Presidential campaigns are tough, but among the First Ladies, there is usually an unspoken civility and sisterhood. Back in 2008, when Barack Obama was running for president, his wife Michelle was heavily criticized when she said off-the-cuff, “For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country.” It was George W. Bush’s wife, Laura, who came to Michelle Obama’s defense, demonstrating the empathy that most first ladies have for the candidate’s spouse during the campaign, even when that spouse is married to someone from the opposing political party.
“I think she probably meant I’m ‘more proud,’ you know, is what she really meant,” Laura Bush said sympathetically. “You have to be very careful in what you say.”
While researching my book, First Women, about the modern first ladies, I found that there is a camaraderie among these women, from Jackie Kennedy to Michelle Obama, who have stood by their husbands all the while being expected to play the role of the perfect wife, mother and role model.
But such compassion is strikingly absent now, as the 2016 presidential election has become more personal and bitter than any we’ve seen in recent history.
That was evident last night, when Michelle Obama told Stephen Colbert in an interview on The Late Show that she had “no sympathy” for the opposing candidate’s spouse on the campaign trail. “You have to be in it,” Michelle said, in a not-so-subtle dig at Donald Trump’s wife Melania. “Bottom line is, if I didn’t agree with what Barack was saying, I would not support his run. I stand there proudly and I hope they are too, standing with their spouses proudly. So, no sympathy!”
When Colbert brought up Melania cribbing from Michelle’s 2008 Democratic National Convention speech during her remarks at the Republican National Convention, the first lady smiled and then deadpanned: “Yeah, that was tough.”
If Hillary Clinton was running against Jeb Bush, or almost any Republican candidate other than Donald Trump, I doubt the Obamas would be devoting themselves to getting Clinton elected in such an ambitious and unprecedented way. The president will devote at least a day or two every week in October to campaigning, according to a recent news story. And I think Michelle might have a little more empathy for what that candidate’s spouse would be going through during this grueling campaign were that not Donald Trump’s wife.
After all, Donald Trump spent several years pushing the so-called birther lie, the falsehood that Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. and therefore wasn’t a legitimate president. “There were those who questioned and continue to question for the past eight years, up through this very day, whether my husband was even born in this country,” the First Lady said at her first campaign stop for Hillary Clinton (it was only last week that Trump acknowledged that Obama was born in the U.S.) During her passionate remarks, she called Donald Trump “erratic and threatening” without ever using his name.
Michelle is a cut-to-the-chase working mother who “doesn’t hold stuff back,” the Obamas’ longtime former aide and friend Reggie Love told me. And if anyone wants to challenge her, she says simply, “I’m not running for anything.”
Reasoned critiques of Barack Obama’s policies are fine but personal attacks are not, in Michelle Obama’s view. At the beginning of her husband’s first term, when stories leaked out about infighting, Michelle wanted explanations. “How could this happen?” she wanted to know. “We could say it’s just the way Washington works,” a former Obama official told me, “but she has a way of letting you know that that is no excuse.”
In the White House, friends said, Michelle feels that critics are waiting to pounce on her for one misstep. “She was a working mother, a professional mother. Hillary Clinton worked but she was also the governor’s wife. She had a huge infrastructure.
“Michelle Obama’s infrastructure was her mother,” said former White House communications director Anita Dunn.
It is interesting that Michelle has a closer relationship with Laura Bush than she does with Hillary Clinton. Laura and Michelle are obviously less political than Hillary is, and of course, Laura came to her defense during that first presidential campaign. In an interview on The View, Michelle said she was “touched” by what Laura said. “There’s a reason people like her,” she said. “It’s because she doesn’t, sort of, you know, add fuel to the fire.”
No such civility or compassion for Melania Trump because the attacks have been more personal than ever before.
Kate Andersen Brower is the author of the New York Times bestseller First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies and the #1 New York Times bestseller The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House. She was a White House correspondent for Bloomberg News during President Obama’s first term.