First-Lady Extinction?

If it’s imminent, hallelujah.

In almost any campaign you may still see the wife in the skirted blue or red suit, the sensible pumps, accepting her wrist corsage from the 4-H club winner. But, behind its impregnable smiles and circle pins, the entire institution has been slowly crumbling. Increasingly, politicians’ wives have jobs of their own or, cleanest of all, careers that have absolutely nothing to do with politics. Another reason political wifehood is dying is that men now are trying to be political spouses too, and they can’t stand it. … Sometime, in the not-too-distant future, we will acknowledge the passing of [the first lady’s] role with the same amazement we felt at the fall of the Berlin Wall, crashing down so easily after standing for decades as an unbreachable certainty. Boy, we’ll think; that sucker wasn’t as strong as it looked. —Marjorie Williams, The Woman at the Washington Zoo

Surveying the 2008 presidential contest, I wonder whether the moment that my late wife anticipated seven years ago (pardon my indulgence) has arrived. If, as the Marxists used to say, we achieve social change by “heightening the contradictions,” then surely the contradictions of first ladyhood have reached a breaking point.

On Dec. 17, Mari Culver endorsed John Edwards for president at a candidate appearance in Des Moines, Iowa. Ms. Culver is a successful attorney, but the world knows her as the wife of Iowa Gov. Chet Culver, and the headline in the Des Moines Register referred to her as “Iowa’s First Lady.” Gov. Culver is himself not endorsing any candidate, demonstrating the exaggerated sense of goo-goo rectitude that endears Iowans to the rest of the country. The endorsement of Culver’s missus will nonetheless be interpreted, fairly or not, as a winking endorsement from the governor himself, just as a similar endorsement of John Kerry in 2004 from Christie Vilsack, wife of Gov. Tom Vilsack—which secured her a slot for the first-ever prime-time speech by a governor’s wife at a national political convention—was read as an endorsement by Gov. Vilsack. Mrs. Vilsack’s endorsement has been widely cited as playing a significant role in helping Kerry seize the nomination, even though her standing to exert such influence was as dubious as Mrs. Culver’s is four years later.

Mari Culver’s Edwards endorsement ought to invite from Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., the observation that Mari Culver was not fashioned from the rib of Chet Culver, and that anyway, Mrs. Culver’s opinion about whom Iowans should vote for is about as relevant as the opinion of your female auto mechanic’s husband as to whether you need a new carburetor. But no such comment is forthcoming, nor would it be forthcoming were Edwards rather than Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., Clinton’s chief rival in Iowa. Clinton can’t say “big deal, she’s only the first lady” because, of course, Clinton herself  got elected U.S. senator entirely on the strength of being first lady, and first ladyhood remains one of her primary selling points. Indeed, before this race began, it never occurred to me that she would ever go near the “experience” question, much less raise it against another candidate. The blunt truth is that Clinton, Obama, and Edwards all lack lengthy experience as government leaders. For the record, Obama has nine years’ legislative experience (six of them in the Illinois legislature) to Clinton’s seven and Edwards’ six. This is a political year in which the major presidential candidates with relatively little government experience are running well ahead of the candidates with a lot of government experience. (Rudy Giuliani, a two-term mayor and former U.S. attorney, is the only significant exception, and even in his case you could argue that as a potential Republican nominee, he makes up in implausibility—pro-choice, odd temperament, association with the bluest city in America—what he lacks in inexperience.)

The trick, then, is for candidates to find a way to project experiencewithout actually being saddled with much. The person working hardest at the moment to help Clinton with this task is Rush Limbaugh.

Quite inadvertently, Limbaugh is bestowing on the former first lady an aura of deep experience and authentic feminist heroism. He achieved this Dec. 17 by airing his doubts that a woman with wrinkles, as Hillary Clinton now has, could get herself elected president. Even for Limbaugh, this was fairly odious. He offered his observation not as an expression of his own personal reluctance to gaze upon wrinkled women but as sociology, and he made sure to include pious denunciations of our collective national superficiality. “Americans are addicted to physical perfection.” Tell it, brother! “[M]en aging makes them look more authoritative, accomplished, distinguished.  Sadly, it’s not that way for women. …” Whoops. Brother Rush forgot to begin that sentence, “We are conditioned to believe. …” My own fieldwork, conducted two years ago at my 25th college reunion, found that the women looked better than the men. Men may have that “distinguished” and craggy Robert Redford thing going for them as they age, but women show greater discipline at keeping themselves fit. Who looks better-preserved to you, Kim Basinger, age 54, or her ex-husband, Alec Baldwin, 49?  Plus, women seldom go bald.

But I digress.

Behind his fig leaf of regret over America’s petty prejudice against post-menopausal women, Limbaugh was expressing disgust over this photograph of Hillary Clinton, which had appeared on the Drudge Report accompanied by the caption, “The toll of a campaign.” It is a snapshot of a 60-year-old woman. She looks a little tired, but otherwise the picture is unremarkable. This is what 60-year-old women look like. (The ones who aren’t Susan Sarandon, anyway.) We all know some, and nearly all of us manage to look at them on a daily basis without recoiling in horror. Yes, Hillary’s a bit more wrinkled than men tend to be at that age. But she’s nowhere near as wrinkled as many other successful women leaders who are widely admired in the United States by both women and men: Golda Meir, Mother Teresa, Margaret Thatcher. Do photographs of his beloved Iron Lady disgust Limbaugh, too?

What Limbaugh may not have realized, though, is that in going on and on about what a hag he finds Hillary Clinton to be, he was likely helping voters forget that she lacks experience. If you brood about Clinton’s wrinkles, you probably aren’t going to think, “What a greenhorn.” More likely, you’re going to think, “What a long road it’s been.” Wrinkles are experience, rendered cosmetically. Limbaugh’s gut-level misogyny also goes a long way toward legitimizing any claim Clinton might make to being a role model for women. It’s been noted more than once that getting ahead in life by marrying a future president does not follow the feminist playbook. But the sheer ghastliness of Limbaugh’s comments denigrating her physical appearance serves as a reminder that any woman seeking the big brass ring is going to have to put up with a fair amount of abuse from men. And not just bigoted yahoos who score a sound bite on the evening news. Powerful men, successful men, rich men. Men who get away with saying stupid, bigoted things about women because, well, there’s never been a woman president before. Maybe it’s time we had one.

So. Hillary Clinton becomes president. We still don’t know what her husband will do with himself. When asked by Barbara Walters whether he’d decorate the White House at Christmas or preside over the Easter egg roll, former President Bill Clinton gamely said, “If I’m asked to do that, I would love to do that.” He can hardly spurn it as women’s work. But it’s unlikely he will be asked, if only because staffers will be nervous about putting the man in a crowd packed with attractively groomed mothers of young children. And if he did host the Easter egg roll, a sizeable proportion of voters would find it weird. If you’re a woman, you can gnash your teeth at this double standard, or you can seize it as an opportunity to teach the country that nobody, male or female, should be required to play soothing surrogate daddy or mommy to an entire nation simply because he or she happens to be married to the president of the United States.

As presidential spouse, Bill Clinton might end up assuming a governmental role, but it wouldn’t be anything like the procession of ceremonial drudgery required of first ladies down the centuries. And he would be free to decline any governmental role, in the unlikely event that he preferred it that way. The Berlin Wall would come down, and the catalyzing event—irony of ironies—would be the election of a former first lady, an alumnus of the very institution, retrograde and preposterous, that was finally being put out of its misery.