Recently I have noticed that in my social circle (consisting of almost all president Obama supporters), the conversation frequently turns to Michelle Obama. Praising her for her intelligence, looks, grace, poise, and sense of humor seems to be the one thing that people can agree upon and thus avoid the more disagreeable topic of how disappointing her husband has been.
I have noticed that the wives of presidents are almost always seen as being more humane, thoughtful, sensible, even smarter than their husbands. Starting from 1960, Jackie Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson, Pat Nixon, Betty Ford, Rosalyn Carter, Nancy Reagan, and Laura Bush were all viewed generally favorably, even by those who strongly opposed their husbands’ policies. Some of the people who absolutely hated George W. Bush even suspected that Laura was maybe secretly on their side, at least as far as some policies were concerned.
The only first ladies who did not receive general acclaim were Barbara Bush and Hillary Clinton and even then the criticisms were muted. It is true that there have been some absurdly vicious attacks on Michele Obama that seem to be a spillover from the hysterical and irrational hatred of Barack Obama as the usurper of the presidency, but apart from the crazies, she is generally viewed positively.
Why do we have such a favorable impression of First Ladies? We really have no reason to think that they are any better than their husbands. I am not saying that they are not. For all I know, they may be admirable people, every single one. What I am curious about is why we think so when we have so little evidence to believe it. Why aren’t they treated as simply neutral background?
Part of the reason for their generally favorable image may be that they can pick and chose what issues they want to publicly work on and naturally will choose popular and uncontroversial ones such as mental health, alcoholism, obesity, urban beautification, and literacy.
But perhaps the main reason we want to believe that they are good people is that we need the illusion of someone the equivalent of the British Queen, a relatively uncontroversial national figurehead whose positive personal qualities we can admire and talk about without rancor, while ignoring the negative ones.