09/27/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Truth About First Ladies (or Husbands)

Michelle Obama addressed the Democratic National Convention, in a much-anticipated speech that Democrats hope will increase her favorability ratings and boost her husband's chances to be elected President. We Americans seem to care very much what sort of life partner our President has picked. But what, specifically, do we really care about?

I believe we all have a sixth sense, emotionally--a kind of internal, interpersonal barometer--that helps us discern the character of a leader. Accessing that sixth sense is difficult in this day of media-packaged personalities, so we look wherever we can to discern what matters to a candidate, what he or she truly values and whether he or she can be trusted. One place we look is at who the candidate has chosen as a life partner--trying to diagnose whether he or she is strong enough and good enough to have selected a strong and good mate.

The trouble with this is, of course, that we generally only get a PR-version of a candidate's relationship. We don't get true insight into the psychological dynamics that define the marriage, let alone into either of the individuals who make up the union.

Marriage is much messier stuff than the homogenized version presented during a campaign. The relationship data that would reveal deep character in husband or wife isn't accessible via television. We're unlikely to hear a First Spouse tell us the three most difficult moments in her (or, someday, his) marriage and how the candidate's heart and soul shone through and, ultimately, overcame the interpersonal adversity at hand.

This is why Americans sit at the edge of their seats for any slip--Freudian or otherwise--when the windowdressing falls away. Michelle Obama's quip that she hadn't been proud of America until her husband was running for President was one such moment. But the questions and answers that would tell us what she really meant, and whether her husband has shared similar thoughts and feelings, and how that might shape their work on the world stage, won't be asked and directly answered. Because they are complicated, too--like marriage itself.

In this media age, anyone who stands close to a Presidential candidate, let alone lives with him or her, is destined to become a media phenomenon herself or himself. And more and more, the lens through which we view them is clouded by spin. That's why, with all the time they spend in front of cameras, it's getting harder and harder to recognize anything like our own spouses or marriages in the ones that take center stage politically.