Last week I devoured the controversial new book, The Obamas, by New York Times correspondent Jodi Kantor, in one greedy gulp. But even at the half-way mark I could understand why the book had so upset the White House. The story may ostensibly be about the Obamas as a couple and the dynamics of their relationship but its focus is undoubtedly the First Lady – her resistance to her husband’s joining politics; her difficulties in adjusting to life in the White House; her extravagance; her stormy relationship with her husband’s staffers; her struggle to find a meaningful role for herself other than that of First Mum; and so on.
But what intrigued me was not so much that Kantor had spun a book – and a very readable one at that – out of meeting the Obamas for about half an hour several years ago (as the White House bitterly pointed out). What really leapt out at me as I raced through the chapters is how important spouses are in American politics.
They may not be running for office themselves but political wives are subjected to much the same media scrutiny as their husbands. Their every move is analysed, every statement mined for sub-text, and every wardrobe choice picked over. Whatever the merits of the men, they inevitably end up being judged by the women they married – and if they managed to stay married to them. And wives can often make or break a political career.
Remember how Hillary Clinton was pilloried for making dismissive remarks about stay-at-home moms who baked cookies when her husband was running for President? Such was the backlash that she had to turn up on a television show with some home-baked cookies she had rustled up herself to prove that she – a high-flying lawyer – was a regular mom like any other. When the ‘bimbo eruptions’ hit Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign, it was Hillary who gave a joint interview with her husband to shore up his image. And again, when the Monica Lewinsky story hit the headlines, it was Hillary who came up with the infamous phrase, ‘a giant right-wing conspiracy’ to defend her beleaguered husband.
Yes, wives have the power to shore up their husbands’ political careers if they so choose. President George W Bush’s image as a warmonger was softened by the gentle presence of his wife, Laura, the school-teacher turned librarian, who spent all her time doing good works and reading to children. And more recently, when Barack Obama’s ratings plummeted to abysmal levels, his wife’s soaring popularity helped to even the score a bit.
Now, as the scrimmage over the Republican nomination for the next US Presidential election continues, political wives merit more coverage than ever. Mitt Romney scores by the simple expedient of staying married to his high school sweetheart, Ann, with whom he has five strapping sons. Newt Gingrich hasn’t been so lucky. Last week, Maureen Dowd devoted her entire New York Times column to eviscerating Gingrich’s current wife, Callista. Describing the third Mrs Gingrich as a ‘tranformational wife’ who wants her husband to go out there and conquer the world, Dowd wrote, “Draped in Tiffany diamonds, Callista is the embodiment of the divide between Gingrich’s public piety and private immorality.” Ouch!
This American-style spotlight on political wives has now even spread across the Atlantic, with the wives of British Prime Ministers playing a more visible public role. Nobody either heard or saw Norma Major when her husband was Prime Minister. But you couldn’t possibly say that about Cherie Blair now, could you? Even the more low profile Sarah Brown was pulled out at the Labour Party conference to introduce her husband Gordon to the delegates in a speech aimed at ‘humanising’ him.
Now Samantha Cameron is a visible presence on the British political scene, supporting her husband at political events, flying the flag for British fashion, or hosting a gaggle of political spouses on the sidelines of major conferences. On the Continent, it is Carla Bruni who is flying the flag for the political wife, making joint appearances with her husband, Nicolas Sarkozy, to give his image a much-needed dose of glamour.
Thankfully, we in India are still holding out against this trend of making political spouses part of the political narrative. The only time we see Gursharan Kaur, wife of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in the papers is when she accompanies her husband on some foreign trip. Otherwise, she stays very much in the shadows, preserving her privacy behind the ramparts of Race Course Road.
Of the putative Prime Ministerial candidates on offer, Rahul Gandhi does not have a spouse (though it’s probably fair to say that she would get a fair amount of media attention if she did, in fact, exist). But even among the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidates, it is hard to put a face on the spouses of any of them. It has been rumoured that Narendra Modi has a wife, but I can’t seem to recall a single picture of her being published in the media. And I doubt that most people could identify Arun Jaitley’s wife or Sushma Swaraj’s husband if their lives depended on it.
No, in India, political spouses are just not part of the political discourse. We don’t care what they think about the political issues of the day; what they do to earn a living; or even, what they wear. And long may it stay that way.
From HT Brunch, February 12
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