Outspoken Spouse a Campaign Asset

America is fortunate to have more women - and one man - who have spent time as strategists, creative policy advisers, parents and groundbreakers.

It's that time again. The new crop of articulate, assertive and opinionated career women - not to mention an ex-president - now campaigning to become first spouse has the news media in a tizzy.

A generation of women who have spent their lives breaking barriers is being hounded by journalists who apparently believe that they should behave more like Bess Truman than the 21st century women they really are.

Is this reporting meant to deepen our understanding of the candidates, their issues and how their families might influence their roles as president? Of course not. The press is simply playing a high-stakes game of "gotcha," waiting for the less-practiced and less-scripted half of these would-be first duos to utter something that can be ripped out of context and flung across the media-sphere.

We've seen this movie before; from Hillary Clinton's cookie recipes to Laura Bush's secret smokes, no nit is ever too small to be picked if it goes against type.

We saw this in 2004. After enjoying careers as a translator at the United Nations and as director of foundations with over $1 billion in assets, crusading as an active environmentalist, and spending decades as a mother and political wife, it came as a surprise that the national media expected Teresa Heinz Kerry to suddenly fit herself with a muzzle for the duration of her husband John Kerry's presidential run, and do little more for the campaign than look adoringly at him every time they appeared on stage.

It wasn't that Teresa was forbidden from having opinions different from than her husband's. It was as though this long-time professional woman was simply not allowed to have opinions at all. So what if she'd spent over a decade studying issues related to women's health or fighting for change in public and private sector pension systems that treat women as an afterthought. She was labeled an "opinionated" woman as though that were some sort of character fault.

Today, America is fortunate to have more women - and one man - who have spent time as strategists, creative policy advisers, parents and groundbreakers. Regardless of party and age, they have staked out a distinctive path, and have with real ideas, real vision and real sense.

Certainly there are political wives who have followed a more traditional path, and who are by nature more reserved and less outspoken. And more power to them - I hope the political press will allow them to be true to themselves. But I am not convinced that the media have matured enough to allow them to do that.

This cycle, Michelle Obama has shown herself to be an articulate spokesperson for her husband's candidacy and a concerned mom. Her reward? A snarky column in The New York Times fretting that Mrs. Obama's irreverent take on her husband's reputation is emasculating, and the revolting spectacle of TV talking heads - egged on by the right wing - taking one sentence from a stump speech and trying to spin it into "catfight" between her and Hillary. A catfight? Is this a Seinfeld episode or actual journalism?

In the Clinton camp, the situation is just as bad. Only here the worry is that a president six years out of office will overshadow the powerful two-term senator and front-runner for the Democratic nomination. It's the same old story, though - the spouse doesn't do anything until he does something wrong - and it still stars a woman who doesn't know her place. Only in this case, she's looking to head the ticket rather than be "running mate."

In reality, most of the spouses of the leading candidates are personally, professionally and academically accomplished women. Not trophy wives, but women of incredible substance.

As America has a chance to get to know the wives (and a husband) of the candidates for 2008, and as more men realize that our success today is because many of us have great women alongside side us (sometimes dragging us ahead), then collectively we can help bring civility and respect back to the political arena and teach our children that the freedom of speech and expression by political spouses should be valued and cherished, not ridiculed!

Jeffrey R. Lewis is the chief of staff for Teresa Heinz Kerry. Talk back at jlewis@heinzoffice.org.

Originally published in the Boston Herald