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.
#ad#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.
#page#Another difference between apolitical and activist first ladies is how they act and speak after their husbands leave office. A widowed Eleanor Roosevelt became a liberal activist icon in a way Bess Truman did not. Nancy Reagan was asked for political endorsements and sometimes weighed in on controversial issues like embryonic-stem-cell research in the middle of a presidential campaign — and had lots to say in the decades after the Reagans left the White House. Barbara Bush went on to editorialize about Katrina, Sarah Palin, and the 2012 election in a manner in which Pat Nixon and Rosalynn Carter did not after they reentered private life. Hillary Clinton quite naturally ran for the Senate; Laura Bush would never have dreamed of doing so. I think that when the Obamas leave office, we will be hearing quite a lot from Michelle about contemporary culture and politics.
#ad#In other words, whether first ladies or would-be first ladies are or are not legitimate political targets depends entirely on their own political choices — not the fact per se of their marriages to presidents or presidential candidates. Some are more adroit politically or more willing to sound off on political matters; some are more valuable if they become nonpartisan national icons. Often presidential handlers help make the choice of how best to maximize an asset or to minimize a liability.
Those first ladies who like politics and play an active role should expect to be both praised and hammered by the political classes and the media; those who do not, should not be. Attacking the politics or speeches of a Bess Truman, Pat Nixon, or Laura Bush is about as unfair as giving a pass to the views of an Eleanor Roosevelt, Barbara Bush, or Hillary Clinton.
Ann Romney seems an amazing figure to have raised five boys. She has battled both breast cancer and multiple sclerosis. She is well spoken, youthful, and highly intelligent. She could, in the fashion of a Cindy McCain or Callista Gingrich, prove an impressive and photogenic partner to her husband, or in contrast, in the manner of Michelle Obama or Hillary Clinton, she could joust about on her own in the politics of the day.
On the other side of the coin, when Hillary Clinton ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, Bill Clinton was fair game, given his incessant politicking and partisan campaigning — in a way not true of the reticent Todd Palin and Jill Biden, spouses of the respective vice-presidential nominees.
If Mrs. Romney chooses the quiet role, leave her alone. But if she takes the activist path — as she has on at least one occasion, when speaking about the effects of the Obama economy on women — then most of the counterattacks are fair play.
So far Mrs. Romney seems to understand that. Her criticism of Hillary Rosen is not that the latter dared to attack her, but that Ms. Rosen did so in such a stupid manner by suggesting that raising five boys while battling life-threatening illnesses is not work.
So far, in this silly “war-on-women” back-and-forth, it is the amateur Ann Romney who is proving far more politically savvy than the inept Ms. Rosen, the supposedly professional public-relations pundit. At some point, the Romneys will have to decide how to use this undeniable political asset, who enhances her husband whether she is being political or supportive as a traditional wife and mother.
And we should blame or praise her — or leave her alone — depending on her choice, not ours.