The Women (1929/1939/2009)

tom_kolovos_wordpressnewEven if Jodi Kantor’s  essay “The First Marriage” in the New York Times Magazine  didn’t have the misfortune of appearing in the same Sunday edition as  the extraordinary continuing series “Women at Arms,” which today highlighted the  difficulties women veterans face when diagnosed with with post traumatic stress disorder from the Iraq/Afganistan wars, it would still come off as a thoughtless, tone deaf and premature hagiography of Michelle Obama. (Yes, the real subject here is not the marriage but Michelle. Surprise.)

You don’t have to be a raving fringe political lunatic (Liz Cheney comes to mind) to notice that even though Ms Kantor’s aim is to illuminate how the Obamas “mix politics and romance in a way that no first couple have before,” her tiresome analysis (and dubious premise) is short on history and long on the two-married-professionals-with-children cliches better suited to the ilk of celebrity rags and television chat shows.

And you don’t have to be Virginia Woolf to know that intelligent and ambitious  women have historically sacrificed so the men in their lives get ahead. (Wo)Man bites dog circa 1929.

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Compared with the two most obvious political high wire duo marriages of the last century,  The Kennedys and the Clintons, The Obama’s balancing act comes off as cotidian. (Perhaps that’s the way in which it it’s “modern,”  by which Ms Kantor surely means contemporary, but as I said history is not her forte.)

There’s nothing here  that any one of us out here in a long term relationship hasn’t experienced and nothing newsworthy about the balancing act all of us have to achieve in  life once we grow up and realize that balance and compromise (if we’re lucky) is all there is. The Obamas spent a lot of time apart when Barack ran for political office. They weren’t making a lot of money. They couldn’t all be there for the girls’ activities.  Barack thought he could go it alone. Michelle never signed up to be a political wife. Michelle’s character and support were invaluable to Barack’s success. Yada yada yada.

You mean to tell us, Ms Kantor, that Pat Nixon knowingly signed on for the disgrace of Watergate? Laura Bush for the the alcoholism and coke fueled benders? Hillary for the public infidelities? Nancy Reagan for the 10 years of home nursing? Jackie Kennedy for the blood splattered head of her husband in her lap?

It simply does not occur to Ms Kantor that,  given what could possibly go wrong in a  political marriage, the way she portrays the Obama’s marriage as a  shiny new model of “modernity” just a year into the job, she’s completely overreaching.

Her obtuseness reaches its nadir when she walks “into the Hyde Park apartment the Obama’s bought when they married, hoping to find clues to their old lives. The cramped master bedroom,” she proudly observes, “had a closet barely big enough for one wardrobe. Where did Michelle keep her clothes?” Excuse  me?

The marriage of Jacqueline Bouvier into the crass Kennedy clan was seminal to the political career of JFK. So even if we start there, the very notion that Mrs Obama was intent on upscaling her husband’s office space, his venues for public appearances  and ultimately humanizing him by appearing in public and speaking on his behalf speaks both to the naivete of Ms Kantor and to the valuable image savvy of Mrs Obama.

The wide latitude that Mrs Obama can enjoy in her role  as First Lady, is in no small part due to the trailblazing legacy of Hillary Clinton, so it’s snarky on the part of Ms Kantor to  both oversimplify the comparisons between the Clintons and the Obamas and then to take cheap shots at Mrs Clinton’s expense. “While the Clinton marriage seems forged in shared beliefs about the promise of politics, the Obama union has been a decades-long debate about whether politics could be an effective avenue for social change.” Clinton bad. Obama good. Got it. Thanks.

She continues: Michelle “also played a vital role in heading off the most promising female candidate in United States history. It was essential for the Obama campaign to present some sort of accomplished female counterweight to Hillary Clinton, to convince Democratic women that they could vote for Barack Obama and a powerful female figure besides. Consciously or not, Michelle made herself into an appealing contrast to the front-runner. She was candid; Hillary was often guarded. Michelle represented the idea that a little black girl from the South Side of Chicago could grow up to be first lady of the United States; Hillary stood for the hold of the already-powerful on the political system. And Michelle seemed to have the kind of marriage many people might aspire to; Hillary did not.”

And then there’s this. Kantor reports that “as a first-time candidate, Barack could be stiff; friends remember him talking to voters with his arms folded, looking defensive. Michelle warmed everyone up, including her husband. “She is really Bill, and he is really Hillary,” one friend recently put it.” We get it. She’s not Hillary.

As I was reading the essay I was reminded how much of the seriously misguided effort by Ms Kantor could easily be remade as  a screwball comedy, let’s just say the George Cukor classic 1939 film of Clare Boothe Luce’s play The Women. It would take  some time to figure out which First Lady and in which way Ms Kantor has maligned whom so I could align them with the the cast of the film, but I think it could be done.

Jungle red mother.

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