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The Boston Globe

Opinion

JOAN VENNOCHI

Political wives and the politics of pretty

Michelle Obama and Ann Romney

Left: David Goldman/AP; Right: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Michelle Obama and Ann Romney

Squat, frumpy spouses who hate public speaking need not apply.

First lady Michelle Obama and Ann Romney, the woman who wants to replace her in that role, are setting new, superstar standards of elegance and eloquence for political wives.

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Standing next to your man with frozen smile and hair, like Callista Gingrich, just won’t do. By today’s demanding measurements, Jacqueline Kennedy’s whispery presence wouldn’t match the wow power of these latest convention performances. Neither would Laura Bush, a very popular first lady.

Yet as impressive as they are, Michelle Obama and Ann Romney are embracing a very traditional role — political wives as bright and sprightly accessories. Only now, they are accessories on steroids.

The expectations seem higher than ever. Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Romney each hoped to move a constituency — the “women’s vote” — to their husband’s side. To do it, they relied on televangelist skill to move arena audiences of more than 20,000, along with millions watching on TV.

Mrs. Romney’s job was to humanize her hubby. Mrs. Obama was a “character witness” for hers. The candidates’ wives don’t see it this way, but it’s a little demeaning to female voters to think they will be swayed by the wife of a man who would be president.

Writing for The New York Times, Myra Gutin, professor of communications at Rider College and author of “The President’s Partner: The First Lady in the Twentieth Century,” noted that Eleanor Roosevelt was the first first lady to speak at a national political convention. But according to Gutin, her role was not to “provide insight into her husband’s character or tell why her husband should be reelected. Mrs. Roosevelt was dispatched to Chicago in 1940 to quell a revolt against Roosevelt’s choice for vice president.”

Michelle Obama and Ann Romney embrace the traditional role of political wives as a bright accessories. Only now, they are accessories on steroids.

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Over the past five presidential election cycles, wrote Gutin, speeches by first ladies or their would-be successors have become pro forma; the goal now is to bear witness for the man they love.

But really, why should voters care how much a political couple profess to love each other? And, by now, shouldn’t voters also put the rosiest story of love and romance to a reality test?

For a time, did any political couple look more devoted than John and Elizabeth Edwards? Mrs. Edwards was not a cookie-cutter political wife when it came to looks; female voters loved that, plus her seeming candor and accessibility. But ambition led her to present a false picture of her marriage and her husband to the world.

Both the Obamas and the Romneys seem happily married and devoted to each other. That’s nice to know, but what exactly should it mean to voters?

Each wife had the same basic message: She loves her husband. She and her spouse love their children. And because of that, voters should vote Obama — or Romney.

Swathed in classic red Oscar de la Renta, Ann Romney told voters she wanted to talk about love and “real marriage.” From there she jumped to how hard her husband will work and care “to make this country a better place.” One of the most powerful moments in her speech came when she said, “This man will not fail.”

In Mitt she trusts, and so should we, although she did not give many specifics about his policy prescriptives.

Michelle Obama showed off toned arms in a dress that was unsurprisingly edgier than Ann Romney’s. But love and trust were also part of Mrs. Obama’s message.

One of her most powerful moments came when she said, “I have seen firsthand that being president doesn’t change who you are — it reveals who you are.”

Mrs. Obama also made more specific references to female and family-friendly policies backed by her husband, such as support for the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, health care reform, and student loans.

Both Michelle Obama and Ann Romney are beautiful, graceful, and compelling advocates for their husbands. Both also illustrate the politics of pretty that so permeates American campaigns. The Romney-Ryan ticket is selling itself at least partly on its cumulative good looks. Does that put Barack Obama, who is also handsome, at a disadvantage because Vice President Joe Biden falls into the wrinkly category?

The wrapping shouldn’t be more important than what’s inside the political package.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter@Joan_Vennochi.
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