The last word on first ladies

 

As the contest to be next president of the US enters the final straight, here's what women who insist on standing by their men really need to know, writes Kate Holmquist

NOW THAT BILL Clinton has lost his chance of being "first lad", we can enjoy a contest of first ladies coming up to the US presidential election in November. The knives have been out for Michelle Obama - "Obama's Baby Mama" as Fox News called her - so she went on a charm offensive this week, fighting off bumping TV journalists and rather Freudianly calling her husband "pathetic", when what she meant was empathetic. Relax Michelle, there's no embarrassment that a previous first lady hasn't learned from. Here are some essential tips for aspiring political consorts.

1. Just say no

Nancy Reagan's famous dictum is relevant to any aspiring first lady. This starts with saying no to what must be the worst job in the world. Martha Washington, wife of the first US president, George Washington, said: "I think I am more like a state prisoner than anything else. There are certain bounds set for me which I must not depart from." Two centuries later, Marianne Ginther Gingrich helped kill off her husband's presidential ambitions by telling Vanity Fair that her husband's destiny was in her hands: "I don't want him to be president. It's easy . . . I just go on the air the next day and I undermine everything." If you ignore advice because being first lady will bring you power, money and success that other women can only dream of, then prepare to do Oprah the minute any consequent mental health issues are exposed. Joan Kennedy (alcohol), Betty Ford (alcohol, prescription drugs, breast cancer), Kitty Dukakis (alcohol, prescription drugs), Tipper Gore (clinical depression) and now Cindy Lou Hensley McCain (prescription drug addiction) have all become poster wives for mental health issues.

2. Don't boast about your 40 years and 30 lovers unless you're an Italian siren married to the French president

Flirting with Sarah Jessica Parker's actor-husband, Matthew Broderick, by brushing dandruff from the shoulders of his jacket while he was still wearing it, proved much for conservative America, Michelle Obama discovered. But the French are different. Singing "You are my drug, deadlier than Afghan heroin, more dangerous than Colombian white" only works for Carla Bruni because her husband, Nicolas Sarkozy, will use anything to distract the French public from his political impotence - despite the humiliation of seeing his wife's lyrics unfavourably reviewed by the anti-cocaine Colombian foreign minister.

3. Surrender your career

If you have kids, you will effectively become a single parent in a two-parent family. When you shout, "Daddy's here!", they will answer "On what channel?" Tipper Gore sacrificed her career as a psychologist and Maria Shriver gave up being a TV presenter - just two examples. If you keep your career, prepare to have it traduced and your finances dissected. For example, we now know that Cindy McCain's current credit card debts are about $250,000 (€160,000) and that she earns $6 million (€3.8 million) per year. Do you really want people knowing that? Even more embarrassing, in the early 1980s, US senator Mark Hatfield's wife Antoinette was exposed for being paid $55,000 (€35,500) by a Greek businessman promoting a trans-African pipeline, which the senator happened to support. If you keep your career, hide it, be scrupulous in your dealings (even with your stylist/personal trainer) and eat humble pie (see Cherie Blair).

4. Espouse family values

That's all you'll have left after you've sacrificed yourself to your husband's soul-destroying political trajectory. If he fails, or your marriage fails (whichever comes first), you'll go from being hot political wife to unemployable persona non grata. But there's a catch, no matter how perfectly you behave, if your kids act up (like the two Bush girls and Tony Blair's son), you will be annihilated. Putting the kids into cryogenic stasis for a few years is an option, unless you are cloning yourself (see Chelsea Clinton).

5. If you're still determined to be a first lady, accept that you are an "asset", not an individual

Carefully vetted TV interviews and flattering magazine spreads in Vogue (Cindy McCain) and O (Michelle Obama) will make you unrecognisable to anyone but your mother, but accept that your role is dummy in the political window - mute and cute. No wonder Mary Cowen hasn't done any interviews.

6. Have a Hollywood vision

Channel Jackie Kennedy. Today's exemplar is Maria Shriver, who invites her website visitors to email "Team Maria". Her motto is: "We serve, we empower, we inspire, we connect, we partner , we garden, we prepare our families for catastrophes, we appear on American Idol" etc, etc.

7. Have pets

When the going gets tough, the tough play with their pets on the White House lawn. Failing that, adopt children from disadvantaged countries (see Cindy McCain).

8. Being a former beauty queen/socialite helps

Cindy McCain is an ex-cheerleader, former rodeo queen and multi-millionaire beer distribution heiress. Jackie Kennedy had connections. Princeton-educated Michelle Obama belongs to a powerful black elite - although this is working against her now that she's running for "first doormat".

