The First Wives’ Club

Photo: Joyce N. Boghosian/The White House Photo/AP

I was a history buff growing up, and I particularly liked the sorry tales of guillotined French aristocrats and of First Ladies. The First Ladies I admired for one thing or another all seemed to have spent much of their private life in tears, sorry they’d made a pact with the devil (that’d be the dynamic, power-hungry silver-haired hound dog lying next to them). Eleanor Roosevelt, check. Lady Bird Johnson, check. Jackie Kennedy, check, check. And every woman in Thomas Jefferson’s life wept buckets, including his daughters.

Those I didn’t feel sorry for I certainly didn’t hope to be. Probably Jimmy Carter didn’t make Rosalynn cry, but who wanted to be married to Jimmy Carter? You wouldn’t want to be dignified and unpretentious Grace Coolidge, married to eternally Silent Cal. You wouldn’t even want to be Abigail Adams, her husband’s peer and sometimes his superior, running the farm and raising the kids and longing for her vain, obdurate, and not-at-all-handsome husband to come home and lend a hand.

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So, finally, we get Michelle Obama, a woman who seems to be loved and respected and enjoyed by her admirable husband, toward whom she feels the same way. You don’t see much of that—anywhere. Hers doesn’t seem like a marriage in which one has traded all of one’s commodities (beauty or supportiveness or cash) for an unequal partnership in which you get to pick your own china pattern and shake your head in disbelief that this is what your Ivy League degree and hard work has brought you to.

Mostly, even in modern times, the American public has preferred an old-fashioned First Marriage, and most particularly, old-fashioned First Ladies. Like people who insist that their parents’ marriage was a happy one, that families were stronger a hundred years ago, that God made men to be sailors and leaders and women to be safe harbors and followers—in other words, like anyone who finds reality anxiety-provoking—the American public has mostly preferred the comforting fantasy of what never was.

Michelle Obama followed the old-fashioned form two weeks ago, helping out at the soup kitchen. But the content was unmistakably hers, and it was—and is always—I choose this. No Hillary Clinton–like pretending, none of Laura Bush’s polite bewilderment. If we continue to look to the White House for our fantasy marriage, I’ll take this one, please.

The First Wives’ Club