Last night I had the misfortune to see a few minutes of the Beltway Boys. Guess what hard-hitting topic they were addressing? They were critiquing the wives of Democratic presidential candidates. It was as predictable and content-free as I’ve come to expect from those guys. Received wisdom time – Judy Steinberg didn’t even change her name to “Dean”, good god how horrible, she must not be a good wife. She has a real and important job she can’t just drop to come campaign, and that’s bad for Dean they say. Later on, they even talked about how Teresa Heinz (oh god, another one who didn’t change her name!) wears shawls! This is political commentary in this country nowadays. I liked it better when we didn’t have 5 news channels trying to fill 24 hours a day and scraping the bottom of the barrel so hard. Afterwards, we discussed it and think that this whole line of thinking is a crock and that the existence of it as an issue has a 1950’s feel to it. I said it was like 50’s era executives clucking because one of their peers had a wife who works outside the home and doesn’t have dinner, a drink and his slippers waiting when he gets home.
Granted, rightly or wrongly, the media are going to take a look at the wives of the candidates, so you can argue that the Deans should have been prepared, especially given the media’s dislike of Howard. This, after all, is the same media that managed to make a major scandal out of the Scream, a moment of campaign exuberance of zero importance (especially when compared with–for example!–Bush’s inability to speak two consecutive unscripted sentences that are not gibberish, his refusal to read newspapers and the fact that much of the world thinks he’s a dangerous moron). But actually, it’s only when a wife has her own identity that her choices are scrutinized. If Dr. Judith Steinberg was simply Judy Dean, if she spent her life doing nothing so important it couldn’t be dropped to follow her husband as he followed his star, no one would question her priorities. No one thought less of Barbara Bush because she dropped out of college to get married, like those Wellesley girls in Mona Lisa Smile . No one reprimands Laura Bush for abandoning her career as a librarian and spending her life as her husband’s den mother. No one asks Hadassah Lieberman or Elizabeth Edwards or Gertie Clark how come they have so much free time on their hands that they can saddle up with their husbands’ campaign for months, or why, if they care so much about politics, they aren’t running for office themselves.
Don’t you wish, just once, the questioners and pontificators would turn it around? After all, if a woman were running for President, would they expect her doctor husband to abandon his ailing patients and his high-school-age son to soften her image? Au contraire , they would regard such a man as a pussy-whipped wimp, a loser, very possibly even…weird.
What if the media tried on for size the notion that having an independent wife says something good about a candidate? For example, maybe, if his wife is not at his beck and call, he won’t assume the sun rises because he wants to get up; maybe, if his wife has her own goals in life, her own path to tread, he won’t think women were put on earth to further his ambitions; maybe, if he and his wife are true partners–which is not the same as her pouring herself into his career and his being genuinely grateful, the best-case scenario of the traditional political marriage–he may even see women as equals. Why isn’t it the candidates who use their wives to further their careers with plastic smiles and cheery waves who have to squirm on Primetime?
Amen! I’m with this whole column down the line.