Political InQueery: The Good Husband

Rep. Weiner gave us another version, earlier this month, of the near-iconic image of the suffering, strong wife standing by her disgraced man as he calls a press conference to discuss whatever scandal has plagued him. Actually, his wife doesn't even need to be at his press event; the Washington Post will force the image on readers anyway:

Wiener press conference and pic of wife

So does the media cover the spouses of politicians differently when it comes to husbands?

Aside from all of the ribbing she takes, most recently about John Wayne Gacy, and accepting stimulus funds for her district, Michele Bachmann is not in the midst of any scandal. Oh, wait. Her husband, Marcus is. It's a bit of a stretch, however, to call this a scandal per se; his mental health clinic has collected Medicaid funds for its low-income clients since the mid-2000s. That's only a "scandal" when you consider Rep. Bachmann's assertions that she doesn't believe in things like Medicaid (which is a separate entity from Medicare, which she also doesn't support).

But let's look at this again. Rep. Bachmann's husband's clinic serves working-class clients and is receiving legal federal support when it is appropriate. She may not believe in these broad welfare or social safety net programs, but the issue as framed by the media here has collapsed her spouse's behavior with her ideals. Is Michele Bachmann allowed to have autonomy from her spouse?

Marcus and Michele BachmannDuring the 2008 campaign, much hay was made over Todd Palin's behavior, and also cast as a measure of Sarah Palin's qualifications for the office of Vice President. His DUI arrest and role in ethics issues behind building their massive house in Alaska came out during that election cycle. Both of these were presented as evidence not only that Ms. Palin was perhaps unfit for office but also relied on her husband too much to help her make political decisions.

Given the historical evidence that male politicians have relied on women to assist them with legislative issues and governance, this is a sexist response on its face. It's been well documented in American political history, when female partners step in and take their husbands' vacated seats—this is more commonplace in the Senate, where a writ of election can fill a seat quickly—after the husband's death, that not all political moments occur only in offices and legislative chambers.

There's also the press' penchant for calling these men "First Dudes." Certainly "dude" isn't the formal equivalent of "lady," a word festooned with patriarchal entanglements and a term that certainly fails to describe the entirety of responsibilities and commitments encumbent upon the First Lady. Sarah Palin herself liked to refer to Todd as "first dude," in order to point out their political style and outsider status, but the reporting about Todd followed suit—and his behavior was used to show that her character lacked credibility.

It isn't only male spouses of Republican candidates who seem to tarnish their wives' reputations. When Democrat Hillary Clinton was running in the presidential primary in 2008, Bill was offered up as a liability to her chances again and again. Jimmy Carter himself couldn't hold back on speculating about Bill's negative effect on his wife's campaign. Even after the '08 election, the media questioned whether she could be an effective Secretary of State—because of Bill.

Mark and Jenny SanfordIn the advent of around-the-clock sensationalized news content, and the copious numbers of surveillance cameras, cameraphones [sic], and paparazzi out in the world to capture images and stories, politicians are under a constant gaze. If we believe in the corrupting influence of power (hats off to Foucault), scandals will continue to occur in the political arena. But these are not merely news stories; they are relayed to us through a lens of heteronormativity and sexism that says women are only as good as their men, boys will be boys, and men make lousy supports for their wives' political careers. After all, First Dudes aren't beholden to holding high tea, they're off snowmobiling through the Alaskan forest, jetsetting with other former Presidents, and dipping into the well of welfare money.

The press can do better.

Previously: The Trick of Measuring Up, How to Stop People From Voting

Comments

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"Lady" vs. "Dude"

I hadn't thought about the implications of calling potential husbands of Presidents (etc.) "First Dudes," but like you say, it's not comparable with "First Lady" at all. I'm tempted to think, "Huh, the women's title is more respectful for once," but I don't think that's it. "Dude" is an affectionate, goofy, card-carrying-member-of-the-old-boys'-club kind of term; "lady" is formal and hints at how wives of Presidents are expected to fit into an ideal of poised, old-fashioned womanhood. Obnoxious indeed.

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Yup! Chivalry loves to cover

Yup! Chivalry loves to cover up male aggression and condescension.

