Rep. Weiner gave us another version, earlier this month, of the near-iconic image of the suffering, strong wife standing by her disgraced man as he calls a press conference to discuss whatever scandal has plagued him. Actually, his wife doesn’t even need to be at his press event; the Washington Post will force the image on readers anyway:
So does the media cover the spouses of politicians differently when it comes to husbands?
Aside from all of the ribbing she takes, most recently about John Wayne Gacy, and accepting stimulus funds for her district, Michele Bachmann is not in the midst of any scandal. Oh, wait. Her husband, Marcus is. It’s a bit of a stretch, however, to call this a scandal per se; his mental health clinic has collected Medicaid funds for its low-income clients since the mid-2000s. That’s only a “scandal” when you consider Rep. Bachmann’s assertions that she doesn’t believe in things like Medicaid (which is a separate entity from Medicare, which she also doesn’t support).
But let’s look at this again. Rep. Bachmann’s husband’s clinic serves working-class clients and is receiving legal federal support when it is appropriate. She may not believe in these broad welfare or social safety net programs, but the issue as framed by the media here has collapsed her spouse’s behavior with her ideals. Is Michele Bachmann allowed to have autonomy from her spouse?
During the 2008 campaign, much hay was made over Todd Palin’s behavior, and also cast as a measure of Sarah Palin’s qualifications for the office of Vice President. His DUI arrest and role in ethics issues behind building their massive house in Alaska came out during that election cycle. Both of these were presented as evidence not only that Ms. Palin was perhaps unfit for office but also relied on her husband too much to help her make political decisions.
Given the historical evidence that male politicians have relied on women to assist them with legislative issues and governance, this is a sexist response on its face. It’s been well documented in American political history, when female partners step in and take their husbands’ vacated seats—this is more commonplace in the Senate, where a writ of election can fill a seat quickly—after the husband’s death, that not all political moments occur only in offices and legislative chambers.
There’s also the press’ penchant for calling these men “First Dudes.” Certainly “dude” isn’t the formal equivalent of “lady,” a word festooned with patriarchal entanglements and a term that certainly fails to describe the entirety of responsibilities and commitments encumbent upon the First Lady. Sarah Palin herself liked to refer to Todd as “first dude,” in order to point out their political style and outsider status, but the reporting about Todd followed suit—and his behavior was used to show that her character lacked credibility.
It isn’t only male spouses of Republican candidates who seem to tarnish their wives’ reputations. When Democrat Hillary Clinton was running in the presidential primary in 2008, Bill was offered up as a liability to her chances again and again. Jimmy Carter himself couldn’t hold back on speculating about Bill’s negative effect on his wife’s campaign. Even after the ‘08 election, the media questioned whether she could be an effective Secretary of State—because of Bill.
In the advent of around-the-clock sensationalized news content, and the copious numbers of surveillance cameras, cameraphones [sic], and paparazzi out in the world to capture images and stories, politicians are under a constant gaze. If we believe in the corrupting influence of power (hats off to Foucault), scandals will continue to occur in the political arena. But these are not merely news stories; they are relayed to us through a lens of heteronormativity and sexism that says women are only as good as their men, boys will be boys, and men make lousy supports for their wives’ political careers. After all, First Dudes aren’t beholden to holding high tea, they’re off snowmobiling through the Alaskan forest, jetsetting with other former Presidents, and dipping into the well of welfare money.
The press can do better.