They both did well in fulfilling their ascribed duties. One was supposed to explain why her husband and the family they’ve made together are just like everybody else’s, as American as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or a plate of mac-n-cheese. The other was supposed to explain why her party’s latest change agent is the guy who deserves your vote.
Both women are lawyers, well educated at marquee schools. Both are mothers who have politically ambitious husbands. Both are smart and possess reputations for intensity and being no-nonsense. Both put their careers on semi-hiatus, stashed away their personal opinions and wrapped themselves in motherly and wifely goodness when their husbands became the official presidential nominees of their party.
There, in a tangerine pantsuit, Hillary Clinton -- no longer a first lady wanna-be -- addressed the Democratic national convention in Denver. A U.S. senator and freshly defeated Democratic contender for president, Clinton was no longer tethered to the role of the doting, supportive spouse who was supposed to make undecided voters feel all warm, fuzzy and unthreatened by witty, powerful woman. Clinton, now a politician and political leader in her own right, was free to speak clearly and strongly about her views and positions on issues. Her views, not someone else’s.
And, there, in a teal dress, was Michelle Obama, first lady wanna-be. Despite her intelligent, thought-provoking speeches of the past 18 months, at the Democratic convention she stuck to the story of her life as a daughter, sister, mother and wife. While it’s true that her speech was preceded by a lovely biographical video  narrated by her proud mother -- which told Michelle Obama’s story and lightly touched upon her career achievements -- the bulk of the video was about the softer side of the “South Side Girl,” a lot on her romance with Barack and her relationship with her family, with her mother noting that Michelle had been like a mom to many people throughout her life.
Michelle Obama’s speech , executed warmly with aplomb, was a Hallmark card to the voters. (“. . . I come here as a wife who loves my husband and believes he will be an extraordinary president. And I come here as a mom whose girls are the heart of my heart and the center of my world. They are the first things that I think about when I wake up in the morning and the last thing I think about when I go to bed at night.”) And, although I’m as much of a sucker for bittersweet, touching family stories as the next gal -- I adore watching the Obamas with their two spunky daughters -- as I watched the convention, I felt as though some of the regalness and the strength that we saw from Michelle: The Primary Season had been replaced by a new version, Michelle: The General Election Edition. While the color of her dress was bright, her tone was somewhat muted. She’d been Lifetime-televisionized.
But this transformation isn’t unique to Michelle Obama. The same thing happened in 1992, when then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton was running for president and his working mom of a wife Hillary was expected to do the mom-and-wife dance. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a wife and a mom -- I wear both of those hats -- but for many women, those titles don’t completely cover the entirety of their lives. And when your husband is running for president, your career is downplayed because that’s not what the voters in swing states want to hear about. Remember the 1992 Democratic convention video, “The Man from Hope ” which sought to tell Bill Clinton’s up-from-the-bootstraps story and to soften the image of his wife Hillary, who’d been chastised for saying that if you voted for her husband you’d be getting “two for the price of one”? In the video, Hillary was seen talking about how Bill wooed her when they were attending the Yale Law School, about Bill’s big heart and his difficult childhood, about what a loving dad he was. You know the drill.
When the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee’s wife Teresa Heinz Kerry took to the podium  at the Democratic convention in Boston, she had the nerve to stray from the traditional first-spouse-wanna-be constraints . And she was pilloried  for it, called “ so unusual as a presidential candidate’s wife. ” “My name is Teresa Heinz Kerry,” she said. “And by now, I hope it will come as no surprise that I have something to say. Tonight, as I have done throughout this campaign, I would like to speak to you from the heart. . .” Then, after speaking in a series of foreign languages, Heinz Kerry (What? Two names? For a potential first lady?) discussed her life  on the African continent. While addressing the lack of freedom in some corners of the world, she said: “My right to speak my mind, to have a voice, to be what some have called, [*air quotes*] ‘opinionated’ is a right I deeply and profoundly cherish. And my only hope is that one day soon, women who have all earned their right to their opinions instead of being called ‘opinionated’ will be called ‘smart’ and ‘well informed’ just like men . . . It is time for the world to hear women’s voices in full and at last.”
I’d venture to guess that the anti-Heinz Kerry tamping down of Michelle Obama’s working mother patter and discussion of issues that are important to her will also happen to Cindy McCain when she speaks at the Republican convention. McCain, no doubt, will be given strict marching orders: Soften up husband John McCain’s image. Make him seem like a regular guy. Tell touching anecdotes about him as a dad and as a son to his aging mother. Discuss how loving he’s been during difficult moments in her life. “Humanize him, Cindy,” she’ll likely be told, “and remember, it’s not about you.” We aren’t likely to hear about Cindy McCain’s business acumen running her family’s beer distributorship or about her extensive work with charities . . . no wait, we just might hear about the charitable endeavors because they involve the very, first lady-friendly topic of children, a subject that voters supposedly like to see first ladies discussing.
But, under no circumstances -- particularly in light of what happened to Heinz Kerry -- are would-be first ladies supposed to dwell on their own careers and opinions because that might frighten people who think that first spouses should be seen and not heard, unless they’re saying something kind, sweet and all manner of charming about their politician spouse, or discussing cookie recipes. (The fact that there are women like Michelle Obama who struggle with work and parenthood, and that, if her husband is elected, she might serve as a role model on this matter is beside the point, because it’s all about the candidate and how good of a first lady she’d be at his side.) Career women who speak their minds -- like Michelle Obama did earlier in this campaign, only to have her statements mischaracterized and her affection for her nation questioned -- risk being tagged with labels such as “angry” or “strident” because first ladies, you see, just aren’t supposed to act that way. They’re supposed to be ciphers, people who reflect an old fashioned view of femininity, not necessarily the unique individuals they actually are.
As New York Times columnist Gail Collins wrote recently about Obama: “It’s tricky business representing independent modern women while not creating political pain for your spouse, made even trickier if you’re an African-American who is almost 6 feet tall, possessed of stunning looks and a forceful personality.” Because when it comes to first ladies, apparently, the political consultants believe we want 1958, not 2008.