Indeed. But for couples seeking to move into the White House, Mom’s standard has always been problematic. After all, these aren’t people on the street or at the PTA meeting who can generally be avoided; they will be handed incredible power and become inescapable, if virtual, companions for the next four years. Their friends will hold cabinet positions, their attitudes will shape government policy, and their personal styles will be emulated and/or reviled.
For that reason, Presidential spouses are generally deployed to counter or minimize her husband’s (so far it’s always a husband) perceived weaknesses or foibles. This dynamic gave us many memorable dichotomies: Lady Bird Johnson planting wildflowers along the freeways while LBJ dropped Napalm on jungles, Nancy Reagan kissing Mr. T on the forehead while Ronnie stuck it to the “young bucks” and “welfare queens,” and Laura Bush bravely addressing the nation on Sept. 11 while her chickenhawk lout of a husband huddled under the conference table on Air Force One.
Much more politically treacherous is when the First Lady appears to be the brains of the operation, or at least an even more strident mini-me. As with most things trivial in the media/political sphere, this dynamic affects mostly Democrats. Who could forget the horrified bleating when Hillary Clinton promised during the 1992 campaign that, with her sterling education and successful legal career, America would get “two for the price of one.” Whitewater was born that day, but I won’t bore you with the details.
Then there was Michelle Obama, whose only sins (aside from that) were that she occasionally spoke frankly and once gave you-know-who a public fist bump. Next thing you know she was sporting an Angela Davis ‘fro on the cover of The New Yorker, and today she’s managed to make the previously universal act of telling one’s kids to eat their vegetables and go outside and play the equivalent, in some circles, of making them recite verses from Das Kapital.
Republicans, given their inherent sexism and a compromised media, have always had an easier time with the First Lady Problem. Barbara Bush’s blunt (and often toxic) public dismissals of friends and foes alike was seen as a reassuring reminder that her preppy cipher of a husband had evidently chosen personality over looks, and deep down, he liked ‘em saucy. Pat Nixon’s fragile beauty and obvious pride in her lovely daughters served as credible evidence that at least on two known occasions, one human on the face of the earth didn’t find the Tricky Dick ample cause to flee the room in terror.
But along comes Mitt Romney, with a blond and coiffed Ann clopping along behind on her $77,000 tax deduction, and suddenly these quaint precedents are out the window. Remember, it wasn’t until after the election that we all found out about Nancy’s extravagant china and designer gowns she so quickly set about downplaying, if not giving up.
Never before has a prospective Republican First Lady so forthrightly proclaimed that she’s just like her husband, only more so. Where Mitt might lamely spin that the necessity of hiding the scope of his wealth is an unfortunate consequence of the hypothetical Democrat Smear Machine, Ann goes on TV wearing thousand dollar t-shirts and calling even friendly media stars “you people.” As her servants busy themselves packing the horse, tack, and trainer for their undoubtedly luxurious sojourn to the Olympics, she pauses between pointing at hats and such to harshly scold the DNC for its uppity attention to the way she goes through money like wildfires go through a Colorado exurb.
It’s a new thing, really, for Republicans, and Mormon ones at that, to embrace this singularly repellent form of the Empowered Woman, and it’s pretty much the opposite of what Helen Reddy meant when she belted out, “I’m a woman.” Nonetheless, Ann is tonelessly chiming in, with excess jewelry as her tambourine, “Double you whoah, whoah, whoah, m-a-n.”
This time it really is two for the price of one, but if you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it. Nice to know.