Joan Vennochi

Make over old views, not political wives

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / June 29, 2008

SHE PRAISED Hillary and the military and expressed gratitude to America.

Michelle Obama's makeover from fiery and unpredictable to sweet and scripted is underway. It's another kind of change Barack Obama believes in for victory in November.

On Thursday, the day before he and Hillary Clinton campaigned together in Unity, N.H., Obama's wife campaigned with former governor Jeanne Shaheen, who is running for the US Senate. The Obama-Shaheen event, billed as a roundtable discussion for working women, was largely designed to showcase a softer, more politic Michelle, as well as pitch party unity.

Michelle Obama paid glowing tribute to Clinton for her dedication to the needs of working families. "We are closer to this America than ever before, and that's because of an extraordinary woman who's not in this room, but she's traveling with my husband tomorrow, and that woman is Hillary Clinton," she said to loud and lingering applause.

Criticized for past negativity about America, Obama was now careful to note that "we are grateful" for what the country offers, even as she suggested that "at some point we have to say, 'Enough' " and change direction.

During a brief question and answer period, one woman in the audience brought up the human and financial cost of the Iraq war. Concluded Obama: "Yeah. . . . We need the money and we need to end this war, for sure." But first she paid homage to military men and women, saying, "We should honor their service."

Barack Obama initially bristled at the notion of his wife as target. If Republicans "think that they're going to try to make Michelle an issue in this campaign, they should be careful," he has said. Yet, the Obama campaign is obviously concerned they might succeed.

A strong, outspoken wife is one way to make a candidate, especially a Democrat, look weak and unpatriotic.

In 1988, Kitty Dukakis was portrayed as a pushy drama queen, and was falsely accused of burning an American flag.

In 2004, Teresa Heinz Kerry was too rich and controlling. Dr. Judith Steinberg was too unfashionable and insufficiently devoted to her husband, Howard Dean, because she insisted on maintaining her medical practice. Even the now-beloved Elizabeth Edwards was too opinionated and meddlesome until a cancer diagnosis gave her a pass from harsh reviews.

Republican wives like Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush came in for criticism, too. But it is hard to imagine George H. W. Bush or Ronald Reagan trying to rebrand these strong-willed women. And, while Laura Bush keeps much of her political opinion to herself, is there any doubt who really wears the cowboy boots in that family?

Given history, the reining in of Michelle Obama may seem politically wise. But if you believe in a different kind of politics, her so-called rebranding is just another genuflection to those old, silly rules of what it takes to be an acceptable spouse.

The rebranding will not work anyway. Reinvention is hard, once the public gets to know the real you. The real Michelle Obama, is as described in a February Newsweek cover story: "Direct and plain-spoken, with an edgy sense of humor uncommon in a political spouse."

Wearing a velvet headband didn't help Hillary Clinton change the public's mind about her true identity when Bill Clinton was running for president. If Michelle Obama does nothing but nod and smile between now and Election Day, voters will still remember that soundbite: "For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country." Republicans will make sure of that.

As my former colleague, Eileen McNamara, wrote in 2004, "Reading about the lives of women . . . is so often like being trapped in a time warp, as if the last 30 years had never happened. Of course, we are curious about the spouses of our presidential candidates - we are a personality-obsessed culture - but don't we expect them to live on the same planet, in the same decade as we do?"

On this planet, in this decade, many women of all political stripes are outspoken and not always as diplomatic as they could be. They don't need makeovers, and neither does Michelle Obama.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is

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