Candidate's Wives Put Under the Microscope

Since Hillary Clinton's retreat from the presidential battle, the national discussion has switched from women's leadership skills to an image check of the candidate's wives. In this week's political chat, author Lisa Witter and Maya Rockeymoore, a policy analyst and author, discuss whether the fascination is legitimate.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, we'll talk with the U.S. Global AIDS coordinator about efforts by the faith community to help battle the epidemic around the world, and a little later we'll hear from you, your calls and emails. But first it's time for our weekly political chat. For more than a year now their husbands have been campaigning for the nation's highest office, and as custom dictates they've been right there by their sides. We all know that the wives of political men, especially the ones running for president, have to walk a tightrope, projecting strength, intelligence, and personality, but not too much, and when they've deemed to have fallen off that line, well, we all remember it.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York): I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession which I entered before my husband was in public life.

MARTIN: That of course was Hillary Rodham Clinton back when her husband Bill Clinton was first running for President of the United States. We all remember the hubbub that comment caused. So what's the terrain now for Michelle Obama and Cindy McCain? Joining us to talk about this are Lisa Witter, she's a communications specialist and coauthor of "The She Spot: Why Women are the Secret to Changing the World and How to Reach Them." Also with us is Dr. Maya Rockeymoore, she's a policy analyst and author of "The Political Action Handbook: A How to Guide for the Hip Hop Generation." Welcome to you both, thank you for joining us.

Ms. LISA WITTER (Communications Specialist, Co-author, "The She Spot: Why Women are the Secret to Changing this World and how to Reach Them"): It's a pleasure to be with you this morning.

Dr. MAYA ROCKEYMOORE (Policy Analyst, Author, "The Political Action Handbook: A How-To Guide for the Hip-Hop Generation"): Thank you.

MARTIN: Lisa, let's start with you. In a recent column in Newsday you wrote that about women on the campaign trail, you said you were appalled at how quickly we've gone back to thinking of women in the oldest of stereotypes as only wives and mothers. You say that the wives should actually be taken more seriously as policy players.

Ms. WITTER: Well, absolutely. You know, three weeks ago we were looking at a woman at the top job, and now we're talking about what clothes she wears and the type of hair and whether or not she cooks bacon for her husband. And I think a lot of women, while they like to wear nice clothes and like to cook for themselves or for anyone else, they're really looking for the strength that a spouse, that just happens to be and continues to be a woman in this country, but they're looking for the strength and the intelligence that they can bring. And we're sort of all kidding ourselves if we don't think that a wife or a spouse doesn't have big influence on who the president will be.

MARTIN: Maya, what about you? Overall, do you think the coverage of the spouses is fair, legitimate, misdirected? What's your take?

Dr. ROCKEYMOORE: The fact of the matter is that many people assume that the family speaks about the candidate, and so, the wife especially having, an influence on the thoughts of the candidate. So many people look towards the family in order to understand how the candidate thinks and certainly his perspective on the world. So certainly we've heard a lot in this campaign season about Cindy McCain and certainly Michelle Obama, and so the coverage I think leading up to this particular point in time has been interesting and fair to the extent that it's focused on some of the issues. But now we're getting more into the terms of the, you know, the cover issues, the surface issues, and I think that we need to understand more of what's lying underneath it.

MARTIN: Who do you think is - overall, do you think, Maya, I want to ask you this, overall, do you think that the cover of the spouses has been - the coverage of the spouses has been legitimate? I mean women are interested in how other women comport themselves, how they conduct their family lives, how they, you know, hold it all together as it were. But then of course then, other people say well, that's superficial, we don't need to hear about that, what do you think overall?

Dr. ROCKEYMOORE: I think overall it has been legitimate. Michelle Obama has been out there talking about the struggles of families, how hard it is for working families to make eat - make ends meet, excuse me, and also how hard it is for students to get their education. And so to the extent that she's now being portrayed as angry because she's talking about these struggles that American people face, I think that it's been interesting to see how it's been filtered through the national media. Cindy McCain, people have been talking about, you know, certainly her activism and her interest in international affairs. But to the extent that it's focusing on what they're wearing and their makeup and their hair, I think that that's not legitimate.

