Female Trouble

George and Laura BushPhoto: AP Photos

Should wives matter in a presidential campaign? Is it trivial to weigh Laura Bush’s gentle, Xanax-like demeanor, her faultless librarian’s poise and sincerity, against the imperious sexuality of Teresa Heinz Kerry? We often feel a twinge of guilt over our own fascination with presidential candidates’ wives—as if we are secretly reading the Star for our campaign information instead of the policy journals.

But the iconography that candidates’ wives create is important and a serious medium through which a modern candidate can send out his message. Heartbreakingly for Democrats, this is a lesson that the Republicans have learned to their vast advantage. By manipulating the images of the women around George W. Bush, including Laura herself, the Bush team has brilliantly eroded the traditional Democratic advantage among women.

What happened? Karen Hughes. The true genius behind the Bush success is not Karl Rove; she’s a suburban working mom in sensible shoes. It was clear from the start that Team Bush realized that the old, white, male face of the Republican Party was a recipe for losing those crucial suburban women in the swing states who are socially progressive and fiscally conservative. As long as the face of Republicanism was that of Newt Gingrich, ready to talk about women soldiers getting gynecological infections in foxholes, the GOP would face a Democratic hegemony, to paraphrase Rove, for the next twenty years.

So they devised a deliberate strategy that went unnoticed by Democratic strategists, most of whom are white guys over 50: to showcase a moderate, mainstream feminist makeover for the Bush brand. Everyone fell for it, including the press. Bush’s speeches are routinely cast before the eye, I am convinced, of Karen Hughes, who spins tax cuts as a boon to women entrepreneurs, like the one Laura Bush mentioned in her convention speech (Carmella Chaifos, “the only woman to own a tow-truck company in all of Iowa”). The fallen heroes of Iraq are “moms and dads.” Afghanistan was the first time U.S. troops were deployed for a feminist goal, “so Afghan girls could go to school.”

Abortion is an issue not of Ms. Magazine–style fanaticism or suicidal Republican religious reaction, but a complex issue on which “good people can disagree.” (W. mimicked his father’s trick of catering to his religious base while leaking the fact that his wife is pro-choice.)

Look at the language. Starting in 2000, every Republican-male dinosaur on TV began to sound like Oprah. Suddenly they all used the words—sensitive, comfort (or comfortable), and appreciate. George Bush is “comfortable in his skin.” Laura Bush and her husband want to “comfort” the bereaved families of dead soldiers. Republicans would speak of Bush as “sensitive” to the complexity of issues and as being someone “appreciative” of working moms. It worked frighteningly well: The words “changed the tone” of Washington Republicans from that of the losing old boys’ club of 1992 and 1996.

“Let’s start with ‘Heinz.’ There is no genteel way to put this: Teresa is publicly, subliminally cuckolding Kerry with the power of a dead man.”

A key tactic is wife deployment. Is Dick Cheney a scary, old-guard, male-dinosaur guy? Send out Lynne to talk about how he whips up brunch. Karl Rove makes eggs with bacon for Mary Matalin! Laura Bush speaks eloquently about the young George W. changing the twins’ diapers. Why worry about abortion rights when you have Alan Alda in the White House? The Bush team sends out brilliant imagery of women vis-à-vis the president: carefully staging scenes in which a seated W. is listening attentively to a standing Condoleezza Rice. That image counts far more than a thousand words by John Kerry about child care.

While Bush Inc. is flooding women’s magazines with features in which Laura Bush gets out a family-friendly feminist message, Kerry et al. remain obsessed with sending white men out onto the Sunday talk shows—which women don’t watch. While Bush Inc. understands the power of the vivid visual image—dressing the entire GOP convention, for instance, in matching tangerine and turquoise, color-coordinating the Cheney grandchildren to give a visual sense of order and unity—the Democrats keep being bumped to the inside pages because they send out their candidate and his wife in neutrals. I am convinced that Michael Deaver is the invisible hand behind the calculated visuals of the Bush campaign—the signature use of deep, majestic backdrops behind the candidate, the use of jewel tones on Laura Bush and other women associated with the administration, the trick of forcing photographers to sit close to the stage so that they must shoot sharply upward, showing the candidate from a heroic angle. By contrast, the Democrats ignore them, losing women, who are simply too busy racing to get school lunches ready and kids out the door to get their impressions about the candidates from Meet the Press.

