Marriage, that delicate union precariously balanced on the flimsy notion that is romantic love, can be a difficult proposition in the best of circumstances. Toss it into the political arena and you have Shakespearean drama. The 2016 presidential election is proving this true once again.
I began thinking about political wives, our long complicated history with them, when Melania Trump was eviscerated for cribbing lines (rightly so) from a Michelle Obama speech. I think her husband is a hate-mongerer, but I so sympathized with his wife. How could the campaign have allowed this to happen to her?
While a junior staffer eventually took the fall, the damage had been done. Melania’s debut was botched, surely a painful experience for a woman who had figured on being a billionaire’s wife when she married, but not a first lady in waiting.
Most candidates’ wives, I suspect, don’t sign up for the unforgiving spotlight of the public stage and yet they’re pulled into it as quasi-running mates. Some — Hillary Clinton, for one — eventually grab the politician role for themselves. They like the limelight just fine, their ambition equal to the man they married. Others — Columba Bush, surely — prefer to stay in the background, making the required appearances only when necessary.
Wives are said to be a campaign’s secret weapon, whether they belong to the Party of the Apocalypse or the Party of the Clueless. But they’re also fair game in an increasingly vicious political culture, particularly during a presidential race where little is sacred and the more titillating the news the more clicks it will generate. Who can forget the ridiculous duel between Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, each attacking the other’s wife?
Every marriage has its valleys and mountains, its meadows and prairies, but a political union turns a private landscape into a national park, gawkers welcomed. Think of how Clinton endured Bill’s infidelity. And how the late Elizabeth Edwards lived through former presidential candidate John Edwards’ embarrassing affair and out-of-wedlock child. While we’re at it, let’s remember Huma Abadin‘s humiliation as she stuck by the sexting Anthony Weiner, and Silda Spitzer, who stood by Eliot Spitzer as he admitted to hiring hookers. (She later divorced him.)
Being a political wife may be the most challenging — and thankless — job on a campaign roster. And no one applies for it! Regardless of educational pedigree or professional accomplishment, a P.W. will be criticized for being too involved or too aloof, for being too smart or not enough, for staying at home with the children or making big bucks as a law partner. For anything really. Michelle Obama, for example, was criticized for showing off her toned arms. That’s because political wives are emblematic of our conflicting expectations for women.
Do we scrutinize political husbands in the same fashion? Nope. Except for Bill, you don’t hear much about them and they never get judged by the clothes (or makeup) they wear. (Here’s looking at you, Jane Sanders.)
The Trump-Hillary wrestling match has ushered in new models: the first husband and first daughter. What we do to them will prove interesting, if not outright scary.
But there’s a bright spot to this tumultuous election year — for me at least. I’ve become more appreciative of The Hubby, who doesn’t show the remotest interest in running for public office. I intend to keep it that way.