First Lady Michelle Obama Host the G-20 Spouses

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 23, 2009

In "Julie and Julia," this summer's cinematic tribute to the influential chef Julia Child, the opening scenes show her arrival in Paris in the late 1940s with her husband, Paul, a diplomat. For long before Child was an admired chef, she was a consummate political spouse, following her husband as he chased his ambitions.

At first, the grandeur of their surroundings -- and improved circumstances -- have them wide-eyed. But after a few weeks admiring Paris, Child, while enjoying a meal of Dover sole meuniere, finally succumbs to her rising angst. She laments her plight as a wife of a somebody: a perfect hostess, a supportive confidante . . . bored.

What will I dooooo with my life, she wails in her high-pitched trill.

With her professional life dismantled, she gamely tries everything from hatmaking to bridge. When she finally decides to take classes at Le Cordon Bleu, she is shuttled to the ladies' wing of the venerable cooking school and assigned to the housewife track, one that receives no respect. Child's revolt against her patronizing circumstances lays the groundwork for her groundbreaking cookbook.

For the past 60 years, political spouses have been trying to get off -- and stay off -- the belittling housewife track.

In 1985, when first lady Nancy Reagan went to Geneva for a Ronald Reagan-Mikhail Gorbachev summit, she organized a tea with her Soviet counterpart, Raisa Gorbachev. The overarching idea was that she would present a hospitable image of America -- an important form of diplomacy at the time -- while her husband was talking Star Wars. "That actually became influential in the way Americans understood the Cold War," says Julian Zelizer, a political historian at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

But the housewife track remained a hard one to jump. Reagan's chief of staff, Donald Regan, suggested that most women wouldn't be interested in the big issues such as the Soviets' turmoil in Afghanistan or human rights. They'd "rather read the human-interest stuff of what happened," Regan said, setting off an angry round of criticism that led to his equally urgent backpedaling.

Circumstances have changed dramatically for political spouses since Child arrived in Paris in 1948 and Regan's gaffe in the mid-'80s. Today, the spouses' distinguished degrees, six-figure salaries and obvious brainpower have been highlighted as evidence of how far women have come since the days when the few who headed off to college went there seeking an M-R-S degree. In their spare time, the wives of presidents have tackled everything from the dysfunctions in the health-care system to human rights in Burma to, now, the unhealthy eating habits of an entire nation.

But even the most independent-minded spouses can't shake some traditions even if they wanted to. They continue to be charged with such hearth-and-home concerns as dinner menus, china patterns and just how to make the White House Easter Egg Roll exciting.

On the long list of traditions upheld by the East Wing, one of the most curious might be the "spouses program." That is not so much an official title as it is a kind of bureaucratic shorthand for the series of luncheons, walking tours and performances that the partners of world leaders typically attend during the G-8, the G-20 and any other random occasions when heads of state gather and their mates come along because protocol demands it.

"It was the picture of the ladies who lunch," recalls Neel Lattimore, who was first lady Hillary Clinton's spokesman in the 1990s and saw his share of spousal gaggles. "At that time, it seemed very traditional -- traditional meaning white gloves and hats. It felt that old." The G-8 was established in 1975 and the G-20 in 1999. For several years, the G-8 spousal program went on hiatus. Laura Bush reinstated it when the gathering was in Sea Island, Ga., in 2004.

"After it started out, it never really evolved or changed. The mentality of how it was scheduled hadn't changed," Lattimore says. "You felt like you were upholding an arcane tradition."

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