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.
  • 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.

Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:28 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?