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The Strange Phenomenon of the ‘Hero Wife’

Behind every male politician is a partner who sacrifices everything and never complains

“It is a truth universally acknowledged,” Jane Austen famously wrote, “that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” The same could be said of a man with presidential ambitions — we haven’t sent a bachelor to the White House since Grover Cleveland in 1886, who dutifully married in his first term, as if to atone for this shortcoming — and so it is no surprise that male politicians are usually married before launching a campaign. Even Cory Booker is supposedly hinting at nuptials with girlfriend Rosario Dawson, and Pete Buttigieg, the one openly gay contender of the Democratic field for 2020, has demonstrated a “traditional” partnership with his husband, Chasten.

The advantage of wedlock in an electoral context is obvious: It’s humanizing, relatable and aspirational. Evidence of long-term, stable intimacy makes it easier to trust someone, just as the icy distance between our current First Lady and her twice-divorced husband makes the latter seem weak and pathetic. The issue there, of course, is hardly unique; you have to be out of your goddamn mind to covet the office of the president, and wives are often pulled into the race despite a reluctance to play the part of supportive spouse in this maniacal endeavor. Michelle Obama has written about her skepticism of Barack’s path to victory, and if she had her doubts, I can only imagine what Rep. Eric Swalwell’s wife is thinking right now.

One byproduct of this common dynamic: The candidates are at pains to highlight the sacrifices their families have made for them. And now we have a new type of Wife Guy: the “My Wife Is My Hero” Guy.

This is how we arrive at an interactive New York Times feature in which five Democratic presidential hopefuls — Seth Moulton, Jay Inslee, John Delaney, Steve Bullock and Beto O’Rourke — claim their wife as a personal hero. (Beto actually threw his kids in there too, for good measure.)

Before getting into the implications of that answer, I’d note that “Who is your hero?” is a soft-boiled question best reserved for 8-year-olds, and nothing less than a squandered opportunity when talking to potential leaders of the most powerful nation on earth. That said, why is “my wife” such a weird response to it? First and foremost, it feels like overcompensation: You mustn’t be ungrateful to the wife who is putting up with the indignity of American political theater, and the best way to avoid this mistake is by shoehorning her into every conversation.

This can rise to the level of cynical pandering because it is, essentially, the candidate self-marketing vis-à-vis his heterosexual success (“I am not merely a man, but a man who obtained a deferential wife”) and a bizarrely superfluous remark. We would all hope that you admire the woman you married, and you can’t really anticipate extra credit for announcing that you do — not within this context, anyway.

The hero prompt, limp though it may be, is designed to probe your vision, not the health of your domestic union. Bernie Sanders names Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., while Elizabeth Warren cites Teddy Roosevelt, and you might hear these as prepackaged soundbites, but at least they indicate political focus. “My wife” suggests only an unresolved guilt about having her handle all the household labor while you embark on a voyage of pure ego. In trying to acknowledge her real contributions, you diminish them with painfully generic praise.

The difficulty lies in expressing the profound gratitude your wife is due without using her as a prop. Especially in 2019, we are wary of the man whose brand appears delicately poised atop the institutional bond of matrimony. We’ve seen that while public wife-worship may evoke genuine affection and a passably woke outlook, it can also serve to efface the wife’s identity. The patriarchal nature of our democracy only exacerbates this, and when a man seeking unparalleled power implies that his wife is the better half of the couple, we are left to ask: Well, why isn’t she the one on the ballot? When your wife is allegedly your hero, it’s more uncomfortable than ever to realize that she sublimated her own dreams in order to create space for yours — and that you’re almost-but-not-quite thanking her for it under a semblance of, like, feminist solidarity.

Overall, the answer fails because it mistakes insularity for introspection. Because men like this imagine they are on a hero’s journey, they cannot name a hero that is not, in their minds, an extension of themselves — and “my wife” meets that need precisely. But guess what? We don’t know shit about your wife, because we’re busy combing your tweets for a material position on anything that matters to us. Calling your wife your hero is just another cheap evasion, and employing her as the empty space where actual substance ought to be is a cruel joke by the lowest standards. Next time, take two seconds to figure out how to communicate something besides your narcissism.

I’m sure your wife will appreciate it.