MARTIN: Lisa, what do you think?

Ms. WITTER: Well, I think what's been interesting is when Michelle Obama went on "The View" and supposedly it was a campaign tactic to sort of soften her image, and she purposely, it seems, didn't talk about the fact that she's a CEO with a lot of green. In fact, at one point was Barack Obama's mentor, and I think that a lot of women, and you can see this by the support that so many women had for Hillary Clinton, they want to see a woman as a strong person. They'd love to see her as a mother and they'd love to see her in her full self, but part of her full self is being strong and having opinions and speaking out and being educated. And I think that it would be a real shame for the girls of this country, and the boys too, to see another election where we only talk about how the wives look and sort of not what else they bring to the table.

MARTIN: I want to play short clip of Michelle Obama and her recent appearance on "The View." We obviously can't play the whole thing, but here's just a short clip I think that speaks to the point you were making. Here it is.

(Soundbite of TV Show "The View")

Ms. MICHELLE OBAMA: I think the one thing that a nominee earns is the right to pick the vice president that they think will best reflect their vision of the country and I'm just glad I will have nothing to do with it.

MARTIN: And to your point, Lisa, she seems to be making the point that I'm not trying to be co-president, to perhaps sit her down, play her influence in the campaign. But Maya, you talk about this. Look, is - the spouses aren't elected. I mean is that...

Dr. ROCKEYMOORE: Listen, in a primary season where people are very concerned about Bill Clinton and his influence on a possible Hillary Clinton presidency and the possibility of a co-presidency, the American people basically rejected that with the results of the primary, so people are not interested in the co-presidency. At the same time, first ladies are expected to be interested in the issues that are important to American families and so certainly it's important for the first lady to be interested in issues, but unfortunately they want them to be interested in soft issues. So we should understand that a co-presidency - Michelle is trying to assure the American public that she will not be co-president with Barack Obama, but she will be I think a strong presence in the White House.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News and I'm speaking with Maya Rockeymoore, she's president and CEO of Global Policy Solutions, and Lisa Witter, COO of Fenton Communications. Let's listen to Cindy McCain. She was also on "The View."

(Soundbite of TV Show "The View")

Ms. BARBARA WALTERS: What do you - what do you call him?

Ms. CINDY MCCAIN: Johnny Boy.

Ms. WALTERS: Do you really?

Unidentified Woman: Johnny Boy?

Ms. MCCAIN: Yeah. Johnny Boy.

Ms. WALTERS: Tell us all the other things you know about him that would surprise us.

Ms. MCCAAIN: Well, I won't tell you everything, but he's a great cook. I know you guys have heard that about him and he's very funny, but more importantly, he's really into horticulture, plants and trees and things.

MARTIN: Lisa, in your piece, you said that we should be holding the media accountable for perpetuating stereotypes. If a white woman is strong she's considered cold as the coverage of Cindy McCain has shown, if a black woman is strong she's obviously angry, so go the accusations about Michelle Obama. What do you think that's about?

Ms. WITTER: Well, I still think that a lot of people have a hard time with women in power. They have a hard time with women having opinions. They have a hard time with seeing women in public places and I do think that Hillary Clinton, this election, did a lot to change that perception. You know, I do think that there's more to go until we have a woman in the White House and I still think that we're not going to be seen as top leaders, but I do think that people are having trouble with seeing women in power, and I think this is an opportunity, this campaign, to talk about it, and I do think that a woman or a wife or husband for that matter should play an important role in advising the husband or the wife if they're president, but they shouldn't make the final decisions, and I think that's exactly what Cindy McCain and Michelle Obama see their roles as, as advisors.

MARTIN: But the spouses aren't elected, and so the question I think still remains is what roll do they have? Isn't that - is it fair to ask what role are you going to play given that you are a person who's close to this person, but you're not a person who's on the ballot?

