The American public has grown too cynical to believe that a politician whose wife gazes at him with rapt adoration in public must be a nice fellow. They figure cannily that the wife has surely heard it all before, so she's faking to make him look good, and they are not to be fooled into thinking this means anything. Or she's just been programmed.
Of course, she can't look bored, either, thus proving once again that being a politician's wife is a no-win situation. (Politicians' husbands are not used in this way, because it would be assumed that they are the brains of the outfit and their wives have been programmed to be out front.)
What this sophisticated public now demands is that politicians make public declarations of love for their wives. Only then can they be deemed nice. And so they do.
"I'm lucky enough to be married to the most wonderful woman in the world!" the politician shouts to the crowd. Wild applause. Then comes a joke or two about how she's really the brains of the outfit. Wild applause. "We've been married for X years!" Wild applause. "Honey, I love you!" he shouts to her. They blow kisses at each other.
As soon as they can reunite, they hug and kiss to wild applause. And they cannot take a step together without locking hands like high-schoolers.
Surely Miss Manners cannot be the only person who finds this in dreadful taste. But maybe she is, judging from all that applause.
She understands that in a society where divorce is common, it is considered an achievement, if not a miracle of selflessness, to keep a marriage going. Also, much as we love gossip, it is a relief to have evidence that there is not yet another scandal brewing.
She approves of the overdue acknowledgement that spouses are often major behind-the-scenes factors in the success of a political career. Unless the marriage is a farce, there are bound to have been numerous professional contributions, as well as personal support.
So why does she object to public declarations of marital affection?
Because they are icky.
Exactly because we do believe in the bond of marriage, extolling one's spouse is nearly as gauche as bragging about oneself. The "nearly" is in there because one can modestly admit to being proud when others praise the spouse. To praise one's own spouse to others is a play for reflected glory: "Notice that this wonderful person chose me."
The "We can't keep our hands off each other" demonstration is another form of marital bragging: "You may have settled down, but we are spending decades in a honeymoon fever."
Some leeway is allowed to those actually in the first stages of romantic love, but even they are supposed to exercise some control. Expressing affection in front of others has the unflattering implication of "We wish you weren't here so we could really go at it."
Finally, it doesn't prove anything except an absence of manners. We all know that lack of character is not incompatible with being adored -- even by someone who does have character, more's the pity. And we have seen enough hand-holding couples split for good to suspect that at least some of them let go as soon as we stop watching and applauding.
Dear Miss Manners:
Here is a conundrum faced frequently by would-be gentlemen who travel:
A woman in front of you in the boarding line is towing onto the plane a totally unreasonable amount of carry-on luggage. When she reaches her seat, she discovers, to nobody's surprise, that she can't even lift her suitcase off the floor. What course of action (or inaction) would you suggest for the gentlemen in such a situation?
It depends on whether the gentleman wishes to help the lady with her suitcase or punish her for having brought it aboard. Miss Manners gathers you favor the latter, and is at least grateful that you wish to do it in a gentlemanly way.
In that case, you should spring up and say soothingly, "Here, let me help; that's much too heavy for you." As the lady smiles gratefully, you may add, "I'll get a flight attendant who can check it for you."
Feeling incorrect? E-mail your etiquette questions to Miss Manners (who is distraught that she cannot reply personally) at MissManners@unitedmedia.com or mail to United Media, 200 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016.
(c) 2004, Judith Martin