The Role Of Political Spouses: Decoding An Image

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One of the most talked about personalities on the Republican presidential campaign trail — Callista Gingrich — rarely says a word.

That changed at the Conservative Political Action Committee earlier this month when she spent three minutes introducing her husband. Politico quipped it was the "longest most people have ever heard her speak."

In this presidential campaign, as in the past, the candidates' spouses play a very particular role in shaping the candidate's image.

Callista's Hair

Michelle Cottle, a reporter for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, recently wrote a column where she described Gingrich as the "ideal foil" to her husband. Her hair has garnered so much attention that it even had its own Facebook page. Cottle says the attention paid to Gingrich and her hair is important because political spouses and the way they are presented can reveal what a candidate is like.

"The hair sends a very grown-up signal. It's very fixed. It's very traditional," Cottle tells guest host of weekends on All Things Considered Mary Louise Kelly. "But on the other hand, we are talking about a woman who's best known as the 'other woman.' She's not his second wife. She's his third wife and the wife he spent six years having an affair with before they actually got together. So it's very important for the Gingriches to convey the sense of traditional family life."

Cottle explains that anytime a presidential candidate is seriously considered, people look to his or her family for signs of what kind of person he or she is. Wives wind up more popular than their husbands so people pay a lot of attention to them. First lady Michelle Obama's ratings have largely stayed the same since 2008 while President Obama's ratings have taken a dip.

Though all of the wives of Republican presidential nominees are under the spotlight, none have gotten as much attention as Gingrich.

Cottle says Ann Romney was once seen as a liability when Mitt Romney was running for governor of Massachusetts because she was seen as too perfect and removed.

"Gradually over the years I think it was after she had been diagnosed with MS, she became very popular," Cottle says. "She is now much more beloved and as seen as a way to get [Mitt Romney] to loosen up on the trail."

Karen Santorum is a wife who stays home and takes care of the family that Rick Santorum talks about often on the campaign trail.

Carol Paul, the wife of Ron Paul, has published a cookbook that the campaign says is extremely popular and she plays "the very domestic, kind of softening agent" for her husband.

First Lady

During a Jan. 26 debate in Florida, CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked each of the candidates why they think their wife would make a good first lady.

Blitzer received a lot of criticism for asking the question and Cottle says it's what people wanted to know.

"Anytime you have the candidates up there like this, you're trying to get them to be a little bit spontaneous and give people a little bit of their personality," she says. "And kind of the dynamic between a candidate and his wife is once again a glimpse into that."

Cottle says every first lady has her own staff and causes they champion, like Michelle Obama and childhood nutrition and obesity.

"Nobody votes for a president based on kind of what issues [his wife will take on] or how competent [his] wife will be," she says. "It is more a reflection of the man himself."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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