The Role Of Political Spouses: Decoding An Image

One of the most talked about personalities on the Republican presidential campaign trail, Callista Gingrich, rarely says a word. That hasn't kept her out of the spotlight, though. From their hair to their home life, potential first ladies get attention on the campaign trail.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Well, here in the U.S., of course, none of the serious contenders in the presidential race are women, but one of the most talked about personalities on the Republican presidential campaign trail is. Here she is, introducing her husband recently at a political conference.

CALLISTA GINGRICH: When we decided to run, we knew there would be tough stories from the media as well as hurtful attacks from some of our opponents.

KELLY: That's Callista Gingrich introducing her husband. She spoke for three minutes. Politico quipped it was the longest most people have ever heard her speak.

Well, for more on the role Callista Gingrich and other political spouses are playing in this year's campaign, we've called on Michelle Cottle. She's a reporter for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and she's with us now in our studio. Michelle, welcome to the show.

MICHELLE COTTLE: Oh, it's excellent to be here.

KELLY: There's been a lot of - an amazing amount of commentary on her hair, but there is a Facebook page dedicated to her hair, not the woman but to her hair. And you would argue even the hair does send a signal.

COTTLE: The hair sends a very grown-up signal. It's very fixed. It's very traditional. You know, I think, all things considered, she would be a little bit better served with a looser do. But on the other hand, we are talking about a woman who's best known as the other woman. You know, she is not his second wife. She is his third wife and the wife that he spent years having an affair with before they actually got together. So it's very important for the Gingrichs to convey this sense of traditional family life.

KELLY: And I'm sure we have listeners sitting up, irate right now that we're spending time in the middle of, you know, economic woes and unemployment and all these other important issues - national security concerns, et cetera. This is important, why?

COTTLE: Any time a presidential candidate is seriously considered, people look to his family for signs of what kind of person he is. And wives are generally more popular - wind up more popular than their husbands. So people pay a lot of attention to them.

KELLY: What about some of the other wives - and they are all wives - on the campaign trail? What kind of role are they playing in their husband's campaigns?

COTTLE: Well, nobody's gotten as much attention as Callista. But, you know, Ann Romney, in particular, once upon a time was seen as a liability. She was seen as almost too perfect, a little bit cool, a little bit removed. And gradually, over the years - I think it was after she had been diagnosed with MS - she became very popular. And she is now much more beloved and is seen as a way to kind of getting to loosen up on the trail.

Karen Santorum. You know, family is a big part of Santorum's whole shtick. I mean, and he has a daughter who people have paid a great deal of attention to because she has special needs, and his wife stays home and takes care of them. Now, Ron Paul's wife, I bet that very few people even know her name.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KELLY: Right. I had to look it up, I admit.

COTTLE: She does have a Ron Paul cookbook that they distribute that the campaign says is extremely popular, and she has all these kind of folksy recipes and stuff. So here, again, she's playing the very domestic kind of softening agent for him.

KELLY: I was struck - some of these questions came up specifically at one of the recent debates when CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked this question.

WOLF BLITZER: But first, on a lighter subject, I want to ask each of these gentlemen why they think their wife would make a great first lady.

KELLY: And Wolf Blitzer got a lot of flak for asking that question.

COTTLE: Well, I think any time you have the candidates up there like this, you're trying to get them to be a little bit spontaneous and give people a little bit of their personality. And kind of the dynamic between a candidate and his wife is, once again, a glimpse into that. And every first lady picks her own issues that she wants to spotlight, and she draws a lot of attention to them, like Michelle Obama with childhood nutrition and obesity.

But that's not really the kind of thing that you look at. I mean, nobody votes for a president based on kind of what issues or how competent their wife will be. It is more a reflection of the man himself.

KELLY: That's Michelle Cottle, a reporter for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. And, Michelle, thanks for joining us.

COTTLE: Oh, it's my pleasure.

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