Anti-Obama and anti-Romney voters won’t like it but the truth is that Ann Romney and Michelle Obama quite naturally and spontaneously found they shared more of the same views and opinions than they didn’t.
At least that was the case five years ago when the 2012 presidential candidates spouses spent an hour together on stage in a wide-ranging and unscripted conversational interview guided by then-California First Lady Maria Shriver at her October 2007 Women’s Conference, held in Long Beach, California.
It was a genuinely historic event in which nearly all of the female political spouses of the men running for President were gathered together in one place. The group included not only Michelle Obama (wife of Democrat Barack), Ann Romney (wife of Republican Mitt), Cindy McCain (wife of Republican John), Jeri Thompson (wife of Republican Fred) and Elizabeth Edwards (wife of Democrat John). The only other spouse of a leading contender missing from the group was the only male, former President Bill Clinton (husband of Democrat Hillary).
Among the group, Michelle Obama and Ann Romney sat together and also proved to be the two who spoke at the greatest length and depth, answering open-ended questions posed by Maria Shriver which focused on how the pre-primary process was affecting them and their families – and what they would change about it.
The most startling of thew duo’s similarities came when all were asked to whom they each turned for their emotional support. The wives of McCain, Thompson and Edwards all dutifully named their husbands as their great confidantes.
Michelle Obama, however, named her mother while Ann Romney named her five sons.
Of course, at the time of the forum nobody knew that Obama and McCain would win their party nominations and that Obama would win the general election. Nor could Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Romney foresee five years into the future to right now – when the duo are already been caricatured into extremes so they seem to be polar opposites.
It may not be truthful, but it makes for a more sensational media narrative.
Nor, it must be said, can either woman now speak as frankly and muse and ponder so openly, both of their public remarks, media interviews and speeches being more carefully scripted to remain on-track with the media advisers and public relations strategies of the larger, organized campaign teams.
What follows are direct excerpts from that interview of what Michelle Obama and Ann Romney said. A video excerpt can be found at the end of this transcript.
The first general questions posed to the group was how the campaign process was affecting them and their families – and the type of influence they had.
I think you always worry about your life getting sucked out from under you and there’s also the part of you that can be a bit cynical about politics. I worry about whether politics can be nurturing of someday who is decent and kind. There’s always been a bit of hesitation on my part. I always joke and say, ‘There’s a more san way to earn a living. Don’t do it! Teach! Do something fun.’ But for me it was always thinking about the practical elements. How are we going to make sure that our kids are solid, how are we going to structure this. I’m very practical. I have to know how this is going to play out. Barack is like ‘Let’s do it!’ And I’m like what about school… So there’s a lot of a practical considerations that we had to go through. And I had to know that we were thinking this thing through in a way that would ensure that our family would stay grounded and stable through the process.
I have been pleasantly surprised. Our girls, nine and six years old [at the time] have just been phenomenal. You know I think what you find are that the kids are the ones who transition the easiest. Their main concern about this whole race was whether they were going to get a dog. That was the bargaining chip. Its like, ‘You want to run for President? We’re getting a dog.’ And let me tell you, we talk about this dog every day, every day. What kind are we going to get, you know we’re going to get it. What breed, how big, how small. Yesterday morning we talked about names. I said, ‘Look, you’re getting a dog! Just knock it off!’
One of the reasons I think people are so fascinated, particularly women, is because I think we’re all struggling with this notion of balance. I think we are the public representation of the challenges we are all facing. When I go to Iowa or New Hampshire, the first question is, ‘How are you managing? How are you staying grounded, how are you keeping it together?’ I think that’s what all of us as women are trying to figure out
Because we’re juggling and we’re challenged and we’re over-worked and over-scheduled and we’re not getting the support that we need. And there’s a part of me that feels it’s very therapeutic to be on the road to talk to women to say, ‘Hey, you’re not crazy, this is hard.’ And if I’m struggling, how on earth are nurses and bus-drivers, how are regular folks doing it, who don’t have a mother who’s five minutes away and the resources. Our communities are grounding at some level, they’re fascinated at how we’re managing.
