‘I think it’s hard to ask women for their vote and at the same time not be an outspoken proponent for the things that matter to them,” Elizabeth Edwards is saying of Hillary Clinton as a twentysomething staffer drives her through the cornfields of Iowa. “My friends get telephone calls—it’s not like it’s something I’ve heard about—my friends get telephone calls where they’re asked, you know, ‘This is a woman, it’s really historic, women need to support women.’ All of which is fine.” Edwards sighs. “But given that she’s not as up front on these women issues,” by which Edwards means poverty and health care, which disproportionately affect women, “and then there are other sorts of odd issues that nobody pays any attention to: There’s women-in-the-armed-forces issues; she’s on the armed-forces committee, she could be speaking out about that, and she really hasn’t been. It’s like she wants to play both sides. And that’s my complaint.”
But then it was Hillary who enabled Edwards’s complaint. The fact that Elizabeth Edwards can so blithely be both a cookie-baker and a political commentator has everything to do with Hillary, who insisted on being judged by the same standards as a man, who refused to play a secondary role, who (often clumsily) forced herself into the public debate, even before she was running for office.
More than any other in American history, this election has upended our gender politics, and it’s not just because Hillary Clinton has a legitimate chance to be the first female president. She so vastly expanded the definition of what a political wife could be during her eight years in the White House that during the current campaign season, all the old scripts have been thrown out, and the couples are improvising—with sometimes painful results. It’s often seemed like politics as postfeminist comedy, what with Mitt Romney’s strapping his dog to the top of his car on a family trip—the ludicrousness of the old-school dad—and Rudy Giuliani’s taking a call from his wife in the midst of a speech to the NRA.
It’s never seemed more like we’re electing not only a president but a couple. With some exceptions, the current crop of would-be First Ladies is like some wet dream of Judy Chicago’s. (Laura Bush was a blip—a throwback to the days of Nancy Reagan, when First Ladies hid their power behind the mask of the Stepford Wife.) This time, almost all of them unapologetically play both the wife and the powerful consigliere (or in Elizabeth Edwards’s case, the political hit man). Michelle Obama went to Princeton and Harvard Law, met her husband when she was assigned to supervise him at a law firm where she outearned him. Jackie Clegg Dodd is on five corporate boards. Even the alleged bimbo of the group, Fred Thompson’s 24-years-younger blonde trophy wife, Jeri Kehn, isn’t exactly some dopey little cupcake—for one thing, she’s 41, and for another, she used to be a communications adviser for the RNC, a job even more challenging than the one Joe Scarborough imagined for her, as a gal who “works the pole.” Even if America doesn’t get a brilliant, powerful, penisless person in the Oval Office, it will very likely still get one in the White House. These First Lady aspirants prove what we all knew was coming: Après Hillary le déluge.
It’s not just the spouses who are different in this election (like Hillary was), it’s the marriages (like Hillary’s is). It seems surreal now, but in the last election, marriage—protecting it, defining it, feeling entitled to it—was almost as big an issue as Iraq. Hillary may not have been much of a presence in ’04, but the memory of her messed-up marriage was as much a motivation as homophobia for the obsessive focus on the state of our unions in that election. But we’re done with that now. The Bush presidency has been about denial—in so many ways—but you can only stay in denial for so long. The nontraditional, compromised, and representative nature of every marriage on display in this campaign season says that we’re ready to admit that the myth of sanctified, permanent, monogamous marriage is just that: a quaint fantasy. Look at the divorce rates; think about your friends; get a clue.
Barack Obama tells us that his marriage went through a period when “my wife’s anger toward me seemed barely contained.” (Ah, the simmering hostility of matrimony!) John McCain met his current wife, Cindy, while he was still married to his first wife, Carol, before Cindy developed an addiction to painkillers and they adopted a baby from Bangladesh. Rudy Giuliani, of course, started taking Judith Nathan to Yankees games and parades while he was still married to his second wife, Donna Hanover, and had the class to inform the mother of his children that their marriage was over via a press conference. Fred Thompson is a senior citizen with a hot wife and toddlers (which just makes him seem more like the actor he is and less like the president he wants to be). The only truly apple-pie-ish marriage in the lot is Mitt and Ann Romney’s—and they’re Mormons.