The low value Kerry’s team is assigning to both the visual story of the campaign and the role of gender imagery explains his drop in the polls after the GOP convention. Contrary to RNC spin about “earth tones” and “alpha males,” I was actually an adviser on women’s issues for the Gore campaign. But any cultural critic can tell you that a presidential campaign involves powerful gender archetypes, and presidents are archetypes of male potency. Republicans guided by Deaver understand this: It’s why you saw Ronald Reagan posed by a horse holding a riding crop, or W. in flight gear. And spouses play a massive role in enhancing or undermining the potency of a male candidate.

So Laura Bush, in speaking warmly of her mate’s “wrestling” with issues of war and peace, enhances his potency. This does not contradict my earlier point about appealing to swing voters; it has been well established that modern women maddeningly long for men who are tender in private but authoritative in public. Unfortunately, Teresa Heinz Kerry’s speech, which all but ignored her husband, did more to emasculate him than the opposition ever could. By publicly shining the light on herself rather than her husband, she opened a symbolic breach in Kerry’s archetypal armor. Listen to what the Republicans are hitting Kerry with: Indecisive. Effete. French. They are all but calling this tall, accomplished war hero gay.

The charges are sticking because of Teresa Heinz Kerry. Let’s start with “Heinz.” By retaining her dead husband’s name—there is no genteel way to put this—she is publicly, subliminally cuckolding Kerry with the power of another man—a dead Republican man, at that. Add to that the fact that her first husband was (as she is herself now) vastly more wealthy than her second husband. Throw into all of this her penchant for black, a color that no woman wears in the heartland, and you have a recipe for just what Kerry is struggling with now: charges of elitism, unstable family relationships, and an unmanned candidate.

Hillary Rodham Clinton merely insisted on using “Rodham” as part of her married name; Heinz Kerry is insisting on the primacy of another man. She could, though, have spoken about what she admires in her husband; she could have spoken about her own work in terms of service, family, and community. All those are ways of being oneself while still showing deference to women voters who are not wealthy and multilingual. I am a feminist, but I still believe that a candidate’s spouse, male or female, needs to understand something that Republicans get now but Democrats still don’t: It is not about them. If you are a president’s wife—or husband—your life and imagery do not belong just to you. For the duration, you belong to us, and you need to reflect and respect our own aspirations and dreams.

In Elizabeth Edwards, the Democrats finally have a down-to-earth, appealing mom-messenger to bring the swing voters home. Funny and family-oriented, aware of the struggles of middle-class working moms, she is even the size of the average American woman. She alone can counteract the urbane wealth of Teresa Heinz Kerry, who reads as being so unmaternal that her denying the small, scared Edwards child his thumb resonated nationally. Yet where is the mom-shaped stealth missile Mrs. Edwards now? Instead of presenting the Kerry-Edwards family-friendly policies and domestic security on Oprah, Mrs. Edwards has disappeared.

Bush knows that Laura is his outreach to that swing voter in Michigan who is juggling work and family, who wants to feel that her abortion rights are secure and her kids are safe. Whenever his anti-environment, anti-choice, anti-peace, anti-working-class-women policies obtrude onto her consciousness, all he needs to do is point to Laura; his recent stump speeches promise that if you vote for him, you get four more years of her. Who stole feminism? The Republicans. How neatly has Bush Inc. redeemed in positive terms the Clintons’ ill-conceived promise, a decade ago, that we would get “two for one.”

Female Trouble