Politics & Media
Sep 06, 2012, 03:29AM

Political Spouses Are Career Politicians

Why the surprise that Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Romney can deliver a speech?

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I didn't watch the Republican Convention, and after about five minutes listening to NPR coverage of the DNC, I gave up on that as well. I have a visceral reaction to listening to people read marketing copy at me. It makes me want to take a bath and then pray that the pits of Hell open and swallow our sorry excuse for a civilization once and for all.

But there's an attraction/repulsion thing, I suppose, so I did check out commentary on the thing-I-could-not-bear-to-see. Apparently, most people were impressed with Michelle Obama's speech on Tuesday night. Josh Marshall even expressed something like awe.

I often wonder: how is it that political spouses often end up being such good speechmakers? This was an amazingly good delivery. But Ann Romney’s was pretty good too. Giving a lengthy speech in front of millions of people is really, really hard. It takes a number of skills wrapped into one—timing, a good speaking style, coolness under pressure. It’s no secret that most politicians can do it reasonably well. That’s why they’re politicians. Baseball players are good athletes. Well, that’s how they became baseball players. But again, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the spouse is good at it too.

Again, that's Josh Marshall, professional political journalist.  He makes his living covering politics. And yet, he’s surprised that Ann Romney and Michelle Obama can stand up in front of an audience and deliver a speech.

Of course, it's de rigueur for presidential wives to present themselves as if they're average, everyday folks: devoted wives and loving mothers who just happened to end up married to the one guy who is vital for America's future. Thus Michelle calls herself  "Mom-in-chief" while Ann talks about the profound love she has for the man she met at a dance. Christ, even reading the transcript is making me a little ill.

Anyway, the point is, they say they're just normal loving women doing normal supportive loving women things the way normal women do because they're normal. But when they say all that, they are… well, lying, seems a bit harsh. Misleading, shall we say? Gently embellishing? Whatever you want to call it, you shouldn't take it at face value. Especially if you're a political journalist.

It's true, as Marshall says, that giving an effective speech in front of thousands of people and on national television is hard. I sure couldn't do it. But he's wrong when he suggests that it's some sort of accident that this is a skill that both Ann Romney and Michelle Obama have acquired.

Because Ann Romney and Michelle Obama are not just random spouses who happened to marry some guy who got into politics. They are the spouses of men who have devoted their lives to seeking high political office. Barack Obama almost certainly was thinking about the presidency at least from the time when he ran against Bobby Rush for Congress in 2000, and probably long before that. Mitt Romney's been running for president actively since he stepped down as Massachusetts governor in 2007, and probably has had his eye on the Oval Office his entire adult life. Since their wives knew them before they married, my guess is that Michelle and Ann had some sense that Barack and Mitt were ambitious men. These women didn't stumble into politics; they chose it, presumably because they were ambitious too.

Moreover, when you're the spouse of a professional politician, you're part of the election effort. You meet and greet; you kiss babies, you raise funds… you give speeches. Neither Ann Romney nor Michelle Obama walked out onto their respective convention stages as some sort of novice civilians. They walked out there as high-level campaign functionaries with years and years of experience in doing exactly what they did—marketing their husbands.

Marshall isn't a fool; he must know that this is the case. So why the surprise? How did he manage to convince himself that Michelle Obama and Ann Romney are anything other than extremely accomplished, frighteningly ambitious, national-level political operatives? I don't know the answer for sure. But my guess is that it's for the same reason that Michelle and Ann work to make people think that they're not political operatives. In a democracy, people want to feel like they're voting for just-folks; they want to identify with the President and his family and his charming, loving, ordinary spouse. So everybody pretends together, and nobody thinks too hard about how driven, slick, and cynical you have to be to stand up on national television and deliver a stirring speech that bamboozles even hardened journalists into thinking that you're not a politician.

  • Noah, I saw that comment by Marshall too. You are reading too much into it. What he was saying is that somebody that marries somebody doesn't necessarily have the same skill set, and he is surprised that both women are as good as they are. Pat Nixon, Mamie Eisenhower or Nancy Reagan aren't necessarily good public speakers. If I marry a physicist, I don't necessarily get better at math. It is fair to say, however, that the two spouses probably get more practice at public speaking because of who their husbands are, but they still don't get elevated skills.

