Culture

How U.S. Political Wives Compare to Carla Bruni-Sarkozy

In America, we like our steak medium rare, our beer ice-cold and, as a rule, we expect our first ladies to act out the part of the supportive political spouse, the archetypal housewife in the ultimate white house. Look pretty, but don't speak out of turn, à la Laura Bush. Glam it up, but always in a demure, ladylike way, like Jackie O. And if you have to speak your mind, like Hillary Rodham Clinton, then be prepared to pay the price. When Clinton, one of the most polarizing figures in modern American politics, said dismissively in 1992 that "I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfill my profession," she endured a storm of conservative criticism.

In her outspokenness, Clinton is much like Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, ex-supermodel, C-list pop star, occasional centerfold and the new first lady of France. The difference is that in France, the public couldn't care less about the public gaffes of its political wives; they're more interested in preserving the 35-hour workweek. The difference between Bruni-Sarkozy and her possible future American counterparts, Cindy McCain and Michelle Obama, couldn't be starker. As America's November election nears and the candidates and their families go under the magnifying glass, Americans seem to want their political spouses to present a pristine appearance, even if they aren't Snow White.

On her new album, "Comme Si de Rien N'etait" (As if Nothing Had Happened), Bruni is in no danger of being compared to the virginal cartoon character. She sings, presumably in reference to her husband, French President Nicholas Sarkozy, lyrics that would make Tammy Wynette blush if she were alive: "You need to understand, you are my lord, you are my love, you are my orgy." Her music has also referred to heroin and polyandry—one can be reasonably sure that the only kind of cookies she might bake would have psychotropic qualities. The Italian-born Bruni-Sarkozy, with her penchant for unforgettable metaphor, has been embraced by the notoriously nationalistic French, but in America, she never would have had a chance. Never mind her enthusiasm for group sex; she's just too darn beautiful.

Meenal Mistry, a New York-based fashion journalist, observes that "physical beauty provokes all kinds of strange and strong reactions in people, suspicion [among] them. Both Michelle and Cindy are attractive women, but they're not supermodels and they are quite conservative in their hair, makeup and dress. I think if the country was faced with a beauty like Carla, it would become an issue. The opposing party would use it as a weapon, the candidate's morals would be called into question, and no matter what the wife had accomplished, she would be viewed as a trophy wife—and the candidate seen as the sort of man who wants and needs a trophy wife." When you survey the landscape of political wives of presidential candidates over the past 20 years, Mistry's reading of the situation seems right on. The women are always well-manicured and put together, they ooze inoffensive, upper-middle class taste, but they never exude unbridled sexual magnetism. If one's ambition extends to the Oval Office, an end goal for which some candidates spend their entire life plotting, then that's too big of a risk to take in your love life.

Cindy McCain, a former beauty queen with a preserved-in-aspic appeal, past addiction to painkillers and inherited fortune, has more in common with Bruni-Sarkozy than one might expect. When she revealed her addiction 14 years ago, she could have proved to be a political liability for her husband's presidential aspirations. Cindy McCain, however, unlike Bruni-Sarkozy, has attempted to maintain a low public profile, while standing steadfastly at her husband's side. She toes the party line in press interviews; dresses in prim, tailored suits; and never has a hair out of place. She is also 54, past the point when the American public might perceive her as a sexual being (fairly or unfairly).

Michelle Obama, 44, is still in an age bracket that could conceivably wield some sex appeal within pop culture's unforgiving, ageist parameters, but she has effectively branded herself as both a devoted mother and an accomplished career woman, shifting attention from her physical self to her achievements and attachments. She has also nurtured a dress sense that subtly incorporates sophisticated high-fashion elements, such as bold costume jewelry from Tom Binns. Fern Mallis, the senior vice president of IMG Fashion, hopes to welcome both candidates' wives during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in New York this September, where she sees them as a natural fit in the front row. "They both look very chic and wear clothes appropriate to their lifestyles and the rigor of the campaign trail. Michelle is wearing slightly more contemporary clothes … and Cindy is [more] conservative … and looks very comfortable in her wardrobe."

The McCain and Obama wives are discreetly stylish, appealingly pretty and, not by accident, conspicuously nonthreatening. Michelle might love a nice set of pearls as much as the next woman, but the wholesome image they represent is probably part of the reason she's been seen sporting them all over the country. Consultants, campaign advisers, focus groups hover in the background—it's not just the husbands who have hand-tailored images. Sartorial strategy factors into the bigger political picture, and you can be sure there is someone considering the broader implications of hemlines, color palettes and cleavage.

Clinton's success in the primaries sparked some celebratory rhetoric about barriers being broken and glass ceilings shattered, and without a doubt, her candidacy has raised the bar of possibility for American women. But missing from this conversation is an acknowledgement of the way that America's complicated relationship to its own sexuality influences the standards by which women in public life are judged. We sneer at the French and their "liberated" ways, but they make allowances for the humanity of their political figures instead of holding them up to a desexualized standard of perfection that often yields disappointment, or, alternately, deception. In her latest publicity bombshell, Bruni-Sarkozy poses with a catlike smile on the cover of this month's Vanity Fair, and inside, she stands defiant in a blood-red gown that billows in the wind, on the roof of the Élysée Palace, in Paris. In the accompanying interview, it is clear she is not going to apologize for being herself. Simon Doonan, the creative director of Barneys New York and author of "Eccentric Glamour," sums up the difference between the two countries' conceptions of political figures: "America still has that Puritan thing going on: self-denial is a prerequisite for public service." Just try telling that to Carla.

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