Sixteen years ago, Hillary Clinton was still a long way from the White House, but already her negatives were rising. Now it's Michelle Obama's turn to run for first lady, and already she's falling into traps.
Sixteen years ago, Hillary Clinton was still a long way from the White House, but already her negatives were rising.
She had fallen into the first of many first lady traps. Asked about her law career in Arkansas, she made a too-cute remark about choosing not to stay home and bake cookies. Days before the New Hampshire primary, she sat by her man on "60 Minutes" as Bill danced around the Gennifer Flowers accusations - and was criticized by some for not dumping her husband and by others for dissing Tammy Wynette.
There were already rumors that her marriage was all about her pursuit of power. By August, The American Spectator had launched the crusade that would dog Hillary for years, publishing an article titled "The Lady MacBeth from Little Rock."
Now it's Michelle Obama's turn to run for first lady, and already she's falling into traps. Her too-frank jokes about her husband being "snorey and stinky" in bed resulted in commentators sniffing that she was "emasculating" her husband. Now she's being accused of being insufficiently patriotic.
Most Americans are just now getting a handle on Barack Obama; they've barely met his wife. First impressions are being made, and caricatures are being sketched. For Michelle, it's likely to get rougher from here on out.
Michelle Obama has been on the campaign trail for a year, but she added a poorly-thought-out line to a couple of speeches this week - "For the first time in my adult lifetime, I'm really proud of my country" - and she said it at exactly the wrong time. The right-wing commentariat on cable TV and talk radio had just decided to stop beating up on John McCain, and they turned on Michelle en masse.
Tuesday night, when the news-talk should have been about two more Obama victories, all Dan Rea wanted to talk about on WBZ was Michelle's remark, which he considered "the biggest mistake the Obama campaign has made."
Down the dial, Laura Ingraham was ranting about the same thing, toting up a list of things that, by implication, didn't make Michelle proud of America: "When the U.S. hockey team beat the Soviets at the Lake Placid Olympics, that didn't make her proud?... When the hostages were released by Iran, that didn't make her proud?"
A mostly-positive Newsweek cover story paints Michelle as smart - with degrees from Princeton and Harvard Law to prove it - but not a politician: "She isn't the traditional Stepford booster, smiling vacantly at her husband and sticking to a script of carefully vetted blandishments."
Michelle speaks her mind, which can include caustic humor lost on some of her audiences, Newsweek says. She also lets her sense of racial grievance show, especially when speaking to minority groups. Like most children of mixed-race parents, Barack has spent a lifetime trying to bridge the racial divide. Michelle, who grew up in a working class family on Chicago's South Side and felt the sting of isolation among the Ivy League elite, is less skilled at smoothing over racial differences, and less dedicated to it.
Her attempt to become the nation's first African-American first lady is as much a test of racial attitudes as her husband's candidacy. I spoke this week with a white reader who had heard Michelle speak several times and was turned off by the anger she heard. It's a common response when white folks are confronted by black attitudes.
"Look how far she's come," the reader told me. "She should show more gratitude for what this country has given her." If that sounds like "she's lucky we even let her kind sit at our table," well, that's a reflection on either the speaker, the listener, or both.
Actually, Michelle's stump speech prominently notes how fortunate she and Barack are to have come this far, and how proud she is that America's political system appears to be transcending race. But even in that positive message, she discovered this week, a first lady trap awaits.
Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton is discovering new first lady traps.
Ever the trailblazer, Hillary has built her candidacy on White House experience gained as the president's wife. That experience is real. Biographer Sally Bedell Smith, in a recent interview, described Hillary as in the room whenever an important decision was made. She interviewed every prospective cabinet member, sometimes spending more time with them than her husband.
But one thing she didn't do, though the fault wasn't necessarily her own, was lead the nation by making inspirational speeches - which is her opponent's greatest strength. Nor did she lobby Congress, at least not after her health care reform effort faltered.
Her experience, deep as it is in public policy, didn't involve convincing people about anything - except for convincing Bill to follow her advice.
Hillary is also prevented, by some combination of executive and marital privilege, from either taking credit for or distancing herself from specific decisions her husband made. Her first lady resume inevitably focuses attention on the past, and in a year when voters want change, she offers a restoration. Then there's the other baggage she brings: the ex-president who would be first gentleman.
These are difficult days for Hillary's supporters, especially women who consider themselves first-generation feminists. They see their historic first threatened by the Obamas' historic first. Hillary reminds them of the skilled middle manager, her career path obstructed by a glass ceiling, asked to train some bright young male for the job that should be hers.
As Hillary prepares to make her final stand in Texas and Ohio, these supporters are angry at the bias they see in the media and at voters choosing cool over competence. They see the best chance they've had for a female president slipping away.
But Hillary isn't the feminist ideal. While she's more than qualified to be president, she reached her prominence the old-fashioned way, by teaming up with a powerful, ambitious man. If she doesn't make history, it will likely record her as a transitional figure.
There are now 16 women in the U.S. Senate, 71 in the House (including Speaker Nancy Pelosi) and seven women serving as governors - nearly all of them elected without a husband winning office first. Any one of them could someday be elected president.
It will be easier for them because Hillary Clinton has led the way, and they'll have a smoother path if they don't have to worry about falling into first lady traps along the way.
Rick Holmes, opinion editor of the MetroWest Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. (http://blogs.townonline.com/holmesandco). He can be reached at email@example.com.