Before Ann Romney began, she made a witty observation that she was married to John McCain – according to the identification under her name on a large screen.
You want to keep your privacy, and yet you know that, sometimes, when you take this on, you’re going to lose your privacy and yet it is a balancing act. And you don’t want people asking all the personal questions or delving into your lives that much. You want to hold something back. For me, I don’t know, the hardest part is wanting to protect my husband from the time constraints. I weigh in all the time at the campaign – and nobody listens to me. [huge laugh from Michelle Obama] When I say, ‘Don’t work him so hard. Look at the schedule. You’re killing the man,’ and they say, ‘yeah, yeah, yeah, you’re right.’ And then nothing changes. So you do weigh in on your husband’s schedule and you say, ‘Please somebody, listen to me and fix this.’ And it never does get fixed. Those things you know are just things you know you have to live with on the campaign trail.
For me it’s really been keeping our children’s lives as normal as possible. That’s been sort of a clear boundary that I think our staff has really respected. You know, part of getting into this, what I’ve said was, ‘Barack you have to be a good father as well as being a good President. And you can do that.’ We can do both. But that means that we make accommodations. So for example, I usually travel just during the day, during the weekdays, day trips. I get up in the morning, I get the kids ready, I go on the road, I do a set of events, I’m back by the time the kids go to bed. Now, that wears me out a little bit, but for them they don’t care where I went. They could care less. I was home to read that bedtime story. For my children, that’s important for them to stay in their worlds, and I found that, you know, when you are really clear about what’s important to you, and you express that. You know, I don’t care who it is, whether it’s the [campaign] staff or whether it’s your employers at work…we’ve got to start creating those boundaries for ourselves and our families so that there’s some layer of protection, even for the President of the United States.
For us, and I don’t see this any different than our careers as they’ve evolved. I mean, I’ve always had a career; he’s always had a career. In any marriage, you come tighter and you talk about the issues that you care about. And you share those thoughts. But, in the end, I go to my job and I make decisions – on my job. And those are my decisions. And he goes to his job. And he makes the decisions on his job. Now, I would like to think that he would have the good sense to understand that usually I am correct! But in no way, do I expect it.
It’s so fascinating, really. It’s a wonderful opportunity to be close to those kinds of decisions that are being made, and the policy being made and I loved, for instance, in Massachusetts when Mitt was trying to figure out to get everyone health coverage. And it was one of those things where I loved being peripherally involved, where you’re understanding the conflict and all that’s going on in understanding the issue. It’s interesting from my perspective. It’s educational, to learn about all these different things and to understand how difficult it is to have an idea and then to get it all the way through and passed as law. Those things are very interesting and they’re wonderful and I feel like we’re privileged to be a part of that, but it’s not like you’re sitting in on all of the policy meetings. I feel like I’m sitting, maybe, beside some of the policy meetings. Which means, in some ways, it’s the best of two worlds….You drift in and out and you obviously have an opinion on certain things – and you weigh in when you feel like it’s important, but it’s not like you feel like you’re there in the chair making important decisions. I’ve seen Mitt as governor and I’ve seen how that works. I am interested, I’m curious. I want to know all of the process that’s going through, with trying to figure out how difficult it is to bring down health care costs and to get people insured – all of these things. You’re very interested in it, but I’m not going to be the one that’s going to have to be in that chair and make tough decisions. And we support them in those things they have to struggle through. And we’re there as a support as well when they end up being criticized for the tough decisions that they have to make.
Perhaps the most telling responses of both women was to the one question posed by Shriver to all the spouses: you wives all support your husbands when they’ve been criticized or are down or when they campaign is going poorly but “who’s doing it for you?” Without hesitation, Ann Romney shot out immediately with her response:
I have my boys. My boys call me all the time. They email me everyday. They call me almost everyday. My five boys. I have five wonderful sons. They’re all adults now, they’re married. I think they are very grateful that their dad’s out there doing this and they also understand how difficult it is for me. And so they call me. They’re great. They’re there for me. It’s really terrific. I. unfortunately, have lost both of my parents. And that would be obviously who would be supporting us. And now, as we get older, we go through those struggles as well – it’s great to get the phonecall. And the pat on the back. And you have friends too. I have friends who email me everyday.