Ms. WITTER: Well, I think that it's true that they're not, you know, formally elected, but I do think that a person - a president, whoever he chooses as his wife, I think that's an important look into his values and what he cares about and so having that person near him is obviously a critical thing we should look into and think about. But they aren't making the final decisions and they shouldn't be. The people are electing the person at the top of the ticket, not them.

MARTIN: Both of you have been critical of, sort of, the coverage that focuses on surface issues like, you know, how you dress and sort of things like that sort, what kinds of things do you think are appropriate to talk about as we go forward? What kinds of stories would you like to see? Maya?

Dr. ROCKEYMOORE: I would really like to understand what Michelle Obama and Cindy McCain want to basically spotlight as their primary issue while in office. Most first ladies have an issue that they focus on that is sociopolitical in nature that is very much focused on addressing issues in society, and so we know that Michelle Obama for example, and her history, has been very interested in mentoring youth, and it'd be interesting to see what her platform would be while in office, and Cindy McCain has also had an interest in youth abroad, especially those - the condition of youth in the international arena, so I'd love to hear more about what kind of approach they're going to bring to the White House.

MARTIN: Lisa, what about you? What would you like to hear more about?

Ms. WITTER: Oh I couldn't agree more with the doctor. She's right on. I mean, I think everyone wants to know what issue they're going to be highlighting because it is true that when you get into the White House and you're the first lady, the press pays attention to you and you're going to have this incredibly large platform to make this, sort of, social change you want to see in the world and so whatever they decide is going to be it and they're going to have an opportunity to make an impact.

MARTIN: The other question though, that I had, is there a generational difference here? We only have about two minutes left, but I'm curious if there's a generational difference? Both of you sort of work with young people. Do you think that a generation from now we'll be having entirely different conversations, hopefully a first spouse - first man, perhaps I don't know what you'd call him, perhaps a first gentleman. Or do you think that this is just such a strong - these roots - these sort of social roots, cultural roots, run so deep that it's just we can't get away from the fact that we just - we can't get away from the fact that we are interested in how women dress and what they do with their kids and so forth.

Dr. ROCKEYMOORE: I think that they run deep. I think that they run deep, but I think that we're seeing significant progress towards - I mean just the Hillary Clinton campaign itself shows that the nation is willing to accept more and expect more from a woman and certainly strong women in power. We're making significant strides in that area.

MARTIN: What about you, Lisa?

Ms. WITTER: Yeah. I do think there's a generational difference, but I also think there's a party difference too. I mean I think that if you look back on the presidencies, the Democratic and Republican presidencies, it's often the case that the wives of the Democrats are much more quote, unquote, "unspoken" and have their own opinions and are more public in a policy place. Eleanor Roosevelt, Hillary Clinton - and you look at the Republicans and they take much more of the softer quiet, you know...

MARTIN: Elizabeth Dole?

Ms. WITTER: Pick a cause.

MARTIN: Elizabeth Dole, come on.

Ms. WITTER: Yeah. She wasn't the wife of a president. She a wife of a...

MARTIN: Candidate.

Ms. WITTER: Yeah, and she was - candidate - she was a wife of the vice president, but I think that there is a party difference and I think the party's are different because they have different values and I think that, you know, the first person who almost was the first woman president was a Democrat, and I do think that speaks to how the two parties view women. That's not to say that Republicans don't think that women are strong, I imagine that they do, but I think they think that their roll in this particular office is very different.

MARTIN: OK, well, let's check back in I think a couple of months from now as the campaign progresses and let's just see if the coverage and the conversations we're having about this change and we'll see what happens. Lisa Witter is COO of Fenton Communications, she joined us from our bureau in New York. Dr. Maya Rockeymoore is CEO of Global Policy Solutions, she joined us from our bureau in Washington. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Ms. WITTER: Thank you.

Dr. ROCKEYMOORE: Thank you.

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