Tim Stanley: America likes its First Lady to put home first
ANN Romney is America's latest housewife superstar. The wife of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney made headlines this week after a Democrat, Hilary Rosen, said she wasn't representative of 'real' women because she had "never worked a day in her life".
Naturally, Mrs Romney -- who has raised five children and battled cancer -- begged to differ.
"Maybe I haven't struggled as much financially as some people have," she told Fox News. "But I can tell you that I have had struggle in my life."
It's great that she has found her voice and it's dandy that she's lending it to America's 20 million or so homemakers. But the emphasis upon her domesticity suggests that she'd make for a rather dull first lady.
But at least that's what Americans have come to expect.
We now know that George W Bush's wife Laura is pro-gay rights and once campaigned against the Vietnam War. But she still preferred to spend her time in the White House doing the rounds of charities and making Christmas home movies about her dogs.
Surprisingly, Michelle Obama has been no different. When her husband was elected, conservatives worried that this Princeton-educated radical woman would use her position to advocate world revolution. Instead, her signature issue has been childhood obesity.
It wasn't always this way. To be sure, many historical first ladies understood their role to be largely ceremonial. Jackie Kennedy and Nancy Reagan limited themselves to being the redecorator-in-chief at the White House.
Jackie's taste was superior to Nancy's in every respect. Mrs Reagan stuffed the Oval Office with golden sofas and marble-topped tables. In the middle of one of America's worst-ever recessions, she spent $209,508 on china.
But in the modern era, first ladies tended to be more policy-minded. In the 1930s, Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the Democrat Franklin, visited coal mines to rally trade unions and scandalised white conservatives by promoting black civil rights.
In the 1970s, Betty Ford, wife of Republican Gerald, was a veritable hippie.
The abortion-rights campaigner asked people to call her the "First Mama" and wore a psychedelic mood ring. She spoke rather understandingly about both marijuana use and premarital sex.
So why have the more recent first ladies been so shy about pushing their own ideas?
Two words: Hillary Clinton. Hillary was so determined to play a substantive role in Bill Clinton's administration that collectively they became known as "Billary".
She fought for women's rights and healthcare reform and on the latter issue she was crucified by the media and the Republican Party for having gone way beyond her brief. Hillary Clinton was unlucky.
SHE entered the White House in 1992, when the so-called culture war was at its height. Even though she only did in the open what many other first ladies had previously done in a more private capacity, she became seen as the left-wing Lady Macbeth -- but worse, because at least Lady Macbeth never tried to help poor people.
Her experience was so utterly horrible that the first ladies of the new millennium have been rather more Victorian in their attitudes and behaviour.
For the moment, that seems to be what the public wants and it's remarkable how much sympathy has been shown for Ann Romney after Hilary Rosen ridiculed her stay-at-home status.
Hilary Rosen, by the way, is a self-described "political consultant". So it's a pretty safe bet that she's "never worked a day in her life", either. (Daily Telegraph, London)