I think its Marian Robinson. In my ear, [it’s] my mother. I hear ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff. Get up. Get over it. He’s a good man. Don’t be mad at him.’ My mom is a huge support for me. She’s with the kids right now. Just retired. 70 years old. I have this really great community of women, primarily. My mother. The girls’ godparents. Girlfriends. Parents in the kids’ class. I’m always the one they give plates to for the potluck assignment. It’s like ‘Don’t assign me the main dish! Please! I don’t have time to cook.’ So they have my back on that one.
When the issue of candidates’ spouses generating controversial headlines by a remark or gesture, both Romney and Obama chimed in.
That’s what we don’t want to do. That’s an objective every single day, “Please! Don’t let me make news! I don’t want to make the front page today!”
Right. I look at the clips and I’m like, ‘Great! I’m not in there!
Asked about the personal sacrifices which they were being asked to make on behalf of their husbands’ campaigns, as well as the benefits they personally gained from it:
I have to tell Mitt everyday – he owes me! And for me, with my horses, it’s gonna be like, you know, he’s going to be like, ‘It’s time to clean the stalls.’ I’ll find something good for him to do. All of us share this extraordinary opportunity and I tell people when I speak, everywhere I go, I wish I could take you with me, stick you in my pocket and let you go and see what its like, to go to Iowa, to go to New Hampshire, to go to South Carolina, to Florida to California to Alabama. Wherever you go, you see the heart of the American people – and the heart is good. And that is so confirming for what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. It’s temporary. Look, some of us aren’t going to be here in January or February. This is temporary for so many of us and yet it’s an extraordinary opportunity for us to see things and to see the country, but more importantly to see the heart of the American people. You give up a lot – but you get so much back.
I absolutely agree. And for me, it is a moment in time. It’s not like I’m sitting on the couch eating bon-bons – not that there’s anything wrong with that – but this is pretty exciting. You know, it’s an amazing opportunity. It’s a great learning experience for our daughters. It’s affirming in a way that is a surprise. I know that Barack always says that the American people down in their core are decent, and the trouble that we have in this country is that we don’t get to see one another. We don’t get to see that decency. We’re isolated, sometimes by fear, sometimes by ignorance, sometimes by resources – we just don’t get to move into each others’ hearts and into each others’ communities. We don’t see that there’s a lot more that unites us than divides us. I don’t care what race, or political party, sexual orientation – I don’t care. We have a basic connection around a set of values here in this country. Decency, honesty, truth matters. That’s still what’s motivating the American people out there. Regular folks just trying to get by. And to be reminded of that and to have the passion to make that everybody’s reality. To offer that up to our children? That’s a privilege.
It’s my favorite thing on the campaign trail to see children in the audience and I usually try to single them out and say, ‘Your parents brought you here, I know that you didn’t come here from your own free will probably. This is extraordinary what you’re doing. Sitting in this audience and listening to people that want to be President of the United States, and you’re learning something by being here. You’re learning that your parents care about this country. And you’re learning what its like to get to know a person, first-hand. And to make your own decisions about things. And that’s so important. And it’s such an extraordinary country. So I get inspired when I go out and I see young children in the audience. Then I see the young active kids, the teenagers, high school or college-age kids. I love that when I see that. There’s not enough of that. I do know that. We do have to, again, inspire and lift and remind them what an extraordinary nation this is. We are the hope of the world still. We are the freest land in the world. And we have to preserve that liberty. And we have to preserve that love of country. Because I believe America is great because of the people that are in this nation are so wonderful themselves. We have to remind each other a little more of how wonderful this country is.
