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The Wives

A Commentary by Susan Estrich

Saturday, June 21, 2008

"Cindy Unleashed" screamed the headline on the Drudge Report. Did Cindy McCain really go after Michelle Obama? Not exactly, but close enough. There was only one right answer to the question Mrs. McCain was asked by Kate Snow on ABC's "Good Morning America" this week about whether Mrs. McCain was "insulted" by Mrs. Obama's comment some time ago that it was only with her husband's run for president that she was "really proud" of her country. The right answer was the one Laura Bush gave: Leave Mrs. Obama alone. Mrs. Obama already has explained ad nauseam that she didn't mean to say that she never had been proud of her country before. She misspoke, which human beings who are in the spotlight 24/7 do. She is not the candidate. Her husband is.

That's what Cindy McCain should have said because the last thing she herself wants to be is fodder in this campaign. In fact, what she did say gave the press an occasion to revisit the issue and McCain's opponents an occasion to remind people of her own vulnerabilities. "Everyone has their own experience," Mrs. McCain said in response to the "insult" question. "I don't know why she said what she said. All I know is that I have always been proud of my country."

Everyone has their own experience? How about your experience, Cindy, using drugs or reading about your husband's alleged affair in the newspaper or charging more on your credit cards than 99 percent of Americans make in a year? Are those experiences to be the stuff that my Democratic friends make hay with? Is that what you really want? People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.

A majority of Americans are clearly eager to see a new man at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., but I'd be surprised if the numbers were even close in terms of replacing the first lady. George Bush may have worn out his welcome, but Laura Bush continues to show the tact, decency and good judgment that have made her a popular and rarely criticized first lady. Michelle Obama, guest hosting on "The View," said she was "touched" by the first lady's defense of her and was taking some "cues" from the current inhabitant of the White House on how to succeed in the role she hopes to assume. Cindy McCain would do well to follow Laura Bush's lead, as well.

Michelle Obama gave ammunition to her husband's opponents with her comments at that rally in Wisconsin. But they need to think twice before they use it. Turning the wives into the issue in this campaign is a strategy that will leave everyone covered with mud for no good reason.

We have been to this movie before. In 1992, Hillary Clinton, then in headbands, was the object of more criticism than her husband. From her looks to her law practice to her loyalty to her husband, the former first lady had a bull's-eye on her back, made worse, of course, by her version of the patriotism comments: the explanation that she could have stayed home baking chocolate chip cookies all day but chose to practice law instead, which led to questions about possible conflicts of interest, given that her husband was the governor of the state. At the time, Hillary described herself as a "transitional figure," but it is easy to see Michelle Obama as Hillary without the headband, the strong, powerful, well-educated and ambitious wife of the candidate who some people, at least, find more threatening and less likable than they do the candidate himself. At the end of the day, the point is: So what? People don't vote for vice president, and they don't vote for first lady. If they did, Gerald Ford couldn't have lost, and Ronald Reagan couldn't have won. If the '92 election had been a referendum on who should be first lady instead of who should be president, Barbara Bush would have won it for her team in a walk.

Google Cindy McCain and there's no end to the garbage you'll get. I have no idea how much is true and how much isn't, and I don't want to know. Like most Americans, I'm more interested in what the husbands have to say. And what they both should say loud and clear is what Laura Bush has said already: Leave the wives out of it. Kids, too. And girlfriends, if any.

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