Much has been said lately regarding whether families and potential First Ladies should be off limits or fair game during Presidential elections. Shortly after his wife appeared on ABC’s “The View,” Barack Obama proclaimed that would-be President’s spouses should be off limits. Quickly, the McCain camp agreed.
As an entrepreneur and taxpayer, I can’t help but feel that those disingenuous claims are tantamount to me saying I feel like my personal expenses should be fully deductible on my Schedule C.
Frankly, the idea is both ridiculous and unrealistic. I’m disappointed that both candidates would espouse an approach that is neither grounded in history nor reality. Only James Buchanan, the 15th President, did not have to deal with the issue in some form or another, being the only bachelor to ever earn the job.
Presidential spouses have long been central figures in the public eye, the term “First Lady” dating back to President Zachary Taylor’s 1849 reference at Dolley Madison’s state funeral. By the late 1870’s, media reported frequently on the activities of the tremendously popular First Lady of the era, Mrs. Rutherford B. Hayes. And a 1911 comedic play titled The First Lady in the Land popularized the position further. Since then, the First Lady’s conduct has been scrutinized during her tenure and beyond. The position has become a powerful one both in the White House and perhaps moreso in the bountiful years that follow. It is a position that can be used to accomplish public good. With it comes great responsibility. And prior to being bestowed with that public trust, why shouldn’t the American public – with the media as its intermediary -interview the candidates for the most high-profile, non-elected, lifelong position in the pantheon of American politics? (After all, we pay the expenses of their offices, travel and staff.)
Where there are benefits, there are risks. Where there is promise, there are potential pit falls. The proof is in the pages of history.
Martha Washington’s wealth may have provided the means that enabled George Washington to leave the colonial arm of the British military, prior to rising to prominence as a leader in the movement for independence.
Dolley Madison became a national folkhero for salvaging treasures including state papers and a painting of George Washington from the White House before it was burned by the British army during the War of 1812. Remaining a popular figure long after her husband’s presidency ended, she was the only private citizen to be allowed to sit in on Congress, on the congressional floor, while it was in session.
Mary Todd Lincoln was pilloried in the press for her spending to renovate the White House after Buchanan’s bachelor years, her inaccurately perceived pro-slavery inclinations as she hailed from the South, and her mercurial temperament. Later, after President Lincoln’s untimely death, she was briefly relegated to an insane asylum.
Eleanor Roosevelt shaped modern perception of the First Lady as the President’s political partner, being extremely outspoken on the key issues of her time, fighting for the minimum wage, an end to child labor, women’s and civil rights, and supporting the formation of the United Nations, eventually becoming the first Chairperson of the UN’s Human Rights Commission.
Jackie O: Enough said.
Betty Ford: Supported the Equal Rights Amendment and was hailed Woman of the Year by Time Magazine. When her husband lost his voice, she delivered Gerald Ford’s concession speech to Jimmy Carter following the 1976 election. In 1978, after a family intervention prompted her to face her own chemical dependency, she invented celebrity rehab, her name becoming a brand linked to the public reform of privately tortured figures. In the opinion of The New York Times, “Mrs. Ford’s impact on American culture may be far wider and more lasting than that of her husband…”
Nancy Reagan cared for an icon in his waning days with every measure of decorum, discretion and grace that would be expected from someone who could be trusted implicitly to stoically carry the burden. Hillary Clinton stood by her man, steadying the Presidency while it was under fire for infidelity and the lies that followed. She did her best to leverage her post for healthcare reform, children’s health initiatives, a Senate career, and a bid for the Presidency itself.
So how can anyone deny the opportunities and the challenges, for today and for posterity, that come with the post of First Spouse?
If it didn’t matter, if these were private positions whose holders should be handled with kid gloves, they would not be marked by history.
Surely, both McCain and Obama understand this. Their bluster must be little more than husbandly posturing. But I wish they were more forthcoming about reality. The media will do their jobs. Reckless commentators will sling questionable mud. And people will google their wives. The truth will be laid out for everyone to see and know. What we as voters and conscientious citizens can’t tolerate are lies and innuendo.
Clearly both Cindy McCain and Michelle Obama live on a public scale in their own right. Mrs. McCain, running a major corporation that has yielded a personal fortune of over $100 million, is a de facto public figure because with wealth comes responsibility not to mention influence on leadership and policies, particularly since her enterprise prospers within a heavily regulated industry: alcoholic beverages. Mrs. Obama, on the other hand, likewise has led a visible life on a regional level, serving major institutions like the City – and University – of Chicago while being a passionate community advocate. Neither are perfect. Both have worked hard for second chances, whether those were required due to private stumblings turned public by the inquiring press or public pratfalls due to ill-conceived comments on the national stage. Both deserve second chances, surely. What they don’t deserve are free passes or false accusations. I’m confident that – given the chance – either would fulfill her job competently. But at the same time, both are as human as their husbands and as the First Ladies before them. As with anyone we put in the White House, they bring promise and risk. And we should evaluate these within the grander scheme of heavier factors that must weigh into our national decision. So let’s stop blowing smoke, read their bios, ask our questions, and leave it at that. Why create distractions that aren’t there? And on the other extreme, why pretend that they don’t matter? Americans will vote for a new President in November. They’ll get more than one person in the deal. They deserve to know the value of the full package. That’s something nobody should deny, because one thing’s for sure: history won’t.