Friday, August 31, 2012

Does Being Good (Or Bad) Husband Material Make a Guy More (Or Less) Presidential?

Has the recent example of John Edwards taught us nothing?

Eight years ago when Edwards was John Kerry's Vice-Presidential running mate on the Democratic ticket against incumbent George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, his then-still adoring and then-still living wife Elizabeth Edwards no doubt would have characterized him as an ideal husband, the very best in the history of marriage (naturally, between a man and a woman, the way God and our founding fathers intended it -- or so I'm told).

Look how that turned out.

So I must say that as I watched a few hours of CNN's coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention on Wednesday morning (Vientiane, Laos time), I was surprised at how ideal husbandry and fatherhood received such prominent billing. Both were worn as badges of honor, by New Jersey Governor (and keynote speaker Chris Christie) and by the 2012 Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney, via the testimonials of pretty much everyone who mentioned his name.

Destined to fail by non-virtue of his marital status?
It's not like no seemingly perfect husband and father has ever turned out to be an utter and thorough disappointment. That's never happened, right? Fact: You can't really judge a man by the family he keeps. Men with loving wives and kids do terrible things all the time, some even occasionally rise through the ranks to become world leaders -- or bad U.S. Presidents. James Buchanan, the 15th and only bachelor U.S. President, may also have been one of the worst, but he was right down there with so many who were happily married (presumably)... with children, as anyone who lived through the terms of 17th U.S. President Andrew Johnson and most of his successors through 25th U.S. President William McKinley well knew.

I wasn't going to write anything about the convention. Though I'm a life-long dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, as someone who has spent Barack Obama's entire presidency living outside of the United States and not paying particularly close attention to the political goings-on therein, I haven't felt qualified to offer any meaningful commentary on the 2012 Presidential election. I still don't.

But with CNN breathlessly teasing the convention appearance of Mitt Romney's wife of 43 years, Ann, and repeatedly mentioning her experiences with breast cancer and multiple sclerosis, I actually found myself looking forward to what she had to say. I wasn't expecting her or anyone else to sway me over to the other side, but maybe her speech would be as inspiring as I imagined her personal story must be.

In the end, though, all I heard was the loving, unfocused testimonial of the happiest housewife on the planet. I can understand why Ann is so content, proud to the point of being borderline boastful. Mitt is a handsome guy, quite the catch. They've been married as long as I've been alive, and they raised five sons together. Good for them. In a country where half of all marriages end in divorce, that's quite an accomplishment.

Now that she's humanized Mitt in order to appeal to female voters (and that, presumably, was the main reason why she was allowed to have her say at the convention), now what? What does any of that really say about Mitt's ability to lead? Is the implication that if he were unmarried and childless that he would be beyond the point of humanizing, somehow inherently less qualified to lead the country?

The reality is that Ann didn't say anything about her husband that most political wives wouldn't say about their own spouse given a nominating-convention platform. Does that make them all ready to rule (the husbands, not the wives)? Sure she included some professional back-up, listed what sounded to me like fairly pedestrian on-the-job accomplishments, portrayed him as a successful businessman who gives back, but what about the man behind the public servant and private millionaire? Ann seems like a likable woman, and I'm sure that Romney's campaign was hoping that some of that likability would rub off on Mitt, but is this really what makes a guy more likable -- a stable home life and a wife who adores him?

As I listened to Ann sing Mitt's praises, I half expected her to break out the swatches and start sharing her White House redecoration plans. I'm not saying that she has to be Hillary Clinton. Nor does she have to use her personal battles as a soap-operatic ploy to garner audience sympathy and votes, but considering what she's been through, what they've been through, I kept expecting her to dig a little deeper, give us a little bit of context, not only tell us that Mitt Romney is a great man but show us how, too.

If any recent Presidential candidate has had the perfect opportunity to show us how he's proven his mettle as a compassionate, caring man, it would be Mitt Romney. If he's going to use the good-husband card, this would have been the most effective way to use it. How did he help his wife get through her health crises? How has he been her rock? How did he stand by his woman? Could he do the same for his country in its hour of need?

In the end, Ann painted a half-portrait of her husband in the broadest, most shallow strokes possible. She told us that 47 years ago, he brought her home safely from their first date. That was her kicker. He'd be as kind and generous with the country, if we'd give him a shot. That's as good as she's got?

After her speech, as I watched her onstage with her husband, I stared at Mitt's perfect hair and dazzling smile. I never before realized just how handsome the man who would be the 45th President of the United States is. He'd certainly look great on money 200 years from now. But I still don't know a damn thing about him.

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