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  • Collective Memory and the Candidates' Wives in the 2004 Presidential Campaign
  • Lisa M. Burns (bio)

A Washington Post article from the 2004 presidential campaign observed, "First ladies seem to be publicly defined in relation to one another. Is a first lady or a prospective first lady like Jackie Kennedy or Nancy Reagan? It's like descriptions of hail—is it the size of a marble or a golf ball?—as if first ladies exist as some kind of environmental phenomenon that come in a handful of predetermined sizes." According to the story, current first lady Laura Bush believes that "the American public actually has broad and nuanced perceptions of first ladies. But the media are inclined to use a shorthand. 'It's easier to put people in a box, let it be either/or.'"1 The collective memory of the first lady institution is part of this journalistic shorthand. Particularly in campaign coverage, reporters draw on the memories of certain former first ladies both to describe the candidates' wives and to prescribe "proper" first lady comportment. Such articles help shape public expectations of the first lady role by using collective memory to articulate the rhetorical boundaries of first lady performance.

In press coverage of the 2004 campaign, the collective memory of former first ladies functioned as key boundary markers in journalists' assessments of Laura Bush and Teresa Heinz Kerry.2 Barbie Zelizer explains, "Journalists become involved in an ongoing process by which they create a repertoire of past events that is used as a standard for judging contemporary action."3 In this case, journalists position a select group of presidential wives as representatives of so-called "traditional" or "activist" performances of the first lady role. These mediated memories, in turn, set both historical and contemporary standards for judging the candidates' wives.

Journalists frequently compare candidates' wives past and present. Bush told the Washington Post that she was routinely asked, "'Are you going to be like Hillary Clinton or Barbara Bush?'"4 Another story noted that a reporter queried "whether [Bush] viewed her role as Eleanor or Hillary, Bess or Mamie."5 Similarly, Kerry was asked "the frequent question of whether she would be more like Laura Bush or more like Hillary Rodham Clinton."6 After four years of such questions, it is not surprising that Bush asserted the media [End Page 684] find it "easier" to use "either/or" dichotomies to describe presidents' wives.7 Because these stories rarely go beyond the name dropping of former first ladies, such comparisons rely on collective memory to convey the meaning of these juxtapositions to their readers. Journalists assume the mere mention of Hillary or Barbara, Eleanor or Mamie carries with it memories of either activist or traditional performances of the first lady position.

Journalists used this collective memory shorthand to contrast the more traditional Bush with the more activist Kerry. According to the New York Times, for example, "Laura Bush and Teresa Heinz Kerry are pitted against each other in a replay of the Barbara Bush/Hillary Clinton clash," with Bush cast as the "calm, self-effacing helpmate" and Kerry as "the high-strung, powerful consort."8 This comment defines all of these women in relation to one another while making inferences about their influence based on their personalities and marital relationships. Positioning these women as opposites also employs a competitive framework that highlights these women's differences rather than their similarities, limiting both the memories of the former first ladies and the potential influences of their successors.

Reporters often compared Kerry to Clinton circa 1992, thus characterizing Kerry as a controversial political wife. Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post observed that Kerry had become "a magnet for media attention, good and bad, in much the way that Hillary Rodham Clinton was in 1992."9 In an article about Kerry's convention speech, the New York Times's Joyce Purnick speculated that, as Clinton was listening to Kerry "demand her independence, her right to speak her mind and to 'have a voice,' Senator Clinton's thoughts wandered back to the days of headbands, cookies and Tammy Wynette, to the time when she learned the etiquette of a political wife the hard way...


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pp. 684-688
Launched on MUSE
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