Former congressman Beto O’Rourke, who aspires to the same office as Truman, attempted a wife joke of his own on the campaign trail. He ended up demonstrating how low the genre has fallen in public esteem.
“I just had a call from my wife, Amy, who’s back in El Paso, Texas,” O’Rourke said at a coffee shop in Keokuk, Iowa, in March. “She is raising, sometimes with my help [rimshot here], Ulysses, who’s 12 years old, Molly, who is 10, and her little brother Henry, who is 8 years old.”
The joke went over fine in the coffee shop but tanked with the country at large. What is funny about the unfair division of parenting labor? What female politician could poke fun at her absentee parenting? Critiques of the joke spread virally online, inspired analyses in this newspaper, the New York Times and CNN about O’Rourke’s gender assumptions and finally forced him to apologize. His bid for the Democratic presidential nomination now appears to be collapsing.
That is not necessarily the fault of a bad wife joke, but the backlash didn’t help. And it goes to show how thoroughly the national conversation about gender bias has upended the political landscape. For decades, male politicians have lightened up their speeches and humanized themselves by making cracks about their wives. This may be the election cycle that kills the routine.
“I’d give the same advice to any husband about to make a joke about his wife, whether president or not: Proceed with caution,” said Mark Katz, who wrote speeches and the occasional wife joke for President Bill Clinton. “It’s tricky now, when people are reconsidering our shared assumptions about sex roles.”
Even a cursory look at presidential transcripts archived by the University of California at Santa Barbara’s American Presidency Project reveals a lot of assumptions to reconsider.
“I do not think it altogether inappropriate to introduce myself to this audience,” President John F. Kennedy told reporters on an overseas trip with his wife in 1961. “I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris, and I have enjoyed it.”
This seemed like a cute line then. Or is it more like patronizing? Jacqueline may have been the talk of Paris that day, but everyone knew who the trip was really about.
Kennedy’s 58-year-old joke still echoes in the humor of two men running this cycle: President Trump and former vice president Joe Biden, who is leading the Democratic field to challenge him.
Biden is less literal. “I’m known as Jill Biden’s husband and I’m proud of that,” he said in Chicago last month. Just the man who accompanies. At another point in the speech, Biden expanded his humor to the whole family: “We always have an expression: a son is a son until he gets a wife, a daughter is a daughter the rest of your life.”
That’s exactly the sort of thing Peter Glick, a social sciences professor at Lawrence University in Wisconsin who researches sexism, would put on what he calls the “BS scale.”
In the 1990s, Glick and his colleague Susan Fiske of Princeton defined “benevolent sexism” to be a form that is not premised on tearing women down (“Take my wife, please!”), but on idealizing them — chaining them to pedestals to serve as moral examples for the men, who run around doing all the fun stuff.
“It’s about men trying to humanize themselves and come off as humble and deficient. Like, ‘boys are boys, and we need women to keep us in line, especially in a domestic realm,” Glick said.
He finds this trope all over political speechmaking, and American culture generally, and he traces it back as far to the old Greek epics, full of adventurous men and doting maidens, like Odysseus and his famously faithful and patient wife Penelope.
You might detect a whiff of Odysseus in Mike Huckabee, for example, who was asked at a Republican presidential debate last cycle which woman he would like to see on a $10 bill.
“That’s an easy one. I’d put my wife on there,” Huckabee said, to laughter. “I’ve been married to her 41 years. She’s fought cancer and lived through it. She’s raised three kids, five great grandkids, and she’s put up with me. I mean, who else could possibly be on that money other than my wife? And that way, she could spend her own money with her face.”
Certain presidents told more wife jokes than others. “As I often say,” Richard Nixon told an audience in St. Joseph, Mo., when he was vice president, “I know you don’t want to see me but you do want to see Pat, my wife.” He told many more in that vein, for years, until the latter days of his doomed presidency, when he sometimes complained Pat Nixon got better press then he did.
Bill Clinton told a few. One was actually a video skit that Katz, the speechwriter, co-wrote during the Clintons’ final weeks in office in 2000, playing on the idea of a lame-duck president with nothing to do. It features the home-alone president chasing after Hillary Clinton’s car, holding a brown paper bag, yelling, “Wait, wait, wait! You forgot your lunch!”
“It’s a complete role reversal,” said Katz. “It worked, and no one said anything. It’s a good question to ask how it would be received today.”
Barack Obama made wife jokes all the time, often employing the naggy wife trope, which is popular in the genre.
“During the course of this campaign, we’ve all learned what my wife reminds me of all the time — that I am not a perfect man,” he said at a rally in 2008.
“In my house if I said, you know, Michelle, honey, we got to cut back, so we’re going to have you stop shopping completely — you can’t buy shoes, you can’t buy dresses — but I’m keeping my golf clubs [laughter], you know, that wouldn’t go over so well,” he told a Minnesota town hall in 2011.
That same afternoon, after a short plane ride to Decorah, Iowa, he cracked: “I basically let Michelle have 90 percent of what she wants. But at a certain point, I have to draw the line and say, give me my little 10 percent.”
Where Kennedy and Biden pretend to wilt in the shadow of their wives, Obama sounds like he needs a crisis hotline. (As of press time, reps for Trump and Obama did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for Biden declined to comment.)
David Litt, who wrote speeches for Obama’s reelection campaign and in his second term, described the joke-writing process as about a dozen people in a room throwing ideas at the wall.
“There’s no deep process to it,” Litt said. “Every president has tried to balance being funny with being appropriate with their job — and you hope you get that right, and sometimes you don’t.”
“I think it is unquestionably good Democrats are recognizing sexism,” he added. “What’s generally useful to think about in comedy writing: Is there a kernel of truth in the joke, does it feel like a real relationship between two people?”
Meanwhile, out on the trail, comedy evolves. One of six women running for president in 2020, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, has been campaigning with a joke about her two marriages.
She told a town hall in June: “Never good when you have to number them.”