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  • I think you missed Noah Bertlatsky's point entirely. It's right that Mamie Eisenhower wasn't spell-binding, but her appearances were minuscule in comparison to modern day spouses. Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Romney have had years of practice, and they have elevated their skills.

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  • Perhaps. I was thinking that Josh Marshall was saying that it is ironic that the spouses have such innate abilities, nothing more or less.

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  • The point is, it is not surprising that these women are good at giving speeches. They are passionately interested in politics, as their choices of husbands makes clear. They have been polishing their skills at the highest level for more than a decade. And furthermore (and I didn't quite say this in the piece) if you've made it to president, chances are that your top level campaign operatives, including your wife, are good at their jobs.//I'd also argue that separating innate abilities from practice is virtually impossible. In giving a speech, especially, a lot of the difficulty is the discomfort that most people feel in front of crowds. That's something that can absolutely be overcome with practice.

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  • I actually thought that Ann Romney wasn't so good. She reminded me of a homecoming queen speech. I know the repubs enjoyed it and the press tends to be nice to spouse at this point (when was the last time a real reporter trashed the spouse of a candidate during the convention?), but, I don't think Ann would be considered a good speaker if she spoke to a broader audience.

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  • I didn't see Ann Romney's speech. Michelle Obama has a gift for this sort of thing that can't be learned. The text was brilliant as well, and I believe she wrote it. You can't learn that level of sincerity and ability to communicate. I disagree that it is impossible to separate innate abilities from practice.

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  • "Sincerity"? From a politician? Please.//Ability to communicate is linguistic. Language skills are highly correlated with parents' education and class...not to mention, of course, that you have to learn to speak and read; you aren't born with those abilities.

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  • Noah: 1. Michelle Obama and Ann Romney are not a politician. Neither is running for anything. My wife is a teacher, I am not. 2. Some politicians are sincere. To say that being a politicians precludes sincerity is ludicrous. Paul Wellstone was sincere. George McGovern was sincere. So was Ronald Reagan on the other side. Pat Buchanan probably is sincere in his sexist and racist beliefs. 3. I am obviously not talking about language skills in the sense of the ability to speak or write at an advanced academic level. I am talking about making a real connection with people. Louis Armstrong was not an educated man but a wonderfully direct and cogent writer. Some slave narratives are immensely affecting.

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  • Campaign operatives are politicians. They help other people run for things rather than running themselves. That's what politician's wives are. Analogies with other professions aren't useful; running for President is different in kind than being a teacher.//The point isn't that politicians aren't sincere. The point is trying to parse the sincerity of politicians is idiotic and unhelpful. They are in the business of selling themselves. Everything they do is packaged, even (especially) their sincerity.//Communication is a social thing. Therefore, bracketing it as some sort of innate ability makes no sense.

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  • You are wrong on all three points. 1. A campaign operative isn't a politician in the same sense that the person running for office is. A pollster working for a campaign has mathematical skills,not public speaking skills.Your point is that Ann Romney and Michele Obama have public speaking skills because they are politicians. That's not right, because they are not the one running for office. They may be enablers, but they just aren't the person running. 2. Of course a politician is packaged. But that doesn't preclude them being sincere. They may sincerely want to put a policy in place, and package themselves to do that,eg,win the election. A priest or a rabbi can sincerely want to make a point to his/her congregants, and work for years packaging themselves -- ie learning to deliver a good sermon -- to most effectively make that point. 3. To say that there is no such thing as innate communications ability --ie, that some people innately make a connection and communicate more effectively than others -- is silly. Some people have innate musical ability. They can pick up a guitar and play better than the average person (they may or may not choose to subsequently get lessons). Others have an innate ability to learn foreign languages. Some have innate ability (or an ability picked up from their parents early in childhood) that allows them to unconsciously sense what is going on for the person or group to which they are speaking and tap into it. Roosevelt had it, Reagan had it and Michele--even more than her husband--has it.

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