The week the first ladies went mad

Being the wife of a world leader clearly sucks, but aren't Laura Bush and Cherie Blair revealing a bit too much about their husbands?

Published May 5, 2005 2:45PM (EDT)

"As we walk to the platform I have a curious feeling. I always have it. I feel like the invisible woman. I feel their eyes sliding across to him. They want to see him, not me." So said Mary Wilson during her late husband Harold Wilson's election campaign. But, my, how times have changed, judging by recent events, which we will refer to henceforward, in B-movie style, as "The Week the First Ladies Went Mad" (well, slightly odd, anyway).

Far from eyes sliding off them, today's first ladies seem to be shoving their boring husbands out of the way and planting themselves in front. First we had Laura Bush, whose strongest statement until then had been her adoring glances at her husband, suddenly coming over all Les Dawson on us with her wacka-wacka comedy routine at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner last weekend. Telling her husband to sit down, she proudly took center stage.

Ladies and gentlemen, we had jokes about genitals ("I'm proud of George. He's learned a lot about ranching since that first year, when he tried to milk a horse. What's worse, it was a male horse"); we slapped our thighs to a reference to lack of sex ("Nine o'clock. Mr. Excitement here is sound asleep and I'm watching 'Desperate Housewives'"); and, oh, how we hooted at the obligatory mother-in-law crack ("People think she's a sweet, grandmotherly Aunt Bea type. She's actually more like Don Corleone").

Apparently, mother-in-law jokes are having something of a revival. (Nothing like an old joke, as Benny Hill might say, for putting one's audience at ease.) In an interview in a tabloid Wednesday, British First Lady Cherie Blair (photographed doing her best adoring stare with her darling husband) announced that Tony will never be unfaithful because "I would kill him. But he's not really frightened of Cherie killing him. What he is really frightened of is his mother-in-law killing him."

Why Cherie has started to refer to herself in the third person is an intriguing question, but more pressing is the way a woman who used to complain about intrusions into her family's personal life suddenly can't stop revealing details that none of us really wanted to know. Maybe it's just me, but hearing Cherie gushing about Tony's handmade Valentine's Day cards, scrawled with "Tony loves Cherie," prompts the sort of queasiness normally inspired by walking in on one's parents enjoying an overly amorous Sunday afternoon moment. "Come on Tony, strip off. Let's see that fit body we've been talking about!" she trilled, sounding weirdly like some embarrassing mother, humiliating her son on his first day of school, before informing the grateful nation that her husband is "always [up for it]."

But by far the best first-lady moment of the week came courtesy of Lucy Kibaki, one of Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki's two wives, who stomped into the Nairobi offices of a national newspaper and allegedly slapped a cameraman, shouted at reporters and generally behaved in a manner that Grendel's mother would have admired.

Whether this was the best way to disprove the newspaper's stories about Mrs. Kibaki's eccentric behavior is, admittedly, debatable. But at least her display was a protest that related to herself, whereas Cherie Blair and Laura Bush were merely performing for the sake of their husbands. The Republicans have finally realized that Laura is the best thing the Bush family has going for them and have been increasingly pushing her forward. So her little comedy routine managed to tread that merry line between wittily mocking her husband and being reassuringly self-deprecating, all wrapped up with the ribbon of insinuation that George must be smarter/nicer/better than previously imagined to have landed such a clever wife.

Similarly, Cherie's display was merely another step in the smoothing down of her voter-scaring sharp edges. In Wednesday's interview she claimed that she avoids arguing with her husband because "he has a tough job already." Instantly she conjured an image of a dutiful housewife keeping the children quiet as Daddy works hard in the study, while seeming to forget that she has a job, too. But what the heck -- at least in exchange for all this makeover as a gushy, Bree-like desperate housewife (or perhaps she's been watching Laura), the Sun, for once, didn't print an ugly photo of her and make some joke about her wonky smile.

Being a first lady sucks -- this is nothing new. In terms of beleaguered professions, first wives are up there with traffic cops. It's a role that shows up more than any other the quite frankly ridiculous standards to which women in the public eye are held: If they are silent, they are dull; if they talk, they are risky loose cannons. If they are successful career women, they are not supportive of their husbands; if they are mutely adoring, they are dull and old-fashioned. Norma Major was famously sneered at for looking a bit miserable, when it later transpired her friend had just died from cancer; Barbara Bush managed to go from mumsy frump to threatening bully seemingly overnight, proving that, when it comes to first ladies, there are no gray areas, just extremes.

And the problem has worsened with time -- primarily because, despite all feminism's advances, the media (or more specifically, the tabloids) still have trouble computing the concept of an intelligent, married woman, particularly one who is a breath away from power. The specter of Lady Macbeth is eerily invoked by the press -- witness the vilification of Hillary Clinton and Teresa Heinz Kerry. But a woman who remains quietly behind the scenes is mocked for her mousiness, as typified by Private Eye's satirization of Mary Wilson, known for her simple tastes, with its "Mrs. Wilson's Diary."

Small wonder, frankly, that some need a bit of recourse to get through it, though it is unfortunate that they seem to have a remarkable tendency to choose methods that just get them into more trouble, such as Nancy Reagan with her enjoyable dabblings in the occult, or Cherie Blair and her energy channeling with Carole Caplin.

A large part of the problem is undoubtedly that there is no defined role for a leader's spouse. She is, as Norma Major once put it, "married to ambition." In Britain, there isn't even a term for the role. But increasingly, the American term of first lady has been invoked, reflecting how the position has been growing in visibility.

So what do we want of these wives of leaders? "I feel that I am Stan's trainer for the arena," Lucy Baldwin, the prime minister's wife, wrote to her mother, "and I have to see that he husbands his strength for the fighting times." Mary Wilson took a somewhat less dutiful view: "I suggest you get a dummy and put a nice hat and dress on it and a bunch of flowers in its hand and put it in a cupboard, and when you need it, you pull it out and there it is, and when you don't need it you push it back again," she once fumed to a private secretary.

The fact is that nothing has really changed since Wilson's original complaint. It's just that our standards have not only hardened but become trickier to reconcile with the realities of modern life. Yes, they may be pushed more often in front of the flashbulbs, but they are still, ultimately, the invisible women. We expect of them certain behavior that seems centuries old, and when they step out of line we recoil in horror and reprimand them until they step back into their rightful place: that of the supportive little woman.

But there is a potential twist in the future, and that is the concept of the first man. Once this become more commonplace, it will force us to reassess the demands we place on first ladies, because even the most simplistic tabloid reporter won't be able to balance such obvious double standards as allowing a leader's husband leverage that would be denied to a leader's wife. Denis Thatcher, Britain's only first man to date, seemed happy to play along with the press's lazy presentation of him as a quasi-emasculated, bumbling fool. Asked once how he spent his time, he replied, rather gloriously, "Well, when I'm not completely pissed I like to play a lot of golf." But it seems unlikely that the next contender in the wings will be quite so easily dismissed with such outdated social clichés. Roll on Bill Clinton.

By Hadley Freeman

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