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First ladies and the art of discretion

14 June 2012, 13:51

Washington - A gaffe by France's first lady has exposed the difficult tightrope that presidential spouses have to walk as they kiss goodbye to their private lives and follow their partners into the public glare.

A tweet by Valerie Trierweiler wishing luck to an election opponent of Segolene Royal - the ex-partner of her companion and the new President Francois Hollande - has unleashed a political furore, with even the prime minister suggesting she needs to learn discretion.

Wives and husbands are often viewed with suspicion as they move into the presidential residence, amid deep-seated fears that they will hold greater sway over their spouse than his advisors or even the people who elected him.

Remarks by Bill Clinton during the 1992 Democratic primaries that if elected his smart lawyer wife, Hillary, would mean the country would get "two for the price of one" had many opponents and some supporters squirming.

Hillary Clinton didn't help her case when she was challenged about the ethics of continuing to work as an attorney in cases involving state funds.

"I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfil my profession which I entered before my husband was in public life," she shot back.

New kind of political wife

The ill-disguised suspicions around her own political ambitions and concern at the power she was wielding behind the scenes plagued her as soon as the couple entered the White House in January 1993.

Some in the media hailed her as a new kind of political wife with a career - and opinions.

Within days she was named by her husband to head his presidential task force on healthcare reform - a subject dear to both the Clintons' hearts. Yet it was shot down in flames and became a political debacle that still tarnishes the Democratic Party today.

"She was excoriated. I'm not sure whether most people, male or female, from any profession would have been able to mentally or emotionally survive," said Carl Anthony, historian with the National First Ladies Library in Canton, Ohio.

"She had a hard time, I think in large part because she was seen as partisan," he said.

It is testament to Clinton's strength of character and her personal inner journey that despite a rough start as first lady, "she had a magnificent end", Anthony said, pointing to her popularity now as US secretary of state.

Right to opinions

"I'm sure there's a segment of our country that believes the First Lady should be seen and not heard and use the White House for entertaining," said Myra Gutin, director of communications at Rider University, and an authority on America's first ladies.

But she added: "There's certainly a growing faction that looks at the First Lady and says, 'Well what can she do, or what is she doing?' Today people I believe are looking for more of a presidential partner."

As social media and instant news change the dynamics of how public figures are seen and communicate, both experts agreed that first ladies had the absolute right to express their opinions.

"I think it is wise for their emotional and mental well-being to express themselves," said Anthony.

"The thing that is important to remember is that she is not elected, and as a citizen she is fully entitled to express her opinion."

Decades before the evolution of Twitter, Facebook or Flickr, Eleanor Roosevelt once said her husband, Franklin D Roosevelt, would often use her daily newspaper column to float ideas as a kind of "paper balloon", said Anthony.

'Political surrogates'

Most spouses are often already politically savvy and today many of them are professionals, highly educated and respected in their own spheres in work.

Trierweiler was "probably not speaking offhand. This was probably purposeful", Anthony added.

"One of the functions of a first lady is sometimes being a political surrogate or just generally being involved in politics. Most first ladies really do not get into the fray though," agreed Gutin.

"While I expect that Michelle Obama's going to be doing a lot of campaigning, I don't see her as the person to make comments about Mitt Romney's abilities to fulfil the responsibilities of the office of president. I do see her telling people what a good president her husband has been."



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