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Against Political Spouses' Speeches

Michelle Obama did as well as could be expected tonight--not mangling any lines as she tried to humanize her husband and reassure people that she loved America--but she shouldn't have been speaking at the convention in the first place. That's because, of all the overly-scripted and unrevealing moments that occur at these pseudo-events, there's nothing worse than the political spouse's speech.

It doesn't have to be that way. When Eleanor Roosevelt became the first nominee's spouse to speak at a convention in 1940, she didn't try to humanize Franklin; she gave a politically substantive speech urging the delegates to make Henry Wallace her husband's running mate. Sure, she might have backed the wrong horse there, but at least her speech wasn't any different from anyone else's. Alas, after Eleanor, it's been all downhill for political wives. 

Indeed, after Eleanor, the nominee's spouse didn't say a word at a convention until 1992. You might think the political spouse who broke through the glass ceiling that year was Hillary Clinton; but, in fact, it was Barbara Bush. Which reveals a sad truth about the political spouse's speech: the spouse can only give it if she's clearly subservient to her husband. While Democrats were terrified of putting the Tammy Wynette-dissing Hillary on stage in 1992, lest voters think she was too uppity, the Republicans had no hesitation about putting the Barbara Bush on the stage to reveal her husband's kinder and gentler side.

And that's the problem with the political spouse's speech. Whether it was Liddy Dole doing her Oprah routine at the 1996 Republican convention or Tipper Gore locking lips with Al at the Democratic convention in 2000, the political spouses' speech tends to reduce these accomplished women into nothing more than junior partners. Kate complained earlier about the Stepfordization of Michelle Obama, but I'm afraid that Stepfordization was as predictable as it was inevitable.

And it continued with her speech tonight. Michelle Obama introduced herself as a sister, a wife, a mother, and a daughter--which are all incredibly important identities. But those identities don't reveal her full person--the Princeton and Harvard Law grad, the corporate attorney, the hospital executive--which were parts of her life that she barely mentioned. Instead, she gave us predictable pap like "the Barack Obama I know today is the same man I fell in love with 19 years ago." Was her speech better than, say, Teresa Kerry's cringe-inducing performance from four years ago? No doubt. But watching her speak--and thinking back on some of the remarks she made earlier in the campaign--you got the sense there was so much more she could have said.

Of course, you don't expect a political spouse to give a speech about policy. Still, you want her to do more than just say nice things about her husband. (I mean, it wasn't so long ago that Elizabeth Edwards was telling us about how John is.) But that's pretty much all we get from these political spouse's speeches, Michelle Obama's included. It almost makes you long for the days when politicians' wives were seen but not heard. After all, if they're not permitted to really say anything, what's the point of having them speak?

P.S. All that said, I do think the end of Michelle Obama's speech--especially the bit about him wanting to give his daughters something he never had, "the affirming embrace of a father's love"--transcended the usual convention speech fare. 

--Jason Zengerle