Of all the aspiring first ladies in this election, none packs the visual—and visceral—punch of Callista Gingrich. The frozen smile, the retina-searing suits, the bulletproof platinum swoop—all combine to give Newt’s 45-year-old spouse a look that isn’t so much soothingly old-fashioned as combatively retro. And with a manner as prim as her trademark pearls, it’s little wonder that Callista elicits such unflattering descriptions as “Fembot,” “Stepford wife,” and “plasticine.”
That said, Callista’s astronaut-wife sheen fulfills a crucial role ascribed to first ladies: providing a contrast to her man’s image in order to convey a sense of equilibrium.
On the presidential trail, the romantic cliché “opposites attract” has strategic applications. Candidates grappling with a particular likability problem—like, say, a certain sitting president’s perceived aloofness—often turn to their wives to balance the scales.
Take the Bushes. Whereas George H.W. was a caricature of the reserved, out-of-touch patrician, Barb was everyone’s favorite grandma, as homey and frumpy as the president was crisp and formal. George and Laura made an even finer pairing. He: the loudmouthed, swaggering cowboy. She: the soft-spoken, modest librarian. As for the Obamas, how much chillier and more remote would Professor Barack seem without the J.Crew-sporting, iCarly-dancing, keeping-it-real Michelle?
Within this context, Callista’s self-presentation as formal, meticulous, and tightly wound is the ideal foil for Newt with all his bark and bluster, his intellectual sloppiness and ungovernable urges. She is the yin to his yang, the water to his fire, the ego to his id. This may not make her hairdo any less scary, but at least it imbues it with a grander purpose.
Every now and then, the political-spouse balancing act gets out of kilter. A hard-charging wife who comes across as too ambitious on behalf of her husband can strike voters as Lady Macbeth-ish. The more laid-back or hapless the pol, the more glaring the contrast—and the bigger the turnoff.
Marilyn and Dan Quayle are a classic example. There was endless snickering that the second lady, rather than her bumbling, puppyish husband, called the shots in that family. Similarly, Nancy Reagan’s already shaky image took a hit when Ronnie’s aides began sniping that she was meddling in official business.
When things aren’t going well on a campaign, one of the nastiest rumors staffers float is that the wife is in charge, a claim that paints the candidate as emasculated. Think Jeri Thompson during Fred’s 2008 White House run.
Talk about a marital asset. Since moving into the White House, Michelle Obama has enjoyed a consistently higher favorability rating than her husband, according to the Pew Research Center.