First Spouses: Rules of Engagement

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After wading through dozens of news stories and blog posts comparing and contrasting potential first ladies Michelle Obama and Cindy McCain, after watching countless commentators contemplate which woman will be a major boost (or major downer) to her husband’s campaign, I decided I had to write about this topic. While pondering what pearls of wisdom I’d offer in this space, I heard a pundit on one of the cable news networks lament that journalists aren’t sure how to handle news coverage of the potential first spouses because there are no “rules of engagement.”


This, my friends, is where I come in. Instead of treating you to yet another by-the-numbers comparison of McCain and Obama—everything from their public statements and wardrobe choices, to careers and parenting—I’ve decided to help my fellow journalists out instead. If they’re so confused about how they should cover Michelle and Cindy—even though the spouses of presidential candidates have “no impact whatsoever” on the outcome of an election—I’m here to lend a hand. You media people want to know what kinds of stories and angles you should pursue? I’ve created a list of story suggestions to guide your first spouse candidate coverage.


But before I proceed, let’s be honest for a moment. We know that the media are only paying so much attention to these women because …

a) It’s summer and there’s not much else to write about because the conventions don’t start until late August and the election is over four months away b) Michelle and Cindy are easy prey because they can’t lash back at the media lest they seem like whiners c) Everybody loves to trash women’s clothing and d) Who doesn’t like to pit two women against one another?

Even though the news media’s own polls indicate that “the popularity of presidential candidates’ spouses does not drive vote preferences” that’s no reason to put the kibosh on the Cindy versus Michelle stories, is there?




So, in the spirit of good will, here are a few of my humble suggestions for stories that are sure to garner attention in the lazy days of summer:

Don’t Blink
I couldn’t help but notice that members of the media tend to whip themselves into a frenzy whenever they think a spouse is not in full agreement and totally enamored with every iota of her husband’s campaign, tactics and personal habits. (See the Maureen Dowd column in the New York Times eviscerating Michelle Obama for supposedly emasculating her husband with her good-natured teasing.) So let’s put this wifely first lady dedication to the test. During the general election debates, they have special cameras trained on Cindy and Michelle. Assign a body language expert to not only interpret whether each woman’s body language indicates full support for her husband, but also have the expert pay special attention to how much time Cindy and Michelle spend gazing, unblinking, at their husbands. Tabulate the minutes (use special charts and graphs, and maybe that crazy giant CNN screen that makes the journalists using it look like orchestra conductors), then deduct points for each blink and the number of seconds when the doting stare is broken. Then have Wolf Blitzer lead a discussion about what this means to voters in the swing states.


Clothing 101
Every item of clothing means something, right? Every dress, every shoe, every earring, every hairpin must offer some kind of unspoken message to voters, as was suggested to the New York Times by a writer who hypothesized that Michelle wore a purple dress the night her husband clinched the Democratic nomination because the color purple is made by combining red and blue. (Get it, red states, blue states.)

Here’s what you can do to shake the staleness from these first lady fashion stories. Start running a regular feature, sure to be a crowd pleaser, where you employ the skills and solicit the input of sociologists, historians, fashion experts, cosmetologists, criminologists, and psychologists to explain the significance and meaning of every single item Cindy and Michelle wear every single time they appear in public from now until election day. Run a photo and/or video demonstrating each woman’s body language and appearance (fist-bumps, tight hair buns, etc.) and subject them to a full-frontal analysis because you never know what they may be trying to tell voters about the war in Iraq and the War on Terror with that flowered broach or red, white, and blue silk scarf.




Um, Uh …
Take every speech and public uttering made by Michelle and Cindy, tabulate the number of words they use, determine the reading level of their verbiage, and tally the number of ums, uhhs, and ahs. Deduct points for using the most words, for having a higher reading level and for the number of instances of verbal stumbling. Put the woman with the lowest score on the front page of the paper, or in a high profile news segment under the title: “In a Word: Loser.”


Loose Cannons R Us
Conduct an interview with each woman, asking them exactly the same questions. Make them pointed such as, “Do you think the United States should withdraw its troops from Iraq by 2010?” When she says she’s not going to answer that question because that’s a policy question and she’s not the one running for president, reply, “Oh come on [insert name]. You’ve got to have a position on this. Everyone does. What’s your personal opinion? We’ll make sure to say it’s your opinion, NOT your husband’s.” When she again politely declines to answer, follow that up with, “Come on. You can answer. America wants to know. [Insert name of the other potential first lady] already answered this question so there’s no harm in answering.” If she caves and gives you her opinion on a policy-related question be sure in your story or video package to say ominously that “some call her a ‘loose cannon’ for stepping on her husband’s policy positions” and run all kinds of headlines or news segments discussing how much she’ll try to influence her husband with her thoughts on policy.


Recipe Cards Are So 2004
We’ve already had the ubiquitous stories about first spouse recipes, because we all need to know that our first spouses are good cooks before we cast our presidential ballots or else all that is good and holy in America will crumble into dust if she doesn’t know her way around the kitchen. There have been two instances where Cindy McCain caught heat after imbecilic interns plagiarized recipes and submitted them on her behalf to a magazine and a newspaper. So, instead of writing more pithy articles assessing Michelle’s and Cindy’s culinary prowess on paper, why not try a fresher option, such as a Homemade Pudding Wrestling Contest. No, it’s not as low-brow as you might think. Hear me out. You invite Cindy and Michelle to your newsroom or TV station and ask the ladies to whip up homemade pudding right there on the spot while wearing an apron bearing their husbands’ campaign logos as you record it and later post the video on YouTube. Next, have Rachel Ray taste each batch and assign it a letter grade based on its Yum-O quotient. Then, taking a page from the world of ratings-generating reality television and in the spirit of promoting physical fitness, have Michelle and Cindy don full body suits, again with campaign logos on the front, and wrestle in a vat of all-American, chocolate pudding. Simon Cowell, despite the fact that he’s a British citizen, will judge the wrestlers based on their finesse.


Now, with these ideas in mind, I’m looking forward to reading and watching even more interesting and diverse news stories about Cindy and Michelle in the build up to the general election in November. And make sure to remember, my reporter friends, you’re the voice of the people and we voters need to make sure we pay sufficient attention to the super-important news you’ve been providing us, like the fact that Michelle doesn’t wear pantyhose.

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