Skip to main content

Where Ann Romney's speech veered off-track

By Catherine Allgor, Special to CNN
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Wed August 29, 2012
"His name is Mitt Romney, and you really should get to know him," Ann Romney said in her primetime convention speech.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Catherine Allgor: Ann Romney seems to be a political wife who is domestic and outside politics
  • Allgor: Her speech was best when she tried to humanize her husband
  • Allgor: But she tried to identify with the struggles of poor and middle class and shouldn't have
  • Ann Romney can't relate to the poor or make GOP policy warm and fuzzy, Allgor writes

Editor's note: Catherine Allgor is a history professor at the University of California at Riverside and an adviser to the National Women's History Museum. Her latest book is "The Queen of America: Mary Cutts's Life of Dolley Madison."

(CNN) -- When Dolley Madison swanned onto the Washington scene in pink satin and ermine in the early 19th century, she created a new role for first ladies. The president's wife could appear larger-than-life on the public stage, imparting emotional and psychological messages about her husband to the public.

Our most famous first ladies were charismatic figures: Dolley Madison's message confirmed the Madison administration's legitimacy and authority; Eleanor Roosevelt helped Depression-weary Americans feel hopeful and virtuous; Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy showed the world that the Kennedys were a new breed of young, modern, cosmopolitan Americans. Our current first lady belongs to this tradition. Michelle Obama, dressed in J. Crew, with her little girls and career firmly in hand, assures us that people like us are in power.

Opinion: Ann Romney did great, but won't move needle

Of course, many first ladies have preferred to remain in the background. Mamie Eisenhower famously insisted on remaining a largely domestic creature. Barbara Bush proudly eschewed the spotlight, while her daughter-in-law Laura -- perhaps one of the most productive recent first ladies -- did her work quietly and without a lot of fuss. Still, even the most modest of presidential wives can help a president or candidate seem more human and less a political machine.

Catherine Allgor
Catherine Allgor
Ann Romney: Talking to you from my heart
Analysis: Ann Romney, Christie speeches

When Ann Romney mounted the platform at the Republican convention, she appeared to be a first lady wannabe of the second camp. She, too, is proudly domestic and puts herself outside politics. And she seems, well, like a perfectly nice woman -- the kind you'd like to have as a neighbor. When she began her speech, "Tonight I want to talk to you from my heart about our hearts" and "Tonight I want to talk to you about love," it looked as if Ann Romney was about to tell her personal story in an effort to warm and fuzzy up her rather remote and stiff husband.

One might say no candidate's wife has had so great an opportunity to make a difference. No matter if they support or decry Mitt Romney's politics, people generally agree that Romney doesn't always seem human, much less a beacon of compassion and empathy. But the need to make Mitt more personable is so great that, in planning Ann Romney's speech, his advisers may have overreached.

After her initial talk about love, instead of relating personal anecdotes, she went on to address remarks to hardworking families and especially women "who have to do a little more." It seems her husband's handlers recognize that in addition to Mitt's personality, Republican policy needs warming up a little too. Can Mitt bring love and empathy to people who are struggling, even to people whose lives are so different from his own?

Ann Romney had to humanize Mitt as the husband and father she trusts and whom we can trust. In that, she was on steady ground in telling her "When Mitt Met Ann" story, positively beaming when she spoke of being a wife and mother. Women in the hall clapped their hands off for that.

But she was not in her element in her evocations of sighing mothers at the end of a hard day, in offering insights and empathy for women and families struggling to pay bills, to buy gas and food. That's too much for her to do. She has neither the personal nor the professional authority to talk about the difficulties of poor, working-class or even middle-class Americans.

Opinion: Ann Romney stole the show on opening night

Her remark about women doing more, and doing it happily, is cringe-worthy: Does she know that with women making, at the best, about 80% of what men do, they have to do more just to break even?

I understand Mitt Romney's advisers are in a tough position. Democrats are painting him as a heartless capitalist, ruthlessly firing and downsizing to make Bain Capital one more dollar. Even loyal Republicans, who will support Romney to the end, aren't excited about the guy. But don't put it all on Ann's shoulders. She can't be Dolley Madison and Mamie Eisenhower at the same time. No woman should have to work that hard.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Catherine Allgor.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 11:30 PM EST, Sun December 28, 2014
Les Abend: Before we reach a conclusion on the outcome of AirAsia Flight QZ8501, it's important to understand that the details are far too limited to draw a parallel to Flight 370
updated 8:27 PM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
updated 10:05 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
updated 8:03 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
updated 6:27 PM EST, Sat December 27, 2014
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT