Thursday, August 2

:: Lady Macbeth Rides Again

Presidential campaigns remind me of the wagon trains of yore.* As they move toward their destination they pick up wagons whose drivers believe in the wagon master’s** promised land and think he's just the guy to get them there. Other wagons may drop out of the train due to mishaps, a lack of faith, or better opportunities elsewhere. And, when things get really rough, somebody inevitably gets eaten (and it sure as hell isn’t the wagon master).

I bet every wagon train had people who created controversy along the way, some for good reason and some purely out of self-interest. I imagine some controversies were almost guaranteed to come up (I won’t enumerate them but I’m sure at least one of them had to do with cougars.)***

And this brings me to my point: every presidential contest brings forth a crop of perennial micro-controversies. This week, its the return of the Big Bad Wife. ****

I say “micro-controversy” because I’m not talking about the larger issue of family image control, which can become big news ala the Great Cookie Baking / Stand By Your Man imbroglio of 1992, or those reliable thorns-in-the-ass Billy Carter (RIP), Roger Clinton and the Bush twins. Instead, what I have in mind is the fight for status and control between the candidate’s "top advisors” and the candidate’s wife,***** which feeds into the all-important question of Just Who Exactly Does She Think She is?

Not only does it come up every cycle – I’ll spare you the historical retrospective – but it occurs on a bipartisan basis. For example, in the space of one week WaPo has run multiple items concerning Mrs. John Edwards, Mrs. Fred Thompson and what you might call “Lady Macbeth Syndrome.”

First, Mrs. Edwards. On 30 July, WaPo ran A True Political Partner: John Edwards’s Wife Has Helped Shape His Presidential Bid and Often Shares the Spotlight.******

I’ll break it down for you. First, here's the setup:
Among political insiders who closely follow the presidential race and gossip about who is up and who is down in every campaign, Elizabeth Edwards is the hidden hand behind virtually every important decision regarding her husband's second bid for the White House.
And the volley:
Still, with savvy consultants, would the current campaign have avoided some of the issues that have arisen this year? Those are now short-handed as the three Hs -- haircuts (at $400 a pop), hedge fund (the candidate's tenure as a hedge fund executive) and house (the 28,000-square-foot home the couple recently had built for their return to North Carolina).
And now, Mrs. Edwards’****** perspective. The Post gives us an Elizabeth who alternately denies her influence and takes ownership of it, to wit:
Edwards recently recalled a moment in the 2004 general election campaign when she lost faith in consultants…. "It seemed so completely bogus," she said. "It was like somebody had pulled the curtain back in 'The Wizard of Oz.'
"We tried to do it the way we were told by people who had lots of experience. We're now liberated from that, and it's great."
"I get a lot more credit for, you know, being the puppeteer than I am," she said. "I express my opinion. Honestly, I'm not the decision maker."
Asked who is now running the campaign, she laughed again. "All these stories about my pulling the strings -- honestly, I don't know."
On one level, this is about certain consultants’ resentment of Mrs. Edwards – after all, she is doing for free what they could be doing for money. And nobody likes having two bosses.

But on a different level, it reflects the same old anxiety over the ambitious, controlling wife who usurps the leader’s rightful place and precipitates disaster. Such a woman is seen as unnatural, not only perverting her role as “helpmeet” but also emasculating her husband, and thereby weakening his realm.

Mothers can play this role too – re: The Manchurian Candidate – but Lady Macbeth is the obvious precursor. That is, unless you want to count Eve getting too opinionated about whether Adam was eating enough fruit.

WaPo has spun the same storyline with Jeri Thompson. Robert Novak’s column today is dedicated to saving the lady’s reputation from those who would cast her as temptress / villain. Novak recounts a typically molar-crushing moment from the Sunday morning talk shows:
"Well, first," said Juan Williams of National Public Radio, ". . . I think you should get Jeri Thompson in here, the trophy wife, right?" William Kristol of the Weekly Standard interjected: "That's unfair." Williams: "Unfair, unfair, I know, but --" Kristol: "It is unfair."

That ended the discussion. I asked Williams, a respected journalist, whether he regretted the comment. He did not, but he explained that he got the idea from a July 8 New York Times article by Susan Saulny. "Is America ready for a president with a trophy wife?" she asked in the paper's Style section. "Subsequent to that," Williams told me, "I heard the same thing in conversation with people in other campaigns -- about her being so young, so attractive and so powerful."
This is indeed unfair, Novak points out*******, because, far from being a prize, Mrs. T in fact has copious experience as a Republican operative with the RNC and elsewhere. He writes:
“She has been intimately involved in the planning of her husband's campaign, including last week's staff shakeup. When Tom Collamore left as Thompson's campaign manager, he told CNN that he was "very respectful of the desire of Fred and Jeri to make some changes as they move to the next level." Those comments generated whispers in the political community that whoever ran this campaign would have to answer to the candidate's wife.”
As with the Edwards campaign, this is a gone-public aspect of behind-the-scenes skirmishing over limited resources. But it also reflects the disconnect people feel when they try to match the notion of “wife” with "chief strategist.” Apparently for many of us a “wife” should have a “derivative” existence (that’s Mrs. E's term for it), assisting when needed rather than calling the shots. “Wife” is incompatible with the idea of the “campaign manager” who, by occupational necessity, must be extremely strong-willed.********

Consider this joke made by Fred Thompson to a fundraiser audience (as reported by Novak):
“[He] began by introducing 'my campaign manager -- oh, I mean my wife.'"
I propose that to the extent the comment is funny, it is because it taps into the dissonance between the two occupations.********* A big tough guy like Thompson, letting himself be bossed around by his pretty little wife – the very idea! The crowd titters, vaguely reassured that, at least for the moment, Fred has his priorities straight and his house in order.


* Yes, I said “yore.” Bite me.

** That’s what they were called. I looked it up in the wikipedia. Quote: “Ward Bond died of a heart attack on 5 November 1960, in the middle of the fourth season and was replaced by John McIntire as wagon master.”

*** Yes, that’s how it is spelled (not “cougers”). I used spell-check.

**** I say “wife” because I don’t mean “husband.”

***** Ditto.

****** Since when did we start writing “Edwards’s”? I thought for a noun ending in “s” you put the apostrophe on the outside to show possession. Did the rules change or something? Or am I imagining this?

******* A fine example of the "stopped clock" rule.

******** Don't even think about bringing up Mary Matalin. She is the exception to every rule you can think of, and quite a few that you can't.

********* Don't agree? Then consider some variations: "I'd like to introduce my campaign manager... Oh, I mean, my friend." No dissonance = no funny. "I'd like to introduce my campaign manager... Oh, I mean, my father." That might get a small laugh, but it could be more alarming than funny if the father's reputation is superior to the son's (imagine George W. saying that in 2000). "I'd like to introduce my campaign manager... Oh, I mean, the Captain of the SS Cornflake." Really, only Kucinich could pull that one off.


ladybec said...

Why are we so fascinated by the candidates' wives? But I admit I can't stop reading the articles. Yet Elizabeth and Jeri get off easy compared to the extensive and unflattering profile ( of Judith Giuliani in September's Vanity Fair.

And you are totally right on footnote #6.

ladybec said...

Luckily, Peggy Noonan also has some advice ( for would-be first ladies, which mostly boils down to be like Laura Bush, who I have always thought must be on sedatives.

And she officially carves out the Bill exception. Though I do think that there is going to be something interesting if we have the first First Man or whatever the heck we're going to call him and how maybe that will change some of these dynamics. Obviously, as a former president, his role will look different, but I want to have some faith that perhaps it will force us to question some of what we expect from presidential spouses and change things for the future. Or is that just too naive and idealistic to expect?

Ciccina said...

My dear, I think you and I are the only people reading this blog. So, first - thanks for the dinner invite - I'm sorry I couldn't make it...

Second, if I'm going to read Noonan I'm going to need a sedative myself. Laura's face is still frozen, but I think I see panic in her eyes. I imagine from her perspective, she can only see the world one of two ways: either she knows how drastically out-of-step her husband is with the rest of the country and the world, and realizes he has made huge mistakes, or, she thinks the rest of the world has gone gob-smacked crazy and her husband is the only right-thinking man on the planet. Either way its the kind of thinking that precipitates a breakdown.

The funny thing about Bill as "first husband" is that because of his history of infidelity no one will be making sexist cracks about him being "first lady." People have said a lot about Bill, but never once has he been called unmanly.

Actually, thinking about the gender dynamics, I just realized how untenable a Clinton-Edwards ticket would be. The sexist jokes would explode exponentially. He is feminized enough in the eyes of the media elite and this would just compound it. "Finally, an all-female presidential ticket" and so on.