Kate Maloff: Carla Bruni v. the American First Lady

Kate MaloffIt’s rare that the French provide us with the watercooler stories we cherish here in the States—à la the Spitzer downfall and the Lewinsky travails of a decade earlier. Rather, the land of amour tends to stay unruffled when it comes to matters of the heart, or the bedroom. How refreshing it is then to recount the Israeli visit earlier this week by supermodel emeritus-turned-French First Lady Carla Bruni. What a splash she made as she disembarked to the stares of Shimon Peres and his giggling ministers, some of whom no doubt were struggling not to recall her scandalous nude pictures.

This light-hearted arrival was bookended by a less jocular finale when an Israeli border policeman committed suicide at the Sarkozys’ farewell ceremony. Regarde la Presidente as she pushed Sarko aside and bolted for safety—designer pumps and all—back up into their waiting Airbus!

But Sarko and Bruni’s antics reveal larger trends about the French psyche, and how we all perceive what a First Lady should be. Though the French were initially turned off by their new president’s infantile need to be perceived as alpha male, Sarkozy’s popularity rates are steadily increasing. But is this because—or in spite—of Bruni?

Despite her foibles and quasi-sordid background, at day’s end, Carla Bruni is to the French no more than casual fodder for occasional jokes. The French—and I’d posit the Europeans in general—have been able to regard their leading ladies with an air of frivolity and with properly managed expectations.

By tracing the tenures of Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush, and examining the recent rhetoric surrounding Michelle Obama, the polarity between the Europeans’ and Americans’ perception of the first lady appears radically different. In most circles, gender equality is a battle that’s been fought and won; race relations, civil liberties, and immigration debates spark far more fireworks today. Then why is America’s first lady stuck in the 1950s?

As elaborated by Karrin Vasby Anderson in The First Lady: A Site of American Womanhood, the position has in both tradition and symbol reflected white, middle- to upper-class femininity, and exuded the accepted definitions of home, family, and womanhood. The culture wars of the 1960s shook these foundations, but though bras burned and women went to work, our notion of the president’s wife remained immutable.

Even the revered Jackie Kennedy may best be remembered for her redecoration of the White House, or her affinity for couture.

But when Hillary Clinton opened the doors at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in 1992, she upended this accepted norm, to the chagrin of some—but not most. In his 2006 biography, Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady, Gil Troy cites a poll in which 42% of women said that HRC came closer to their values and lifestyles than previous first ladies; 41% of women disagreed. As first lady, Hillary Clinton broke the mold: she was the first to hold a post-graduate degree, and she both literally and figuratively broke out of the first lady’s traditional holding pen in the East Wing and launched the Clinton Health Care Plan. “Hillarycare” as we all know, had a less than glamorous end: the 1994 midterm elections resulted in an overwhelming victory for the GOP and her opponents were quick to link her plan to the Democrats’ defeat.

Hillary quickly retreated back to traditional first lady tasks, like initiating the “Save America’s Treasures” program, a national effort to restore or preserve symbols of our country. She was then subjected to a very public image makeover (all of which was excruciatingly detailed in print and online), culminating in Vogue’s 1998 Christmas issue cover, in which Anna Wintour exalted her “extraordinary good looks” as, decked out in Oscar de la Renta, Hillary posed for Annie Leibowitz in the Oval Office. Nice and all, but not quite what the Wellesley alum likely had in mind.

Her progression (or regression?) speaks directly to the American ambiguity as to what we really want out of our first lady. Indeed, Hillary’s highest approval ratings as first lady were likely sympathetic as they coincided with the Lewinsky debacle. Reflecting an utter disconnect between her professional achievements and the people’s ability to like her, a majority approved of Hillary Clinton only after she was the very public victim of a very public infidelity.

After those eight crazy years, Laura Bush provided us with far less fodder. Unsurprisingly, Mrs. Bush is one of the most popular first ladies in U.S. history, and fits the mold to a tee. Her public efforts have focused on the old favorites—literacy, health, education. Despite pondering where this National Book Festival founder was hiding during the debate over No Child Left Behind, Mrs. Bush could have written the first lady manual. She embodies in all respects the lipstick-heels-suit, stand by your man, “stay on cue” model that we expect.

We now have before us the prospect of First Lady Michelle Obama, the mold-breaker du jour. Or so we thought. Aside from the obvious issues of race, this Harvard-educated lawyer and working-yet-doting mother held the promise of, well, a change we can believe in for a prospective first lady.

But that was until right-wing news channels’ started having a field day with her ill-advised slip that she was “proud of her country for the first time,” not to mention the bizarre chatter over her congratulatory fist bump (or was it a “terrorist fist jab”?) to Barack on the night he clinched the nomination. And now, like Hillary before her, Michelle Obama has been the subject of a campaign to soften and feminize her image. Just last week she did a stint on “The View.”

Veteran strategist Stephanie Cutter is there to prevent attacks, and advisers are encouraging her to be “likeable.” We’ll have to wait to see how this new strategy pans out for Michelle, but if I had to guess, I’d say the likelihood of her bucking the established pattern is slim. One might wonder whether she might be a more forceful presence if Barack wins the presidency, but his carefully managed campaign won’t likely give us even a hint.

Maybe it’s a shame that we won’t get to see Bill Clinton as First Husband, as New York Magazine portrayed him. He likely would not have been the wallflower. But is the role of the first lady—for a woman, at least—evolutionarily untouchable? Should we expect either Mrs. Obama or Mrs. McCain to be a Carly Fiorina?

Shielded from the progressive undercurrents that have—arguably—infiltrated the corporate, academic, and government niches, why is the first spouse compartmentalized in such an antiquated way? Until we can accept a strong woman beside a strong man in the White House, is it realistic to think that this country could legitimately be ready for a female president? And if that’s the case, what other traditions are we unable to upend à la française?

Kate Maloff is director of development and administration at the World Policy Institute.

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