In Poland, the life of a candidate's wife

By Anne Applebaum
Monday, March 29, 2010

The stylist looked over my clothes. "Yes, this is exactly the sort of thing I thought you would have in your wardrobe," he said, eyeing my modest collection of suits with barely disguised disdain. He picked up a blue jacket gingerly, as if dye might rub off on his hands. "This is a very . . . difficult color," he said. He grimaced and moved it to another chair.

That was it: My first, last and only meeting with the sort of person who spends his days dressing celebrities. By the time it took place, it was already clear that my husband, Radoslaw Sikorski, would not be his party's candidate for the presidency of Poland. (He is still the Polish foreign minister, and he conceded the presidential primary on Saturday.) This meant that I would not be the candidate for first lady of Poland. Which was just as well, really: I didn't like the pink jacket the stylist picked out for me, and I never wore it.

The primary was blissfully short, only five weeks. But that was long enough to give me the barest whiff of what genuine hell presidents' wives must endure in countries where election campaigns last for months and years. It was also an interesting lesson in how wrongly we perceive the wife-of-the-candidate experience. Listening attentively on the side of the stage while your husband speaks is probably the least difficult aspect of the whole thing: He talks, you smile, everyone cheers. How hard is that?

Much harder is the business of actually talking yourself. I'd never done anything like it before: Nobody cares very much about the Polish foreign minister's wife, and rightly so. But as soon as my husband became a presidential candidate the emotional chemistry changed. Even in Poland, where the president has far less power than the prime minister, people have a deeper and more atavistic relationship with the serious contenders to become head of state. They want their national leader -- the tribal chief -- to look like them, live like them, reflect their values. They want his wife to do all of that, too -- especially if she is, like me, a foreigner. There is no neutral way to deal with this: If you say nothing, you are "unhelpful." If you give no interviews (my initial instinct), it means you don't really speak Polish, or perhaps you have something to hide. And when you talk, you are expected to talk about yourself.

As it turned out, I wasn't very good at this. Ask me about, say, the energy policies of the European Union or the significance of the Ukrainian election and I can talk all day. But ask me "why I fell in love with my husband" and I am utterly tongue-tied. What is the correct answer? Isn't the truth -- "I don't remember, really, it's all rather a blur" -- too vague for breakfast television? Somewhat too late, I realized that it's not what you say; it's how you say it. Complexity, like ambiguity, sounds bad on camera. Additional details -- such as "at the time of our first meeting he was with his girlfriend, whom I rather liked" -- tend to spoil the story. I don't mean that you have to lie -- on the contrary, that would be fatal. But in order to sound "natural" you have to be very well prepared, perhaps with a brief but clever story about how you met. The Obamas have one involving ice cream. I was able to achieve this "naturalness" only with practice, and heavy editing.

It isn't enough just to say nice things, either: Michelle Obama has raised the bar further, and now political wives are expected to observe that the husband also has a few "faults," such as leaving wet towels on the floor. Not wanting to sound like a Stepford wife, Samantha Cameron, spouse of the British Conservative Party leader, recently declared that she had to be "quite firm about him not fiddling with his phone and his BlackBerry too much." Ah yes, so he works too hard, does he? I really admired that one.

Even harder than talking is the whole business of the news cycle. Before the campaign, my husband was the most popular politician in the country. According to some polls, he still is. But after he declared himself a candidate for president, a tsunami of negative emotion emerged from nowhere and washed over both us. It suddenly became okay to invent the most ridiculous stories about him -- and me -- and publish them. They could not be contradicted because to do so would sound silly (He did not say that! I did so drive the car myself! That meeting with Dick Cheney never happened!).

As a result, mythological versions of history attained the status of "fact," and people on television talk shows argued about them with extraordinary passion. As a journalist, I know what it is like to incur the self-righteous wrath of people who denounce you for things you didn't say or didn't mean. When you add TV, radio talk shows and morning newspapers to the permanent fury of the blogosphere, the echo-chamber effect can be overwhelming. I've seen this happen to people, but never felt it from the inside. And it is unnerving -- almost spooky -- to watch an utterly unrecognizable version of someone you know rather well emerge into the public sphere. Of course I wouldn't vote for that Radek Sikorski, the one with the dubious citizenship and the fake diploma. But then, I'm not married to him, because he doesn't exist.

To be clear: I am absolutely not complaining, and I do not consider anything about the campaign unfair. The qualities Poles admire in a secretary of state -- ability to speak foreign languages, diplomatic experience, even sense of humor -- are not those desired in a head of state. So be it. Although one maybe ought to have expected that rapid shift in perceptions and should have been prepared for those negative emotions, somehow one didn't and wasn't.

Perhaps one never is. Possibly for the first time ever, I find myself in solidarity with Hillary Clinton: "If you don't like him, don't vote for him." Just don't tell me about it, okay?

applebaumletters@washpost.com


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