Stiletto Nation: first ladies and the campaign trail

First Lady Michelle Obama is venturing out onto the campaign trail to shore up embattled Democratic candidates. Apparently, Lady Macbeth wasn’t available.

First ladies are enlisted because they are the kinder, gentler face of the administration; they represent the president but aren’t responsible for unpopular policies. Americans tend to want to admire their first ladies, even if they are angry with the president. First ladies are almost always Teflon.

A quiet former librarian who would have preferred never to give a speech, Laura Bush campaigned for Republicans in 2006, when her husband’s radioactivity was like that of a nuclear landfill. Laura Bush has a soft Texas accent, a comforting presence, and she wasn’t going to advocate anything more controversial than reading.

Mrs. Obama may emphasize being a mother — or mom, in the current parlance — but she is not comforting, and we remember that in the past she has made incendiary statements: the “first time in my adult lifetime I’m really proud of my country” remark springs to mind. She almost lived that down, but not quite: first ladies who fly to New York on Air Force One for “date night” need to make it clear that ’tis a very great country indeed that lets them have such a nice ride just to see a Broadway play.

The first lady to whom the fashionable Michelle Obama is most often compared is Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who was sometimes forced reluctantly into campaign mode, though John F. Kennedy didn’t live long enough to know what really bad numbers were.

But Mrs. Kennedy, like Mrs. Obama, loved to do things up big. “Jackie wanted to do Versailles in America,” said Oleg Cassini, the fashion designer, to author Sally Bedell Smith. Her heroines were Madame de Maintenon, Louis XIV’s mistress, and Madame Recamier, who presided over a sparkling salon. Not exactly Kansas. But she got away with it; it was her popularity that made her such an asset that she was in Dallas that fateful day.

Why could Jackie O get by with it, while Michelle O can’t?

You can say it’s a different time, that there are different expectations of what a first lady is supposed to do, that we didn’t have a Tea Party fed up with the pretentions of the elites then. I don’t buy that. I think what happened is Michelle O rubbed our noses in it, but Jackie O didn’t. Mrs. Kennedy cared what we thought.

She went to great lengths to prevent the public from knowing that Stephan Boudin, the decorator who refurbished the Empress Josephine’s Malmaison, was working in the White House. She tried to convince us she wore more American designers than she did, clandestinely dispatching friends to the Paris collections to buy her wardrobe.

That wasn’t necessary — I have a feeling we would have been proud to know that we had the very best working on our White House. But we like our leaders to share in our joys and travails. Mrs. Obama’s behavior was the opposite of the British royal family eating rations to share the plight of Londoners during the blitz. Lately, Princes William and Harry have taken to flying commercial. And have you ever seen a nicer display of austerity that Queen Elizabeth II, headscarf and all, climbing aboard a train to go to the country?