Hmmm

I see the point, but I'm not so sure it's as simple as this, especially in regard to the Clintons. I remember quite clearly the infamous "cookie bake-off" Hillary was subjected to during the 1992 campaign, because she was seen as a liability to Bill's candidacy due to her not being "womanly" enough, essentially. People thought she was too ambitious and not involved with her family enough, and possibly too much of an influence over Bill in a way that many considered unseemly. (Which adds up to "too smart," but nobody was going to say that out loud, really.) Also in that campaign, the press certainly didn't ignore the issue of a possible conflict of interest between Bill and Hillary's law firm, who had done work for Arkansas. I think the way the press treated Hillary was one reason Laura Bush stayed almost invisble.

In terms of Bill's impact on her campaign, there were the scandals, but I think it was mixed with concern that Bill would pull focus from anyone. Being a former president, an intelligent and highly sought-after political commentator, and wildly popular, I think it might be somewhat legitimate to wonder whether people would be paying as much attention to him as to her, as unfair as that might be. Also, theirs is a unique situation - I don't think any other woman has traveled a political trajectory that includes First Lady, Senator, and presidential candidate, and it's inextricably tied up with her husband's career, for good or ill. So it's hard to extrapolate from them how the press treats women running for office in general.

It's certainly not simple, so

It's certainly not simple, so I don't mean to state the interplay between the media and these relationships in that way. I like that you point to the example of the press wondering aloud if HIllary would harm BIll's chances at getting elected, because part of the rhetoric around her was that she was unfeminine, had male career aggression, and didn't fit the "model" of First Lady. In that way, I'd say it's actually easier to extrapolate her from these other instances of female politicians, because she's clearly an outlier. But I did want to show that the popular culture's questions regarding a female candidate's husband cross party lines, and aren't reserved for the husbands of conservative women.

I also think I see Laura Bush's invisibility as less a response to Hillary's legacy and more of a regression to the mean, in which First Lady offices were allowed one or two uncontroversial initiative areas, along the lines of Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" program, Ladybird Johnson's garden initiative, and the Barbara Bush Foundation for Literacy.

It may have been somewhat legitimate to ask if a former President could let anyone else in the household run the country, but I don't find many instances at all of people pondering whether George H. W. Bush would affect his son's ability to govern in this way. I think there's a specific gender-based connection going on here.

I appreciate your comments about the Clintons--given that it looks like Secretary Clinton may take leadership of the World Bank after her term in Obama's Cabinet, I'm curious if he will stick with his regimen of consulting and speaking engagements.

An alarming mix of humor, politics, pop culture, and queeritude. Author of Bumbling into Body Hair: Tales of an Accident-Prone Transsexual.

MONEY ISSUES ARE DIFFERENT THAN PERSONAL ISSUES

I agree that female politicians should not be blamed if their husbands are boorish, silly, fidelity-challenged, too charming, have a drinking problem, etc. But money is a different issue. Legally, spouses are often considered one unit economically. Isn't the advantage of that situation one of the reasons (among many) that gays and lesbians want to marry? Isn't that why Clarence Thomas is in trouble (http://www.truth-out.org/clarence-thomas-must-go/1308761622)?

If someone takes an extreme position of independence from the need for social programs but benefits from them economically, I am interested. I was interested when it was the case for Ross Perot (http://encyclopedia.jrank.org/articles/pages/6330/Perot-Ross.html). I would be very interested if it was the case for a spouse of Ron or Rand Paul. If there are some male Tea Party/Libertarian politicians getting a pass from the media while Bachmann is criticized, please let me know so I can spread it around!

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"Oh don't the days seem lank and long
When all goes right and nothing goes wrong
And isn't your life extremely flat
When you've nothing whatever to grumble at?"

--W.S. Gilber

I think it's a reach to say

I think it's a reach to say that Marcus' practice's acceptance of Medicare payments for its clients is a direct "benefit" to Michelle. Medicare is just another insurance policy the accept, basically, as part of rendering services to clients. The farm subsidy for a relative is a slightly different issue, but both of these pale in comparison to the convict of interest between Justice Thomas and his wife's political organization. And the media has largely let that situation go, although as I understand it, the grassroots movement to get him thrown off the bench is getting some momentum.