9. Have a sense of humour

When the right wing labels you an angry black radical because you fist-bumped your husband - obviously a terrorist salute of some kind (ahem) - go home, cuddle up to Barack and demand his allegiance. "Lay off my wife," Obama stated in response, then described Michelle as "smarter, tougher and definitely more attractive" than him. Dressing like Jackie Kennedy is always a good idea, but whatever you're wearing, do not use the term "whitey" - don't even think it. Michelle would have been well-advised to keep her hands demurely in her lap at all times, but instead she went on the US afternoon chat show, The View, and taught the presenters to do the fist-bump too, prompting Whoopie Goldberg to comment, "Good thing it wasn't a chest bump". Perspective is also essential when Scarlett Johansson declares a crush on your husband Barack, and Jennifer Lopez dressed in black is seen slipping into his campaign office. Be like Hillary and turn a blind eye. Do not Google Marilyn Monroe.

10. Never have bed-hair (as Cherie Blair learned to her cost)

Be a high maintenance, shoulder-length sort of girl (Mary Cowen, Michelle Obama, Cindy McCain, Carla Bruni).

11. Do not emasculate your husband

Describing Obama as "stinky and snorey" in bed, as Michelle did, is a mistake not to be repeated. Be like Cindy McCain, who so convincingly plays the role of adoring (second) wife that she could be mistaken for Princess Di in the early stages of her engagement, although letting your candidate husband use your private jet for his campaign, as Cindy did, backfires.

12. Dress to win, but make it look effortless

Michelle Obama has the edge, thanks to her Jackie Kennedy style. Carla Bruni is the epitome, but she's a skinny ex-model, so no aspiring first lady should dare compare, although Carla and Michelle seem to have jointly discovered the power of purple. Mary Cowen? Her colourless linen-look coat was too wrinkled in those "voting yes for Lisbon" pictures. Not that it matters since she is in the unique position of not having had to run for first lady. The jury is out on Cindy McCain - although she's doing well by wearing Oscar de la Renta, the favourite designer of current US first lady Laura Bush

13. Deny, deny, deny

. . . as Cindy McCain did when her husband was accused of having an affair with a lobbyist. On the other hand, if you harbour political ambitions of your own, standing by your man may be career suicide (see Hillary Clinton). Under no circumstances should you say, "I'm not sitting here, some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette".

14. Bake cookies but don't share the recipe

Saying "I'm not going to sit around baking cookies", as Hillary did, is worse than actually baking cookies people break their teeth on. However, if you take the safe path of enthusiastic cookie-baking, do not follow Cindy McCain's example of allowing your intern to download from Food Network's website, then pass the ensuing Three-minute No-bake Cookies, Rosemary Chicken. Tuna with Napa Cabbage Slaw, and so on, as family recipes handed down over generations. Not only will the recipes be inedible, but you will be outed cookie-wise, as Cindy found out, not once, but several times over (see salon.com). This isn't a problem for Bruni, who appears not to eat.

15. Ignore the class jibes

When you are accused on TV of being born with a silver spoon in your mouth, say that your family only had four spoons (including the one in your mouth), as Michelle Obama did on The Colbert Report.

16. Have an uncontroversial cause

Like Barbara Bush, Laura Bush advocates a "love of reading", an approach she used in Ireland earlier this week, garnering her blessedly few column inches.

17. Do not be an outspoken advocate of women's rights

Betty Ford and Hillary Clinton learned this the hard way. Successful first ladies are demurely attractive - like Barbara and Laura Bush, Tipper Gore (actually a "second lady", as the White House website terms VP wives), Jackie Kennedy and arguably, Nancy Reagan. Michelle's only policy statement so far was the admission that she doesn't wear pantyhose anymore. Rosslyn Carter (the first first lady to have her own office) is an exception. To this day she advocates social causes but she has always been too boring to annoy anyone. Good plan.

18. Be loved by your public

No first lady has ever surpassed Mamie Eisenhower with her love of fashion, jewellery and discreet style. She was "a gentle and high-bred hostess". Study her. Aim to be a non-feminist first lady during a post-war era of economic growth.

19. Be tolerant

If you insist on being a world leader like Eleanor Roosevelt, remember that Edith, wife of Teddy Roosevelt, described the perfect first lady as "always the gentle, highbred hostess; smiling often at what went on about her, yet never critical of the ignorant and tolerant always of the little insincerities of political life".

20. Avoid issue of sexuality

If you are a first lady of this island, on no account should you say, as Iris Robinson did, that you have a very lovely Christian psychiatrist who can turn homosexuals into heterosexuals. It's best not to give any opinion of any kind whatsoever. Stay off the media radar. (Note to Mary Cowen: ever consider giving seminars to other political wives about how you do it?)