Politics & Policy

The Feminine Touch Helps John McCain

First women on the trail.

Editor’s note: This column is available exclusively through United Media. For permission to reprint or excerpt this copyrighted material, please contact: Carmen Puello at cpuello@unitedmedia.com.

If you’re looking for a First Lady, you’ve got one in Cindy McCain. John McCain would be well-served by having his wife take a more visible — and audible — role on the campaign trail.

Without the red carpet, pre-show, New York Times front-pager afforded Michelle Obama when she recently co-hosted The View — and without buying into false grievances — McCain demonstrates that she understands the national-security stakes in this election.

In an interview with Kate Snow on ABC’s Good Morning America, Cindy McCain sent a direct, if understated, signal on that score. While the Democratic campaign sends out Mrs. Obama in pretty White House/Black Market dresses hoping to style their way into the Oval Office, Mrs. McCain offers substance that highlights the differences between the two choices this November.

During the ABC interview, the wife of the Republican presidential nominee gave a real answer when asked why women should vote for her husband — an answer devoid of the usual silly-girl gender politics that pretends women look for something wholly different in the voting booth than men. Mrs. McCain said of her husband: “Supporting our troops the way he does, supporting our young men and women right now who are serving so gallantly is very pro-woman, because every mother, every wife, sister, aunt feels the way I have felt.” She continued, “The things that he does doesn’t make him any more pro-woman, pro-man, pro-anti-anything. He is about America, making America strong.”

Notably, though, the interview was spun much differently than it actually proceeded. “Cindy McCain Presses Obama on Patriotism” abcnews.com proclaimed. Mrs. McCain did no such thing. She respectfully presented her preferences and offered that there are differences between the two candidates. But the prospect of a catfight or a Republican questioning a Democrat’s patriotism was just way too tempting a trope — even if it’s fiction.

With two sons who have followed in the McCain military tradition — one of them having served in Iraq Mrs. McCain has absolutely no interest in playing political patriot games. To the contrary, as a military mother and wife, she has an opportunity and feels a responsibility to increase our awareness of and appreciation for those who serve. It’s a role she’s ready for. In an interview with her last month, McCain told me “I’m not any different than any other mother, father, family member around the country with children in the service. I feel the same way. I know how they feel, and so in that respect I’m absolutely no different. Each day I’m so deeply proud of their service and deeply honored that our children would do this, that they’d commit a part of their lives to serving their country. So I’m like everybody else. We’re all in this together and we feel exactly the same way.”

When Mrs. Obama made her infamous remarks at a Wisconsin rally earlier this year that “For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of country, and not just because Barack has done well, but because I think people are hungry for change,” McCain did, appropriately and subtly respond. She said, “I’m proud of my country, I don’t know if you heard those words earlier. . . . I’m very proud of my country.” Still, those who are hoping to witness a catfight over patriotism may be disappointed.

What you will see, though, is clarification on the part of Mrs. McCain, and a continued softening of Mrs. Obama’s negativity. Michelle Obama started that softening with her appearance on The View, where she talked about very little of substance (an approach the show invites by its very nature). But McCain’s family circumstances make it impossible for her not to focus on the war, and what we owe our men and women in uniform, in her interviews: “I want a leader who will bring them home with dignity.”

The Good Morning America interview was filmed in Vietnam, where John McCain was once held and tortured as prisoner of war. But Mrs. McCain was there with Operation Smile, a medical mission that helps impoverished children with facial deformities. Her service for Operation Smile is the work she loves most — the children she meets serving that nonprofit, she says, remind her of her adoptive daughter, born in Bangladesh with a severe cleft palate. The McCains brought Bridget home as a baby from one of Mother Teresa’s orphanages in 1993.

None of the people campaigning for the White House are perfect. All of them are impressive. They all have stories to tell. How they tell those stories, what they choose to tell us, help in the decision-making process.

The wives aren’t running for president, they won’t be on the ticket, but their priorities are insights into the First Family, and what the candidates are really like. I know I’d like to hear Michelle Obama talk about why Rev. Jeremiah Wright was someone she thought appropriate to have her daughters listening to, why she was drawn to him, how he might have affected her husband’s thinking and political maturity. There’s a lot we don’t know about Barack Obama — a political novice compared to John McCain. But Mrs. Obama’s public statements help make the picture of her husband more complete.

So, too, does Cindy McCain’s public life reveal what a McCain White House might be like. “I do the things that are important to me,” Mrs. McCain told Kate Snow. So often when we hear her talk that means letting our troops on the frontlines and their families be heard over the din of Democratic defeatism. Keep talking, Mrs. McCain — they’re important to us, too. 

–  Kathryn Jean Lopez is the editor of National Review Online.

© 2008, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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