Campaign spouses in Reno: Mrs. Obama, Mrs. Edwards, and Mr. Clinton

Originally Published on, 8/21/2007 4:29:11 PM

Michelle Obama carries herself like the late Diana, Princess of Wales, but with more self-confidence. Crisply outfitted, tall and graceful, with an inner-humility that shines through. Elizabeth Edwards comes across as a gracious southern mom who just happens to have a law degree, and a husband running for president. Then there’s the Democratic party’s rock star, former president Bill Clinton. His reputation as a crowd pleaser precedes him.

All campaign spouses. All lawyers, though none currently practices. Each got an enthusiastic reception in Reno. Obama during a weekday lunch-time appearance at the Pioneer Center. Edwards, launching her husband’s Reno office one hot Sunday morning in July. Clinton, drawing the faithful at a commute-hour Hillary rally at the convention center.

The two women, who have radically different stumping styles, offered generously personal views of themselves and their families, and a dose of opinion about the state of the nation. They were impressive in a way presidential campaign spouses never have been. Mrs. Obama, with her relaxed brand of personal power, and a presentation style on par with her husband’s. Mrs. Edwards, with such devotion to her husband’s quest that she chooses, even in her current medical circumstances, to spend her precious days helping him pursue it. Each with keen intelligence, and each earnestly pitching her candidate as the right leader for the time.

The former president is familiar. Perhaps he, in turn, experienced the audience of Democrats as familiar. So familiar that communication should be effortless, by virtue of pre-existing relationship.

Clinton touted his own presidency relative to the current one. He made a few points about the Bush administration, using anecdotes about people he knows. A couple of his thoughts were incomplete, a couple of segues perplexing. But the crowd cheered, and was generally pleased.

The speech lacked any mention of family. Perhaps that’s by design, given what the country already knows about the Clinton family life. Nonetheless, providing a window on family life is incumbent upon the campaign spouse. Clinton made the important points about Hillary the Senator, and Hillary the Arkansas first lady, and Hillary the health care expert. No glimpse of Hillary, Bill’s wife or Hillary, Chelsea’s mom. He addressed the nagging question about whether she can win in a general election. And he gave her a ringing endorsement.

The Reasonable Reporter is not in the habit of fact-checking political speeches, but one of Clinton’s assertions struck an odd note.

“My wife is the only senator from New York to ever serve on the armed service committee,” he said. “And I can’t tell you the number of military officers who have told me she’s the most knowledgeable person in the Senate, in either party, on military affairs.”

Had Clinton named any of those military officers, they could be asked. But he didn’t, and they can’t. It’s hard to imagine, though, that those officers aren’t acquainted with another Democratic member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, James Webb of Virginia.

Webb has served as Secretary of the Navy, and as counsel to the house committee on veteran affairs. He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1968, as the Viet Nam war reached a crescendo. He chose marine service, and was first in his class at marine corps officer’s basic training school, according to his Senate bio. Webb worked as an instructor in tactics and weapons at marine corps officers candidate school. He’s been awarded a half dozen medals, including two purple hearts.

Then there’s the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services committee, Republican Senator John McCain. Need we waste space recounting McCain’s military history?

In all likelihood, Hillary Clinton has worked hard to achieve a good grasp of military affairs. One befitting an aspirant to the White House. But does her grasp outstrip that of Webb and McCain, or any of a number of other military veterans in the body?

This bit of hyperbole went presumably unnoticed, except in the fashion it was meant to be noticed. If Mrs. Clinton was already the Democratic nominee, however, such a statement would be probed for its source, and would be endlessly analyzed as a reckless statement at best, and for the hint disrespect it carries at worst.

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