Tammy R. Vigil (“Moms in Chief”) Q&A

Moms in Chief; The Rhetoric of Republican Motherhood and the Spouses of Presidential Nominees, 1992-2016

In 1776, when Abigail Adams implored her husband to “Remember the Ladies,” John Adams scoffed, declaring, “We know better than to repeal our masculine system.” More than two hundred years later, American women continue to struggle against the idea that they are simply vassal extensions of their husbands—a notion that is acutely enacted in presidential campaigns. An examination of how the spouses of recent presidential candidates have presented themselves and been perceived on the campaign trail, Moms in Chief reveals the ways in which the age-old rhetoric of republican motherhood maintains its hold on the public portrayal of womanhood in American politics and constrains American women’s status as empowered, autonomous citizens.

1. What’s your elevator pitch for Moms in Chief? How would you describe the book in two or three sentences?

Moms in Chief provides a comprehensive assessment of the ways the press, the parties, and the candidates’ mates frame spouses during presidential campaigns. The book traces the history of women as political beings in the United States in order to contextualize an analysis of the depictions of some of the most high-profile women in national political contests. The project underscores how judging spouses based on traditional gender roles is problematic for presidential nominees’ consorts and for perceptions of women in the political sphere.

2. What led you to research and write about the spouses of presidential nominees?

While doing research for a chapter on the roles spouses play in presidential conventions for my previous book, Connecting with Constituents: Identification Building and Blocking in Contemporary National Convention Addresses, I became interested in the wives of presidential nominees and perplexed by the lack of research about them. People write a lot about first ladies, but not much about the women who audition for that position throughout a presidential campaign. I discovered that there were surprising similarities in the ways the wives of nominees represented themselves during conventions despite clear differences in their actual biographies, experiences, and political outlooks. That realization made me curious about the broader campaigns. As I explored the treatment of spouses during presidential contests, it became clear that my findings warranted a book-length project. The addition of the first male spouse during the 2016 contest made the comparisons of spousal characterizations even more compelling.

3. What was the most challenging aspect of researching and writing the book?

The most challenging part of writing Moms in Chief was keeping chapter one, the section where I recount women’s political history in the United States, a manageable length. The history of perspectives on women as political actors in the US provides a critical frame of reference for understanding the portrayal of candidates’ spouses, but it is also an extensive topic with myriad dimensions. Deciding how to shape that baseline summary in an informative and engaging manner was difficult. The original draft was almost three times as long as the final version. However, I am proud of how that chapter turned out. It is one that anybody interested in politics, citizenship, and women’s fight for political parity should read.

4. Moms in Chief is the first book to dive deep into the role of “the women” in presidential elections. Have you seen a distinct change from the role spouses have played in the development of campaigns since 1992?

During the span of time this book covers, there has not been a dramatic change in the role the spouses play. Claims of spouses as “secret weapons” preceded the 1992 campaign and continued through 2016. In more contemporary contests, though, the acknowledgment of how nominees’ wives helped develop and execute campaign strategies has become a bit more overt, and certain spouses have been more vocal and visible both with and without their husbands. However, these variations seem to be based on the personalities and talents of the individual spouses. After all, Melania Trump in 2016 was not nearly as active on the campaign trail or behind the scenes as Barbara Bush was in 1992.

5. As more women begin to seek the presidency, can you predict what possible role husbands (not including Bill Clinton) may play in future presidential campaigns as compared to female spouses?

In the short term, the likelihood is that men who are married to presidential nominees will not be viewed in as restrictive a manner as women have been (and likely will continue to be). I doubt that male consorts will be asked for their personal cookie recipes (and be criticized if they don’t have one), or that they will be pressed for parenting advice and to give tours of the family home. Customary sex roles that cast men as independent beings and women as defined by their relationships are still too entrenched in society. Established gender norms, paired with a deep partisan divide, make it difficult for candidates’ spouses to embrace the full complexities of their own identities due to the fear of possibly alienating segments of the population and costing their mate valuable votes. Male spouses will have the advantage of being perceived more expansively than their female counterparts; they will be able to emphasize their roles as husbands and fathers, but they will not be confined by these roles as women have been as wives and mothers.  However, as gender norms continue to shift, it is possible that we will eventually be able to view candidates’ mates as autonomous individuals and full citizens whether they are male or female.

6. Your book suggests that the very definition of women as American citizens and political actors is at stake when they are representing their spouses during an election. Do you foresee more attention being paid to spouses in future elections?

