Laura Bush Hid Her Real Views for Her Husband. Would You?KJ Dell'Antonia
In 2001, before her husband’s inauguration, Laura Bush responded to a question about abortion by saying that she believed the laws legalizing it should not be overturned. Google “Laura Bush abortion” and you’ll find the reference, flanked by pages and pages of references to her Larry King interview just last week, in which she once again (after almost a decade of near-silence) expressed her support for legalized abortion. In 2006, she said that the issue of gay marriage should be handled with “sensitivity” and should not become a campaign issue. On Larry King, she offered her unequivocal support to gay marriage (which is more than either Barack or Michelle Obama has done).
I think we can all agree that having a wife who spoke out in favor of abortion or gay marriage wouldn’t have helped George W. Bush on the campaign trail. Assuming she felt strongly about these things all along, did she have an obligation to speak up anyway–or was she right to keep relatively quiet about her views?
As my colleague Jessica Grose said at Slate’s XXFactor yesterday, first ladies can’t win: get too involved in politics, and you’re Hillary Clinton (which worked out pretty well for her in the end, but perhaps wasn’t such fun during her husband’s presidency); stay out of it and you’re “a stepford wife.” It’s safe to assume Michelle Obama has some strongly held, controversial views she keeps to herself, and while Cindy McCain supports gay marriage now , if she held that view during her husband’s presidential campaign, she kept it to herself. In general, politician’s wives stay (politically) mum. (The same can be said of politician’s husbands, but for obvious reasons is said less often–and with the most prominent example being former President Bill Clinton, comparisons are difficult.)
It’s a choice that resonates for many of us on a more personal level. My husband’s boss and I disagree about many questions of politics, and during the last presidential election, I got kicked in the ankle any number of times at social events as a polite reminder that this wasn’t the best time to express my views. Most of the time, the reason for that was less political than social–there are moments when it’s just not polite to argue politics–but still, there have been moments when I’ve smiled politely in order to avoid tarring my husband with my own political brush. Debates at his holiday party scarcely take on national significance, but when I’m feeling more than a little hypocritical about my silence, I admit to thinking about the other women who set the example. I suspect they make it easier for me to smile, nod, and save my opinions for when we get home and I’m slipping off my heels–and I’m not entirely convinced that any of us are doing the right thing.