled into the political showroom. Teresa, for one, speaks her mind. It’s not hard to conclude that she is a bright woman determined to play by her own rules, handlers be damned. In interviews, she discusses her Botox, her deceased husband and her views on Iraq. To some, the super-wealthy Heinz Kerry comes across as out of touch and far from a traditional wife. (Why did Senator Kerry have to borrow money during the heated primaries? Because Teresa apparently had not put the bulk of her fortune into joint accounts.)
She can also sound a tad pretentious. A typical morning exchange with her husband might go something like this:
Sen. Kerry: The sun is emitting a vast amount of UV rays in the east this potentially sweltering morning.
Teresa Heinz Kerry: This is yet another reminder of the global-warming problem and why we should have ratified the Kyoto accords.
President Bush’s morning exchange with his wife probably is more along these lines:
President Bush: Good morning, honey. Glad to see the sun is out.
Laura Bush: Good morning. It’s beautiful outside.
But while I may be in the minority here, I find Heinz Kerry refreshing. I wouldn’t want to be her campaign spokeswoman, for politically speaking she is an accident waiting to happen. (In fact, a press handler was hired for Heinz Kerry after she gave a disastrous interview to the Washington Post.) Many find her aloof and cold (could she seem a bit more interested in her husband’s kisses?).
Although she has far more money and scarves than I will ever have, I get the feeling she thinks life is too short to be trapped in some political box. And maybe she’s right.
Journalists are fascinated by Teresa because she is the rare interviewee who says something new (and potentially inflammatory) in each conversation. She does not stick to the talking points. In fact, Heinz Kerry described Republican charges about her and her husband as un-American during the couple’s joint 60 Minutes appearance. Such heated rhetoric is no way to win over swing voters.
The modern model of a fiercely loyal First Lady, of course, is Nancy Reagan, who won the admiration of millions for the way carried herself during her husband’s funeral. During her White House years, however, the press often ridiculed Mrs. Reagan for devoting her life to her husband, her gazing eyes always focused on him, as well as her pursuits of designer fashions and parties. Only in later years did we learn that she was having a real impact on the White House operation.
Against this historical backdrop, Laura Bush and Teresa Heinz Kerry provide diametrically opposite choices for voters. Even though we are electing a president rather than a spouse, a First Lady can be a great asset or detriment to the political package. We are comfortable with Laura Bush. A former teacher, she is non-threatening, classy, and devoted to mother-and-apple-pie issues like literacy and schools. She is easy to interview but journalists are not going to hear her spouting off about how much she has come to dislike Democratic spin, even if she does.
Elizabeth Edwards, however, might be the ideal Second Lady campaigner. She is intelligent, a lawyer, a good mom, articulate, and stays on message. Massively on message. She has had her own career, just as Lynne Cheney did before her husband became vice president. Women can relate to Edwards. She struggles with her weight and has publicly shared her current attempt at the South Beach Diet. She appears professional but not overly polished. She will score points with women who are comfortable in their own skin, even if it’s not perfect skin.
As former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities and with her current position at the American Enterprise Institute, Lynne Cheney has proven herself as a policy wonk. But after a long period of laying low and writing a children’s book, she is being trotted out for the Bush/Cheney team.
Last week she took a position different from her husband on the proposed constitutional amendment barring gay marriage, saying that she believes the matter should be left to the states. Although that is pretty much what Dick Cheney said in 2000, it differs from his public stance now, since Massachusetts legalized the practice. As the mother of an openly gay daughter, Lynne Cheney refused to toe the GOP line–and maybe softened its edges a bit by speaking out.
Contrast Heinz Kerry and Edwards (who will introduce her husband at the Democratic convention) with Judy Dean. Remember her? She was the Vermont doctor who didn’t want to leave her patients for the campaign trail. In a two-career family, that is a normal response. But it is not a political response. Journalists tagged her as aloof and questioned the state of the Dean marriage because the candidate’s wife didn’t want to be sucked into the political morass.
So will the Laura Bush approach soon be going the way of the Model T? Future First Ladies are more likely to be in the mold of Teresa, Elizabeth, and Lynne–high-powered women who see little reason to trim their sails just because their husbands are in the politics business. That’s not to say that unelected spouses should be making policy behind the scenes, but it’s silly to deny that they’re going to have an impact by sharing the presidential bed.
The problem for them is that much of the country, and the media, isn’t quite ready for this. They are wedded to the 1950s baking-cookies-and-visiting-kindergarten model (witness the routine election-year Family Circle bakeoff) and don’t quite know what to make of potential First Ladies with their own opinions and own agendas. Teresa Heinz Kerry didn’t land on the cover of Newsweek because she’s a strong, independent woman, but because she’s viewed as quirky.
Maybe it’s time for journalists–most of whom have their own strong-willed spouses–to adapt to the new reality. For one thing, it’s going to be far more interesting to cover than the adoring wives of an earlier era.
–Sheri Annis is a Washington, D.C. media consultant.