There will be some additional attention paid to spouses during elections when the consort is novel in some way. For example, Michelle Obama and Bill Clinton received more scrutiny than Tipper Gore, Cindy McCain, and Ann Romney. The first husband of a nominee that is not a well-known past president will likely receive a bit more notice than most female spouses, but how much commentary he inspires will depend largely on his role in the campaign and his personality. It is important to note that a male spouse of a president will never serve as the model of American masculinity in the same way first ladies act as icons of American womanhood. The secondary status of a “first gentleman” will be incongruous with the historic standing of males as the dominant sex; the president’s husband will be considered an anomaly rather than an ideal.

Unless reporters and campaign strategists expand their perceptions of the spouses (particularly wives), the coverage of candidates’ mates will likely remain as it has for the past several decades—wives will be expected to conform to traditional gender norms and will be evaluated based on their ability and willingness to meet these conventional expectations. There will be some progressive movement in how women are viewed, but it will likely be incremental and slow to develop.

7. What is one thing you would like readers to take from your work?

I would like readers to understand that all women, even spouses of presidential nominees, are autonomous individuals who should not be narrowly defined by the relational roles they fulfill. Interpreting women based primarily on their relationships with others does a disservice to female citizens by making their value contingent on their familial associations. If women are to achieve political parity and be perceived as more than helpmates for their husbands and caretakers for their children, we as a society need to move beyond conflating the terms “woman,” “wife,” and “mother” when we talk about women.

Being a wife or a mother is a personally fulfilling and socially useful role for many females, but judging the political value of all women solely through these connections prevents us from establishing a political order in which women are allowed and even encouraged to voice their own needs, and not just the needs of those they care about, in the public arena. In this way, women can come to be treated as individuals and full citizens in the same way men are.

8. If you could have any one person read your book, who would it be and why?

If I could have any one person read Moms in Chief, it would be Abigail Adams. She had the foresight to understand the implications of the dismissal of women as autonomous citizens; she pled for the rights of women to be included in the founding documents of the nation and her entreaties went largely unheeded even by her own husband. As the second first lady of the United States, she understood both the importance of that role and the socially-imposed limitations political wives face. After reading Moms in Chief, Adams would likely be both excited by the gains in political power women have achieved since her day and disheartened by how much more remains to be done. She would be pleased that nominees’ spouses can participate openly in campaigns, yet she would be disappointed by the persistent barriers women still face as political actors.

Q&A with Patrick J. Maney, author of “Bill Clinton: New Gilded Age President”

9780700621941Q:     Why did you choose to write about Bill Clinton compared to another president?

A:     He was the first member of my generation to become president. We were born within a couple of months of one another and were shaped by many of the same events: the Cold War, the Kennedy assassination, the civil rights movement, the draft, Vietnam. His heroes were my heroes: Elvis, JFK, Martin Luther King. So I felt a sort of kinship with Bill Clinton—and Hillary.

I was also interested in understanding why they were such polarizing figures. Why the reactions to the Clintons, both pro and con, seemed out of proportion to their actions. How, for example, to account for the hatred that consumed so many of their critics? Sure, they rubbed a lot of people the wrong way by supporting abortion rights, affirmative action, gays in the military, and gender equality. The president’s infidelities understandably upset many. Still, most of their views resided safely in the political mainstream. Indeed, Clinton’s economic and fiscal views made him one of the most conservative Democrats to occupy the White House in the twentieth century. Here was a president who hailed the end of big government; who was more pro-business than pro-labor; who presided over deregulation of the telecommunications and banking industries; approved more corporate mergers than his two predecessors combined; wore his religion on his sleeve; approved drastic cuts in welfare; and was tough on crime. Before he became president, Clinton supported the Gulf War, and, after gaining his footing in the White House, showed himself more willing than many of his Republican critics to deploy American forces abroad. Something other than policy was at work here. The Clintons had become a kind of national Rorschach test upon which people projected their personal hopes and fears, values and attitudes. Critics weren’t alone in projecting onto the Clintons. Ardent supporters were apt to do it as well. How else to explain prominent African Americans like writer Toni Morrison describing Clinton as “the first black president” and “one of us,” even as they deplored Clinton’s support for welfare reform, discriminatory sentencing guidelines, and the death penalty (even in the case of Ricky Ray Rector, a brain-damaged African American inmate in Arkansas).

Q:     What did you learn about Clinton that you did not know before you wrote this book?

A:     Foreign affairs loomed much larger in his administration than I had remembered. After a stumbling start, Clinton devised a plausible strategic substitute for the containment policy that had guided the United Stated throughout the Cold War. He helped resolve conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo, of course, but also helped diffuse conflicts in Haiti, North Korea, and between India and Pakistan. More controversially, Clinton expanded the president’s war-making powers over Congress; anticipated some of the George W. Bush administration’s tactics in the post-9/11 War on Terror; and, by accusing Saddam Hussein of concealing weapons of mass destruction, helped lay the groundwork for the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. We don’t think of foreign policy when we think of the Clinton administration. We should.

Q:     What do you think was Clinton’s defining moment as president?

A:     Politically, the defining moment of the Clinton presidency came on the heals of two devastating defeats in 1994: The demise of health care reform—“Hillarycare”—and Republican rout in the midterm elections. For the first time in forty years, the GOP controlled both house of Congress. “The shape of American politics will very probably never be the same again,” said the dean of American historians, Walter Dean Burnham, adding that the GOP might be the dominant party for years, perhaps even generations. With seemingly no chance of being reelected, Clinton was reduced to telling reporters—not very convincingly—that he was still relevant. But at that very moment–with Clinton laying flat on the canvas and Newt Gingrich, the new Republican Speaker of the House, standing over him with arms raised in triumph–Clinton was plotting his comeback. And what a comeback it was. In 1996 he became the first Democrat since FDR to win a second term. For anyone interested in politics for politics sake, it doesn’t get any better than this.

Q:     How do you think Bill Clinton’s presidency affects Hillary’s campaign?

A:     It’s both help and hindrance. Hillary’s years in the White House, coupled with her career in the Senate and State Department, equipped her with a command of issues and policies rare among presidential candidates. No candidate in either party this year can match her detailed knowledge. Hillary also acquired a network of high-level advisors and policy experts that would be the envy of any presidential aspirant. A year or two ago, her experience and connections would seem to have been an unqualified plus. But no longer. We’re now in the year of the outsider. Senator Sanders’s surprisingly strong challenge has also forced Hillary to distance herself from many of the actions of her husband’s administration: the Defense of Marriage Act, deregulation of the telecommunications and banking industries, and the decision to leave unregulated the market in credit default swaps and other risky derivatives. President Clinton’s Iraqi policies are also a potential millstone. In the end, my hunch is that experience will still work to her advantage, but it’s too early to tell for certain.

Q:     What aspects of Bill’s presidency could Hillary use to her advantage?

A:     Instead of running away from the record of her husband’s administration, as Al Gore did in 2000 and as she is doing now, she might at least embrace some of the economic successes of the nineties. She might also note that despite the partisan rancor of the times, there was more bipartisan cooperation than at any time since.

Q:     How do you think Clinton’s presidency will be remembered? 

A:     Bill Clinton may well be remembered less for the successes and failures of his administration than for his personal resilience. Journalist Anna Quindlen compared him to “one of those inflatable children’s toys with sand weighting the bottom. You knock him down and he pops back up.” What historian Garry Wills said of Richard Nixon is also true of Clinton: “He rose again, eerily, from each stumble or knockout, apparently unkillable. He raised undiscourageability to heroic scale.” It’s possible Hillary will be remembered in the same way.

–Patrick J. Maney, author of “Bill Clinton: New Gilded Age President

Bill Clinton’s Back

9780700621941Of the original Gilded Age, historian Richard Hofstadter wrote: “There is no other period in the nation’s history when politics seems so completely dwarfed by economic changes, none in which the life of the country rests so completely in the hands of the industrial entrepreneur.” The era of William Jefferson Clinton’s ascent to the presidency was strikingly similar—nothing less, Clinton himself said, than “a paradigm shift . . . from the industrial age to an information-technology age, from the Cold War to a global society.” How Bill Clinton met the challenges of this new Gilded Age is the subject of Patrick J. Maney’s book, “Bill Clinton: New Gilded Age President,” an in-depth perspective on the 42nd president of the United States and the transformative era over which he presided.

Maney’s in-depth study of Clinton goes beyond personality and politics to examine the critical issues of the day: economic and fiscal policy, business and financial deregulation, healthcare and welfare reform, and foreign affairs in a postCold War world. But at its heart is Clinton in all his guises: the first baby boomer to reach the White House; the “natural”—the most gifted politician of his generation, but one with an inexplicably careless and self-destructive streak; the “Comeback Kid,” repeatedly overcoming long odds; the survivor, frequently down but never out; and, with current Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, part of the most controversial First Couple since Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.  Maney’s book is, in sum, the most succinct and up-to-date study of the Clinton presidency, invaluable not merely for understanding a transformative era in American history, but presidential, national, and global politics today.