LONDON — In an election year in which much has been made about the star power of political wives, it’s worth pausing to contemplate an entirely different role model for this category: British Prime Minister David Cameron’s wife, Samantha, who’s traveling with her husband to Washington this week.
As David Cameron and President Obama come together to reaffirm the importance of the Special Relationship between the United States and Great Britain, Samantha Cameron will also make her official U.S. debut. But while there’s been a fair bit of buzz about her personal style, I’d be quite surprised if her contribution to this carefully orchestrated visit makes a huge splash on either side of the Atlantic.
It’s not that “Sam Cam” — as she’s known over here — isn’t seen as an asset by her husband’s handlers. During his election campaign two years ago, the prime minister referred to her as his “secret weapon.” She is often described as “elegant,” “down to earth” as well as “surprisingly normal,” Samantha Cameron has helped remove a bit of the stuffy, Eton-to-Oxbridge air of privilege that has engulfed her husband at times. (The former art student sports a dolphin tattoo on her ankle.)
In this way, she’s not entirely unlike the political wives of the current GOP hopefuls, most notably Anne Romney, who have been praised – in the words of my colleague Patricia Murphy – for coming across as “trustworthy, relatable and aware that the 21st century started a while ago.”
But unlike those women – and certainly unlike her female counterpart in the White House – Samantha Cameron remains largely out of view in the U.K. And a big reason for this is that she’s really busy with her day job. She is, among other things, a very successful businesswoman with her own career which is quite independent of her husband’s.
For 14 years, she worked as Creative Director at Smythson’s, a purveyor of luxury goods and personalized stationery in London, where she is reported to have earned approximately 400,000 pounds annually ($625,000). Although she cut back from four to two days a week when she became pregnant with her last child in 2010, she was apparently so eager to return to work that she cut her 12-month maternity leave short.
Samantha Cameron also has three young children, ages 8, 6 and 1. The couple’s eldest, Ivan, who was severely disabled, died at the age of 6 in February 2009.
But even during that very public personal crisis, much more media attention went to David Cameron — who, among other things, repeatedly referenced his son’s extensive medical treatment in explaining his own support for the U.K.’s nationalized health service, the NHS, during his campaign for office.
It’s also the case that Samantha Cameron was apparently never much of a one for the limelight. My own favorite story about her dates back to a time before her husband was heir apparent to No. 10 Downing Street. The Camerons were moving into their Notting Hill home in West London in 2006 when a neighbor idly speculated that the next time removal trucks pulled up, the family would no doubt be moving to No 10. Samantha is reported to have replied: “I f---ing hope not.”
But much of the difference in her relative invisibility is that in an era where “Michelle” is a global household name, the British political system simply doesn’t demand as much from its political leaders’ wives as the American system does.
Samantha Cameron is the third prime minister’s wife in a row to have had a full-fledged career when her husband assumed office. (Her predecessor, Sarah Brown, gave up her job to focus on charitable pursuits when her husband, Gordon Brown, became prime minister, while Tony Blair’s wife, Cherie, continued to work full time.)
When David Cameron mentioned recently – perhaps trying to soften his own image — that he and Samantha try to have at least one “date night” per week, at least one major newspaper responded with a shrug of indifference: “TMI?” the Guardian quipped.
Indeed, I imagine that Samantha Cameron is very much the kind of political wife Michelle Obama would love to be, if only she lived in a country where the title “Mom In Chief” wasn’t so de rigueur for the president’s wife.