Maria Shriver asked the spouses what element of the presidential campaign process which they wished could be changed. Michelle Obama and Ann Romney practically completed each others sentences, both in agreement to get rid of the massive fundraising efforts of presidential campaigning:
You wish you could get the money –
-out of it.
It’s really hard just to spend your time –
– raising the money.
It’s just really frustrating having that be so important a piece.
But you know, we can do that. That’s another thing. We can get Congress to think really critically about campaigning fi[nance.] That’s on us. We can change that part of the process. But it’s a huge distraction. And you know, you have t have the money to get seen. I would also stop this sort of pontificating and the polling so early in the process, so that people can actually listen and be open-minded and make decisions at the polling place, after they’ve factored in everything. I think we do that every year. You know we call it, and we say who’s in and who’s out and people don’t know what to think and they’re not paying attention. That interferes, in my view, with the democratic process of listening and learning, and being open-minded and discussing the issues and learning [about] the candidates….I don’t think it’s the time-length [of the campaign process]. I think you take money out of it and you give people [candidates] the opportunity to travel the country and talk to people. Folks need to build that trust. They need to get exposure….It’s a good process in that we’ve got really strong early states who get to really see and feel and understand the candidates. But it would be nice if that opportunity were available to everyone.
It’s interesting what’s happening with the other states pulling up, earlier and earlier in the primary process. Because Iowa takes their job very seriously. People in Iowa take it very seriously. They know they’re picking a Presidential candidate and they are very politically educated, and they’re involved, they come out. They come to these candidate forums. And you really get to meet them. I love the process, by the way…It’s fabulous, the people are great. And you really feel like you’re having a conversation with the voter. The other thing that’s critical to me. Maybe this is how I’d want to change it after you do get elected. You listen when you go. You hear what they’re saying. You hear what they care about, what their concerns are and you know I think, maybe, once you get in that office you get so insulated and isolated, you lose the chance to really understand what people are thinking and hearing and feeling. And I love that part of it – its hands-on. And Iowa’s been critical that way. And New Hampshire as well….they are small enough states that you get out and you actually meet the voters.
My kids were younger when my husband ran [to Shriver, in reference to Senator Edward Kennedy] against your uncle. We’ve won elections and we’ve lost elections and obviously you prefer to win them but you talk about getting in the ring, that great Teddy Roosevelt quote, of who are you if you just don’t get in the ring and get dirty and get muddy and have fought the fight and, you know, sometimes, its jus getting in the ring that’s important and not necessarily win or lose. You’ve got something to say, you feel it’s important and you just get and you get bloodied. For me, when my kids were going through that experience, that was what we talked about a lot. It’s important that we get involved in this democratic process. Things are not going to always be how we’d like them to be, but everybody of course wants to win. I have to say on election night in Massachusetts the next round, I was the most stunned person in the room when Mitt won. It’s a very different feeling. It’s interesting how you kind of hold back you expectations and say prepare yourself for whatever happens and so in that realm of how you deal with that. Having been both places, you have to have a sense of reality of what can happen but recognize that there’s great value in having tried. If we can teach our kids that then maybe more people will get involved in politics. People are turning away from politics and there’s very good reason. I mean it really is nasty and its negative and its tough. And its very tough on the families.
Here is the link to some of the recorded remarks which are transcribed above:
- WashPost Hails ‘Princely’ $6,800 Jacket Michelle Obama Wears, While $990 Ann Romney Shirt Was ‘Tone-deaf’ (newsbusters.org)
- Michelle Obama, Ann Romney, and Feminism (lawprofessors.typepad.com)
- Fox News contributor: Female reporters envy Ann Romney for marrying a ‘good, rich man’ (rawstory.com)
- Insulting Michelle Obama Totally Fine, Insulting Ann Romney Totally Out of Bounds [Video] (jezebel.com)
- Ann Romney to speak on Tuesday at RNC (politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com)
- The real Ann Romney (salon.com)
- Ann Romney retroactively rebuts Mitt’s newest excuse for tax return secrecy (dailykos.com)
- Romney campaign contemplating bumping Rubio for Ann Romney (politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com)