1996. It is getting to be a bit retro and still the moment of Elizabeth Dole descending the steps at the Republican National Convention in San Diego in her stylish, form fitting mustard silk suit is as vivid a memory now as it was the very night I watched her on my television. At the time I was an “ABD” PhD student at Penn State and had been a lecturer of public speaking at area community colleges and Penn State Lehigh Valley for almost a decade. I needed a dissertation topic that I could revel in and Mrs. Dole delivered big time.
Now, twenty-plus years into teaching, six books and much deliberative thought later my appetite is whetted again after seeing Ann Romney’s convention speech last night and a C-Span afternoon’s worth of Republic spouse speeches at Republican conventions from 2000 to the present. I’m inspired to think about some common threads in these women’s speeches and well, I think I hit the mother lode. There seems to be a rhetorical imperative for the spouses of Republican presidential candidates: motherhood.
Now, it is true that Elizabeth Dole has never been a mother in the biological sense, yet her maternal side was on full display during her 1996 convention speech when she sashayed her way around the convention hall to share the human side of Bob Dole. Like a hostess at a grand Southern party, she was warm, cordial, and careful to advance her agenda. As Molly Wertheimer and I wrote in Elizabeth Hanford Dole: Speaking From the Heart (Praeger, 2004) “What another wife might say about her husband at a political convention may be very similar to what Elizabeth Dole said about Bob Dole in this speech. But the ingenious way she said it, by strolling through the audience while telling stories and visiting with witnesses of his kindness, showed her ability to create a new kind of speech under a controlled condition.” Indeed, Dole a political powerhouse in her own right, presented herself as a loving, kind marriage partner, and one whose ethos of humanity herself—as president of the American Red Cross—served as a kind of mother to the nation in its times of dire need.
Four years later I was in the audience at the GOP Convention in Philadelphia when Laura Bush addressed the audience. I remember the press clippings prior to her speech describing her as a shy librarian terrified of her national debut. On the stage were school desks filled with scrubbed-faced children as she spoke of her role as a mother and teacher. She said: “George and I have been blessed throughout our 23 years of marriage with many interesting opportunities. Our lives have changed enormously in the last six years. He was elected Governor, we moved to Austin with our then 13-year-old twin teenagers, and since then, we’ve been through dating, driver’s licenses, prom night and just a few weeks ago, high school graduation. Now we’re helping our daughters pack for college and we’re preparing for our next life crisis…empty nest syndrome.” She described George W. Bush reading “Hop on Pop” to their daughters as he lied on the floor and the girls would literally hop on pop. A story only a mother could tell. And she did it again four years later when I saw her at Madison Square Gardens during the 2004 GOP Convention. In both 2000 and 2004 I led groups of students through the conventions as experience learning in public speaking). A more experienced and relaxed speaker than she was in 2000 (all speakers improve with practice) this time she tied her husband’s initiatives in his first four years in office with her own passion for teaching and family. She updated the audience on her family dynamics: “These have been years of change for our family as well. Our girls went off to college and graduated, and now they are back home…My mother moved out of my childhood home and into a retirement community. We lost our beloved dog, Spotty, and had our hearts warmed by the antics of Barney.”
It is hard not to love a pet-loving mama.
In 2008 Cindy McCain warmed the crowd at the 2008 Convention in Minneapolis when she told the audience “Well, I hit a home run with John McCain! I got the most marvelous husband and friend and confidant….and also the best father you could ever imagine.” She spoke of her children: “our son, Jack, our son Jimmy “headed for harm’s way” and of her experience witnessing the poverty in Bangladesh as a result of a cyclone. It was then, she said, that she realized: “There was something I could do. I could take them home. And so I did.” The camera panned to their children—seven in all, four of whom they adopted. She summed up her persuasive effort by saying: “This is a good man, a worthy man…I know. I have loved him with all my heart for almost 30 years.”
Wife and mother extraordinaire, no doubt.
So this week when Ann Romney took center stage in Tampa, Florida looking at least a decade younger than her 63 years, I wondered what she would say to soften her husband in the same way that Elizabeth Dole and Cindy McCain had to do before her (not Laura Bush – many Americans really liked George W. Bush. We even wanted to have a beer with him, remember)?
Ann Romney, looking resplendent in a bright red dress said, “I want to talk to you tonight not about politics and not about party. I want to talk to you from my heart about our heart. Tonight, I want to talk to you about love. I want to talk to you about the deep and abiding love I have for a man I met at a dance many years ago. And the profound love I have and I know we share for this country. I want to talk to you about that love so deep, only a mother can fathom it. The love that we have for our children and our children’s children.” She couldn’t have sounded more natural and genuine when she added, grinning “I know you guys…. I have heard your voices.” A natural speaker and a great spokesperson for moms. I loved hearing that it is the moms who hold things together a little more. “I love you, women! And I hear your voices. You are the best of America!”
Oh, Mama! Ann Romney was really good. Relaxed, natural, warm and believable.
These women can speak in a credible way about the candidates like no one else can. I’m going to dig deeper to find threads of similarities in their messages and examine why their speeches are crucial to the success of their spouse candidates. It is why I was alarmed when I heard that Ann Romney’s speech may not be covered by network television because of the threat of a hurricane. As these four Republican women have demonstrated, the spouses of these candidates are potent political forces.