Cindy McCain's Super Do Day

Sunday, February 10, 2008

When John McCain climbed onstage to speak to supporters in Arizona Tuesday night, his wife Cindy was by his side as usual. Wearing a bright red suit and a quadruple-strand pearl necklace, she is a woman who never seems to have a hair out of place.

But that night, uncharacteristically, it was her hair that was the distraction. Her platinum locks weren't merely wound into a neat French twist. They were elaborately coiled, looped, balanced and bolted down like a piece of Frank Gehry architecture. It was as if Frederic Fekkai was riding shotgun on the Straight Talk Express. McCain did not look as if the Phoenix celebration was merely one stop on the long road to the White House. She appeared to be dressed for the coronation itself.

It was impossible not to notice and to settle in for a long stare. She stood behind her husband while he delivered his victory speech. He, by the way, was dressed unobtrusively in a dark suit, light blue shirt and red tie.

She was in the unenviable position of so many political spouses. She was onstage as an accessory. She was visible but not vocal. Supportive but not overshadowing. A focus of attention for no other reason than to help paint an idyllic familial image.

Can anyone, including former president Bill Clinton, survive the spousal role without having their stature nicked, if only a little? Is it possible to avoid such symbolic gestures altogether?

Cindy McCain has an impressive résumé that includes volunteer work abroad, service on the board of charitable organizations and oversight of her family's business -- one of the country's largest Anheuser-Busch distributors. And yet, as she stands behind the candidate with nothing to do but smile, she is minimized, her power diluted. In this politically correct, post-feminist era, the sight of a woman standing behind her man still has the potential to convey tradition, family values, old-fashioned Americana.

McCain seems to have given herself over to this odd job, which is essentially to make her husband look good by . . . looking good and loving and proud. You see her standing there, saying nothing. And you don't want to judge her by her appearance, but in that carefully choreographed instance, that's all you've got. She has perfected a polished, country-club, moneyed sensibility. Perhaps her Super Tuesday, super-duper do was in honor of her husband proclaiming himself the front-runner?

Another political spouse, Michelle Obama, seems to be working hard to negotiate her way out of the accessory role. From the beginning of her husband's campaign, she went out of her way to rough up his mythic reputation. In her speeches, she told audiences about his not putting the butter away. Of how he was just a man, not an ideal.

She dresses like a working woman without a Washington aura, that overly prim pantyhose-in-August look. And she has had highs and lows. There was the sophisticated black form-fitting dress with the contrasting zipper up the back she wore to the victory rally in Iowa, and then there was the sleeveless top and rumpled trousers at a recent speech in Los Angeles. In January, she gave a speech wearing a smart trench coat and high boots. In July in Iowa, she campaigned in a comfortable tank top. A tank top! Hallelujah! That is not the typical attire of first ladies, who tend to avoid clothing that suggests they have arms, shoulders or knees.

In Chicago Tuesday, she wore a red dress and matching cropped jacket. But her jacket had loose-fitting butterfly wing sleeves that flapped about as she waved. She was not wearing a uniform. Obama dresses like a woman trying to sidestep symbolism. Symbolism may benefit the candidate. It can be a trap for the spouse.

That evening, when the Obamas arrived to greet their supporters, the wife did what she generally does in these situations: She kissed the candidate and left the stage. She would return for the photo op, to furnish the tableau of a happy couple waving to supporters. Withhold that image at one's peril. But she did not stand behind him as he spoke. She was not nodding and smiling. She wasn't diminished.

The spousal role has even tripped up a former president. If Bill Clinton is one day to be first consort -- a new American symbol -- he should stop wearing banana-yellow sport shirts or bright orange ties that cast a radioactive glow across his face. He must find some distinguished style of dress for those times when a suit is not required.

Earlier in the campaign, he regularly used to stand onstage behind his woman. And he tried to strike the right facial expressions, to tilt his head just so. But no longer. (Recently, Chelsea Clinton has been serving as the adoring and silent accessory.)

Hillary Clinton arrived at her New York headquarters Tuesday accompanied by her family. They waved and smiled for the family portrait. But when it was time to deliver her victory speech, both Chelsea and Bill Clinton stepped out of the spotlight.

Like other spouses, even the former president was stuck with the same two choices: stand in the back and smile, or get off the stage.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company