It's America's First Family. No bachelors need apply
Published 31/10/2012 | 08:00
In the US presidential election, it is said the wives have played as important a role in garnering support as the candidates. Michelle Obama has been an extraordinarily helpful spouse to Barack, and, among many Democrats, is more popular.
Michelle, who was born into poverty, but rose to become a hot-shot lawyer, is seen as warm and witty and, whenever a warm and witty image has to be put over, it is Michelle who is called upon.
Ann Romney is a lot more popular than Mitt. She, too, was born into poverty - her grandfather was an illiterate Welsh miner who was a child collier before emigrating to Detroit in the 1920s.
US elections are far more like showbusiness than elections this side of the Atlantic. That is why the TV debates are more significant: because it's showbiz, and, moreover, an American president is a sort of monarch who must bring some of the trappings of kingship with him.
All this started, really, with Jack Kennedy and Richard Nixon back in 1960. Nixon was within an ace of winning that election, except he looked awful on television.
JFK, meanwhile, appeared for all the world like the King of Camelot. And Kennedy's wife was Jacqueline Bouvier, the serene, classy beauty, while Nixon had a nervous, old-fashioned wife, Pat.
Some might say that this is all very modern; that we live in the age of the image. Yet the increasingly significant role of the wife is in some ways ancient: it is harking back to a time when what mattered was dynastic connections.
In the Middle Ages, women advanced not because of their own abilities, but because of their dynastic connections; up until the 19th century, indeed, and the emergence of modernity, the path to power was overwhelmingly dynastic.
The commanding women of history - Catherine the Great of Russia, Elizabeth I of England - attained position either by birth, or marriage.
Family power faded with the decline of aristocracy and the rise of meritocracy and modern women have been expected to achieve success on their own merits.
Women who enter politics today do so because they seek a political career, and perhaps the power that goes with it - not because they want to be married to the candidate.
And yet, with the US elections, we are getting something of a return to the dynastic principle, because the candidates' wives matter so much. Michelle and Ann, Janna Ryan and Jill Biden, are key factors. Americans don't just have a president in the White House, they have a First Family. It would be impossible for an unpartnered man - or woman - to become president. No bachelors - or bachelorettes - need apply.
And, when the day comes that there is a woman candidate in the presidential race, will her husband be just as vital a figure?
We know it is likely there will be a woman candidate next time around, in 2016. It is reliably reported that, whether Obama should win or lose, Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee four years hence.
Clinton is probably the best and certainly the best-known American female politician in the world. And how did she get where she is? Originally, by a dynastic marriage.
She had the sense - and probably the love, as well - to marry Bill Clinton, one of the cleverest politicians of the 20th century.
Maybe she would have made it on her own, as Hillary Rodham, but the fact is she made it as Mrs Clinton.
And, if and when she enters the White House as president, her spouse will be an ace consort. Catherine the Great would have recognised that path to power.