Could the Real Michelle Obama Have Become First Lady
From Betty Ford to Obama, why fun First Ladies have a tough time
Talk about irony. #BettyFord was once perceived as such a political liability—being a divorced former dancer—that her marriage to future president Gerald Ford was timed to generate the least amount of publicity possible to avoid alienating voters during his first run for Congress. Yet by the time she passed away last week at the age of 93 she was widely recognized as one of the country’s most groundbreaking, influential, memorable and well-liked First Ladies. Which makes the fact that she would still be perceived as a political liability today, were she and her husband to hit the campaign trail, all the more disappointing.
Despite how much America has evolved on a variety of fronts (electing a black president being Exhibit A), our country still remains reluctant to elect an imperfect First Lady. When Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels declined to throw his hat into the presidential ring, citing a veto by his family’s “women’s caucus,” the harsh reality implied by the decision was transparent, despite the sunny language he used to convey it to the media. That harsh reality being that his family feared the scrutiny that would come with a presidential run was simply too much to bear, for all of them perhaps, but particularly his wife, Cheri.
Gov. Daniels is fond of saying of their non-traditional love story that “if you like happy endings, you’ll love our story.” Americans do like happy endings, and comebacks and second chances, particularly for men. But when it comes to the women running to occupy the role of First Lady of the United States, they want something else—namely as close to the feminine ideal of American womanhood as possible.
The feminine ideal that existed 100 years ago.
Any time a woman has deviated at all from the traditional First Lady prototype of attractive (but not sexy), smart (but not blatantly ambitious), articulate (but not opinionated) and most of all—a mother—they have faced a backlash. (Click here to see a list of the most controversial First Ladies.)
Think Hillary Clinton circa "HillaryCare," before a successful Senate term, kickass presidential campaign, and tenure as Secretary of State repositioned her as the widely admired woman praised by both liberals and conservatives today. But even in her case it took her husband’s impeachment—which made her appear vulnerable and relatable to those women who didn’t hold law degrees from Yale—to give her the freedom, some may say right, to be who she really is without having to apologize for it for the first time in her public life. She finally seemed like an ordinary, American wife, with the same problems as a lot of other wives out there, which suddenly made it okay for her to be extraordinary as First Lady turned Senate candidate.
And for as much acclaim as #MichelleObama generates for the way she dresses now (and yes I own three copies of her VOGUE issue), there was nothing wrong with the way she dressed before she got her First Lady makeover—except for the fact that her power suits seemed to scream, “I could be First Lady or president.” Thanks to her makeover, gone are the power suits, replaced by pearls, mom-friendly floral prints and sweater sets.
Lots and lots of sweater sets. A look that screams, “I bake cookies and want to give you a hug.” Even her eyebrows—which had been deemed too intimidating—were transformed, all to make her more First Lady friendly. (The ridiculous lengths that campaigns go through to make candidate families “look presidential” is one of the many topics I tackle in The GQ Candidate.)
Howard Dean’s wife Judy, faced criticism for having the temerity to want to continue practicing medicine full-time, whether her husband was elected president or not, while Senators Bob and Elizabeth Dole faced skepticism during his presidential run over the fact that their marriage produced no children—the perception being that his Mrs. was too busy climbing the career ladder to have them. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Unless of course you want to become First Lady.
The fact that Cheri Daniels felt that a country that has elected plenty of men with colorful personal lives (to put it mildly), was not ready to consider a woman for First Lady who has had one, is a sad statement on where we are today. Even sadder is the fact that I believe that Ms. Daniels is right. America’s not ready.
We weren’t ready for Betty Ford either. Lucky for her—and us—that her husband became president by default, sparing her the scrutiny of what would have likely been a tough first presidential campaign. And giving us one of the most spirited First Ladies ever, who has probably had one of the most enduring legacies of any First Lady ever.
In addition to helping to remove some of the stigma around breast cancer, she also helped remove the stigma and secrecy around addiction. Her namesake substance abuse center, has saved countless lives. (Upon learning of Ford’s passing singer Stevie Nicks said that if she hadn’t met the First Lady while she was undergoing treatment years ago, she would be dead.) Then of course there was her free spirit, that included dancing on her husband’s desk in the Oval Office.
It’s not hard to see why her husband fell in love with her, and America did too. Here’s hoping one day we will get to a place where women like her are perceived as assets—not liabilities—on the campaign trail.