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The First Wives' Snub
You've Come a Long Way, Maybe. G-20 Spouses Still Bound by Tradition

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."

When Michelle Obama hosts the spouses of the G-20 leaders in Pittsburgh on Thursday and Friday, she will attempt to highlight the administration's commitment to international diplomacy, show off American art and culture and avoid those awkward photo-ops that leave the spouses looking like silent props in a mid-20th-century parlor play.

Over the years, the spouses have visited a high-tech incinerator in Japan, inspected an earthquake site in Italy and attended a "Harry Potter" party in London. And there has been so much lunching and dining -- ravioli carbonara in Rome! -- that one wonders whether all the spouses have Jenny Craig on speed dial.

Yet for all the group photos, the friendly chatter among accomplished ladies and the serious conversations about women's rights, the spouses program still has the ring of a tradition that might as well date from the era of Jane Austen when, after dinner, men retired to the library for cigars and cognac and a discussion of world events -- and the ladies went into the parlor to talk about needlepoint.

"It's a throwback to an earlier era," Zelizer says. "It's unclear whether that's the best use of anyone's time."

"Symbolically," he says, "it might not be the best idea."

Is it an anachronism? "We haven't talked about that," says Susan Sher, Michelle Obama's chief of staff. "We've been too excited that it's the first spousal program in the U.S."

Tradition generally has meant that anything vaguely controversial, anything that might make another spouse uncomfortable, anything bursting with nightly news appeal, has been left off the table. Visiting spouses don't generally make requests -- too presumptuous. And the host spouse avoids pushing the envelope with any event that might distract from her husband. A visit to a Pittsburgh homeless shelter or a soup kitchen, for instance, would be considered ripping the proverbial envelope into teeny-tiny bits.

The fundamental rule for the host spouse is simple. "Do no harm," says Lattimore, who recalls that when Clinton hosted the G-8 spouses in Denver in 1997, she took the wives to a resort in the Rocky Mountains for lunch.

Obama's goal is to celebrate the city of Pittsburgh over the course of the two-day meeting. "Of course, the protocol and the traditions are important, but I think Mrs. Obama was able, has been able, to put her stamp on it," Sher says.

The events Obama has announced so far reflect the topics she has focused on as first lady: healthy eating, the arts and the education and support of young people.

She will host a private get-to-know-you dinner Thursday evening for the spouses at Teresa Heinz's Rosemont Farm in Fox Chapel, Pa., just outside Pittsburgh. The dinner at the farm, where workers grow fruits and vegetables, raise cows and chickens and collect fresh eggs, is intended to underscore Obama's interest in sustainable farming and her emphasis on locally grown foods. The spouses will visit the Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts magnet school, which has more than 800 full-time students and is akin to the type of professional arts school that inspired the musical "Fame."

They also will be given a tour of the Andy Warhol Museum -- an artist symbolic of American popular culture who was born and raised in Pittsburgh. That will be followed by lunch.

And because of Pittsburgh's nickname as the "City of Bridges," there will be much talk about "building bridges" and "bridges to promote friendship," Sher said.

Although the choices are meant to reflect the first lady's interests, they are not meant to reflect her personality. Her office defines them as two wholly separate things that should not be confused. That these events reflect the first lady's personality might make them seem too personal, too self-promoting, too Michelle Obama rather than Obama administration.

The White House did not spend a great deal of time studying previous G-8 and G-20 meetings for guidance. But Obama has had some experience traveling with the spouse pack. Earlier this year, she toured and posed her way through a G-20 gathering in London and a G-8 meeting in L'Aquila. In Italy, in July, the spouses attended a luncheon at the Capitoline Museum in Rome. They toured the ruins of the earthquake that devastated the medieval town of L'Aquila, where they posed -- while pretending not to pose -- for a group photograph. Then they ate again. What little they said came as truncated sound bites or as overheard murmurs. Often they were mute. Occasionally they smiled. But they always looked very, very nice.

"My favorite photo-op, and this is the honest to God truth, [the Japanese] had developed an incinerating plant for garbage. It was some sort of new technology for recycling. The photo op was the spouses standing at a garbage dump. And they're putting flowers down. That was the picture," Lattimore says.

There was another spousal kaffeeklatsch in Naples in 1994. The women were taken to an overlook with views of the harbor. The wind was whipping viciously. Lattimore had to clothespin the first lady's hem down so her frock wouldn't fly up. "I thought, How many cans of hairspray have been used by these first ladies?' " he says. "I envisioned a truck of Final Net pulling up."

The group photograph is unavoidable -- as has been its awkwardness. But Obama has created a schedule intended to allow time for relaxed conversation so the women can get comfortable with one another. Different people will be seated next to the first lady to facilitate new relationships. The women will be able to stroll leisurely through the Warhol Museum and chat along the way. "It creates possibilities for conversations -- and not just a photo op," Sher says. And surely there will be much to discuss. These, after all, are women who are lawyers, business executives and philanthropists.

It should be noted, however, that not all the G-20 spouses are women. Joachim Sauer, the husband of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, is a quantum chemist who avoids the limelight. And N?stor Kirchner, the former president of Argentina, is now a husband-of. His wife, Cristina Fern?ndez de Kirchner, holds his former title. Sauer, however, is not coming to Pittsburgh. Kirchner will be there, but he isn't lunching or touring or posing with the spouses.

"No boys," Sher says. "Just girls."

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