Sunday, November 30, 2008

Michelle Obama Is No Jacqueline Kennedy

The comparisons were inevitable: two charismatic presidents in their forties and their dazzling wives moving into the White House with young children.

"When Michelle Obama took to describing her new role as mom in chief," Ruth Marcus wrote in the Washington Post last week, "my first reaction was to wince at her words...What does it say about the condition of modern women that Obama... sounded so strangely retro--more Jackie Kennedy than Hillary Clinton?"

Marcus recalled that Cherie Blair "who managed to keep her barrister job while her husband was in office, grandly decreed that Tony, prime minister or not, would be taking paternity leave after the birth of their fourth child." But in advice to Michelle Obama, Mrs. Blair has now changed her tune:

"You have to learn to take a back seat, not just in public but in private. When your spouse is late to put the kids to bed, or for dinner, or your plans for the weekend are turned upside down again, you simply have to accept that he had something more important to do."

When Jacqueline Kennedy was about to become First Lady, she sounded like a Stepford wife, telling a reporter I sent to interview her, "The most important thing for successful marriage is for a husband to do what he likes best and does well...If the wife is happy, full credit should be given to the husband because the marriage is her entire life."

But when the reporter put away his notebook, Mrs. Kennedy looked him in the eye and said, "But I'm smarter than Jack, and don't you forget it."

The difference between now and then is that Michelle Obama, unlike her predecessor, has had a successful career and put it on hold voluntarily to help her husband get elected and now to govern the country.

As the Kennedys entered the White House, there was obvious tension between them. I spent an hour with JFK waiting for her to appear for a cover shoot and, when I had to leave, he asked, "What do you do when your wife is always late?"

"You can't win, Senator," I answered. "If you let it pass, you're accused of not caring that something might have happened to her. If you complain, you're a brute."

"I'd rather," he said, his jaw tightening, "be a brute."

When Mrs. Kennedy arrived, the resulting pictures showed them looking less like a couple ready to move into the White House than a pair of prisoners posing for a joint mug shot. The shoot was rescheduled.

The Obamas' easy interplay during their Barbara Walters interview last week made it clear there was nothing "retro" about their roles in a relationship that others will be theorizing about during their years in the spotlight.


Will "take no prisoners" Hart said...

Actually, Jackie was probably more like Hillary in that they both persevered with philandering husbands. Thankfully, the former Mrs. Kennedy foung her own true calling later in life.

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