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Mrs. Obama and Mrs. McCain Step into History

June 25, 2008

There’s a lot of coverage in this presidential campaign about the candidates’ wives – Michelle Obama and Cindy McCain.  Both women are smart and articulate, and each would bring a different set of dynamics to the White House.

But there’s also a great deal of history associated with Presidential campaign wives, and it’s interesting to compare past roles with the present.

Michelle Obama has been the more controversial of the two ladies. We all recall what she said during a campaign stop in February, “For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback." 

This statement was polarizing and viewed unfavorably by most. Yet it was First Lady Laura Bush who came to Mrs. Obama’s defense by putting her comment in a campaign context, and this seemed to soften the criticism.

Mrs. McCain weighed in on the comment as well, replying, "I am proud of my country. I don't know about you — if you heard those words earlier — I am very proud of my country."  She, too, is active on the campaign trail and is a fierce supporter of her husband.

Spouses of Presidential candidates have always been a source of interest but only in recent times have the press and the public paid so much attention to what they say. Though history credits Jackie Kennedy as a great influence on her husband, Theodore White, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Making of a President 1960,” mentions Jackie Kennedy on only three pages in the entire book – pages 17, 18, and 348.

In one reference White reports the Kennedys having the following exchange on election night while watching television as the early voting patterns give John Kennedy a large lead over Richard Nixon.  Mrs. Kennedy: “Oh, Bunny, you’re President now!” to which John Kennedy replied, “No, no … it’s too early yet.”

Mrs. Kennedy, of course, was an asset to the 1960 Kennedy campaign and went on to be an admired First Lady.  But a political insider she was not.  One would have to fast forward to 1976 and Rosalynn Carter and Betty Ford to find a modern day comparison to Mrs. Obama and Mrs. McCain.

Betty Ford was probably best known for telling the country that she voiced her political “agenda” during “pillow talk” with President Ford.  Rosalynn Carter on the other hand was an outspoken political member of the Carter for President team. 

Jules Witcover wrote in “Marathon,” the chronicle of the 1976 Presidential campaign, that the late Hamilton Jordan, Carter’s campaign manager, put an arbitrary numerical value on each day’s campaigning and that Mrs. Carter ranked just behind Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale as the campaign’s most effective surrogate. 

Today both spouses have accomplished backgrounds.  Mrs. Obama  is a Princeton University undergraduate and received her Juris Doctor degree from Harvard Law School.  After a few years at one of Chicago’s top law firms (where she met her husband) she went to work at the University of Chicago Hospitals where she is now Vice President of Community and External Affairs. 

Mrs. McCain received a Bachelor of Arts degree in education and a Master of Arts in special education from the University of Southern California – where she was also a USC cheerleader.  She now serves as an officer of her father’s company – Hensley and Company – one of the largest Anheuser-Busch distributors in the country.  She also once headed a non-profit organization in the 1980s and 1990s that organized trips by medical personnel to disaster-struck countries of the third world.

Voters do have the right to make judgments about who they may vote for based in part on the families of these candidates – particularly the spouses.

History tells us it’s often the simple emotions of a Presidential spouse that will win over the hearts of the country.  People will long remember Muriel Humphrey, wife of Presidential candidate Sen. Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota.

During the 1960 Democratic presidential primary in West Virginia -- with no campaign money and his hopes fading – Mrs. Humphrey looked on lovingly as her husband personally wrote a check for $10,000 to cover his final media buy. 

Hubert Humphrey did not have that kind of money. But we now know from “It’s a Wonderful Life” – and from this one Presidential spouse -- the richest man in town is the one with the most loving friends and family.