Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

What candidates' wives are telling us

By Catherine Allgor, Special to CNN
September 5, 2012 -- Updated 1138 GMT (1938 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Why do the spouses of presidential candidates speak at party conventions?
  • Catherine Allgor: We look to the spouses to assure us about the candidate's personal qualities
  • She says the speeches by wives have been seen as more authentic than campaign ads
  • VIDEO: Spouses seek to humanize the candidates, telling stories about how they first met

Editor's note: Catherine Allgor is a history professor at the University of California at Riverside and an adviser to the National Women's History Museum. Her latest book is "The Queen of America: Mary Cutts's Life of Dolley Madison" (University of Virginia Press, 2012)

(CNN) -- There was a time when first ladies and first lady hopefuls merely stood smiling beside their blue-suited husbands, waving to cheering crowds. Their "press" was limited to an article in a women's magazine, with perhaps a few recipes.

Now they are scheduled and much-anticipated speakers at the Big Game, the main event for one night of the party conventions -- as Michelle Obama was Tuesday evening.

In this piece, we'll see the video highlights of speeches by candidates' wives in the past 20 years and analyze their meaning.

Speeches by spouses are one of the many aspects of American electoral politics that puzzle the rest of the world. As a reporter from VG (The Way of the World), the largest newspaper in Norway, was heard to ask, "What do these women do that their men can't?"

Live blog: Democratic National Convention

In many western European contests, the voting public doesn't even know the names of the candidates' families -- but that's never been true in America. From the first, presidents' wives have been the focus of the public eye, much to the chagrin of Martha Washington, who never wanted her husband to be the leader of the new republic. Abigail Adams, wife of the second president, John Adams, had no time for "the people" and their curiosity about the family that led the nation. It would not be until Dolley Madison became the figurehead for her reticent and uncharismatic husband, James, that a new role for the first lady was born.

Catherine Allgor
Catherine Allgor

What the new Americans were looking for, as they huzzahed Martha Washington during her inaugural journey and hailed "Queen Dolley" at her famous Wednesday night parties, was reassurance. No one knew if this new experiment in liberty was going to work, whether the "United States" (which they thought of as plural) were going to hold.

Anxious for what we would call "psychological" messages, the people watched what first ladies wore and how they acted for clues about the country's male leaders. And the ladies obliged, enacting reassurance, authority, legitimacy, and (in Dolley's case) a touch of glamorous aristocracy.

Now when the wives of candidates brave the lights, the crowds, and the live coverage, they are given a different task. To answer the Norwegian reporter's query, what the women can do is to humanize their candidates.

We Americans believe that a wife can tell us about her husband in ways we can't discern from ads, stump speeches, or even debates: about his personal morality, his character, how he reacts to crisis -- in short, who he really is.

The first presidential candidate's wife and sitting first lady to address a convention crowd since Eleanor Roosevelt was Barbara Bush in 1992, who gave a testimonial to her husband, George H.W. Bush. "Character" was an issue then, one that only increased in importance during the Clinton years, so when Elizabeth Dole took to the podium in 1996 in support of her husband, Robert, she invoked his "honor." In fact, if you listen to these speeches, you'll hear lots of old-fashioned "value" words -- "decent," "steadfast," "trust," and yes, even "values."

Many candidates' wives use their convention speech to talk about character, with words like "decent" and "steadfast."

It is funny to hear Barbara Bush say this is a "tough audience," as conventions are notorious lovefests. But I think she was reacting to doing something most of us have nightmares about -- speaking in public -- with no role models to follow. Elizabeth Dole seemed a bit nervous, too, though as head of the American Red Cross, she was used to speaking to audiences and was probably already thinking about a run for the office herself.

Military service is almost universally seen as a sign of "character" in the United States. In 2008, Cindy McCain cited her husband, John's, distinguished record. Tipper Gore gave this tried-and-true strategy a twist, making Al Gore's doubt about what many in 2000 saw as an unjust war a point in his favor.

Opinion: What Julian Castro can do for Obama

It's one thing to tell a candidate's wife to humanize her husband -- but how to do it? One of the benefits of the "humanizing" tack is that it can gloss over pesky class differences, so a prominent theme in the stories that aspiring presidential wives tell are about the "early days," when the young couple was roughing it. Apparently what brings folks from both sides of the aisles together are broken-down cars.

But even alluding to family milestones and private moments will do the trick. Like sitcom dads, our presidential fathers are at their most appealing when slightly inept.

One of the goals of a candidate's wife's speech is to make her husband seem like more than simply a politician.

Above all, every political wife wants to give us a love story, to assure us that the couple has what Ann Romney called a "real marriage." It is easy to say that we all just love a love story, but these stories also appeal to us because we assume that a man who can inspire and deserve the love of a good woman is someone we can trust. Often the love stories begin like our favorite movies.

A candidate's wife knows that a quick story of how she met her husband usually makes him more likeable.

One intriguing feature about these "love at first sight across a crowded room" stories is the idea that the man in question is obviously and immediately a man among men. Yes, American voter, what you see is what you get, they seem to say, and if you like what you see, no need to look further or deeper! Consistency counts, too. The current presidential hopefuls are essentially unchanged from the outstanding young men at the dance or (in the case of the Clintons) in the library.

No one really questions whether the women who speak of their husbands are authorities on said spouses -- and they like to remind us, in little wifely digs (even Michelle Obama thought that Barack had a funny name), that they know the public man on the most personal level.

They don't actually mention his leaving laundry on the floor or the toilet seat up, but we convention watchers fill that in. But one of the reasons they have their spot on the program is that their husbands' campaign managers also think they have a second source of authority -- they are women.

For decades, the assumption was that wives voted the way their husbands did. Right around the time that presidential candidates' wives began addressing conventions, American politicos began to see that wasn't so.

Whether the terms are "soccer moms" or "gender gap," the "women issue" is part of the calculation. But it is tricky. Using the rationale "I'm a mom, you're a mom, too," the political wife can seem to address issues far beyond what is happening under her own roof. She has to be careful about addressing actual policy -- that, everybody understands, is beyond her expertise. Unless she is Hillary Clinton, of course.

It's often the responsibility of a candidate's wife to appeal to women voters, frequently with stories of motherhood.

When Hillary Clinton mentioned a personal issue, she immediately tied it to a legislative or policy change under her husband's first administration. She did that through her whole speech. Hers was the argument of a trained lawyer and, in hindsight, a future secretary of state.

It is not correct to say, however, that these women are mere pawns of their husbands and their handlers. They are being asked to serve the campaign's purposes, but they often have their own messages to send. Even while performing the role of the selfless, devoted wife, they tell us something about themselves and their own values.

Some candidates' wives use the speech to deliver their own messages, sometimes foreshadowing future runs for office.

With such a rich history of first lady rhetoric, Americans won't stop being fascinated by presidential candidates' wives. There is something both ruthlessly modern about this attitude and touchingly old-fashioned.

On one hand, we turn to the women because we understand that the male politician's public persona is a careful construction, even a performance. At the same time, in our quest to know the real man, we are not unlike our early American counterparts, who looked for clues about the men in the Roman simplicity of Martha Washington's gown and the crown on Dolley Madison's head.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Catherine Allgor.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1928 GMT (0328 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1729 GMT (0129 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT