Would-be first ladies add spice to their husbands’ presidential bids
Posted Friday, September 21 2012 at 23:30
- Besides giving local politics a family face by debunking the profile of the Kenyan politician as somewhat mysterious, an image drawn from the African traditional concept of an enigmatic leader uncomfortable with his wife’s public support, the involvement of the politicians’ spouses is also seen as being capable of helping tone down the verbal attack and slander, which the country has become accustomed to during campaigns
The Kenyan presidential race is slowly shifting focus, with spouses of various aspirants taking up quiet roles to boost the campaigns.
One of them is definitely going to be the next First Lady — if opinion polls are giving us a true picture of who the top contenders for the House on the Hill are.
As the contenders use their networks in the largely male-dominated political field, their spouses have been looped in for a charm offensive that could make or break their bids.
This has mostly not been in public; most only appear at official functions, often the launch of their husbands’ bids. Others have been mobilising women at informal set-ups and, in the case of one, leading an entire campaign platform.
In the West, presidential candidates strive to have their spouses at the centre of their campaigns and even those without substantive spouses (such as Francois Hollande of France and Australia’s Julia Gillard) were under so much pressure that they had to bring along their “partners”, who were always present in key campaign meetings and were respected as the candidate’s family figureheads.
But it is in US where presidents’ wives have been in the public eye — much to the chagrin of Martha Washington (wife of the former President George Washington), who had expressed reservations about her husband becoming the leader of the First Republic in 1776.
Mother of the Nation
Nor did Abigail Adams, wife of the second President, John Adams, have time for “the people”, whose curiosity about the family was always on an all-time high.
It was not until the time of Dolley Madison, the fulcrum on which her laid-back and uncharismatic husband James revolved, that a new role for the First Lady, or the ‘Mother of the Nation’, was born.
The landmark speech at the recent Democratic National Convention by Michelle Obama for her husband’s re-election has been described as the best ever by a politician’s spouse, helping to turn around a fledgling campaign.
The perfect blend of the lyrical and the political — those fashioned tropes out of her intimate experience with Barack Obama — drove home strong political points that perhaps going for the opponents’ jugular on the rough and tumble of the campaign trail would not have delivered.
Catherine Allgor, a history professor at the University of California, says the candidate’s wife should however be careful about addressing actual policy, especially when it is beyond her expertise.
She said in a recent CNN report that most of their speeches often have to do with a lot of old-fashioned “value” words such as “decent”, “steadfast”, “trust” and “values”.
“One of the benefits of the “humanising” tack is that it can gloss over pesky class differences, so a prominent theme in the stories that aspiring presidential wives tell are about the “early days, when the young couple was roughing it,” writes Allgor, author of The Queen of America: Mary Cutts’s Life of Dolley Madison.
Germany-based scholar Peter Simatei says alluding to family milestones and private moments often do the trick. Says Prof Simatei: “When they (aspirants) come out with their wives and children, they send out the message that they are stable and would not let the country go to the dogs because they, too, have a stake in it.”
He says presidential candidates are at their most appealing when slightly inept: “When we hear some of their little failings from their spouses, it is the best way of telling us they, too, are human.”
Other observers of Kenya’s socio-political scene aver that the society has always profiled the Kenyan politician as a largely competitive, shrewd and aggressive alpha male.
“This is the kind of man that carries on as one that does not need the support of his wife at all,” says Dr Solomon Waliaula. Hence, roping in his wife “serves to project his human side; it is like a statement to the public that, ‘Hey, I may be up there above you, but I also have my moments of ordinary existence’.”