Editor’s Note: Bill Carter, a media analyst for CNN, covered the television industry for The New York Times for 25 years, and has written four books on TV, including “The Late Shift” and “The War for Late Night.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
Kellyanne Conway is now publicly disparaging her husband George for his attacks on her boss, the President of the United States. Conway, who called her husband out for being unsupportive, also framed her relationship as “the unusual situation of a man getting power through his wife.” Her withering remarks call to mind the scene where King Lear famously utters: “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child” – though in this case it’s a spouse being slagged off for being thankless (or “jealous”).
And unlike the searing drama of “Lear,” the saga of the battling Conways is coming off more like a comedy.
It’s not quite “Love’s Labour’s Lost;” and nobody’s going anywhere near suggesting it’s about the “Taming” of anybody. But neither does it seem to be “Much Ado About Nothing.”
Something is going on, for sure.
For months, George Conway has been taking pointed and remarkably hostile shots at President Trump on Twitter, even as Kellyanne works closely with the President and performs feats of rhetorical combat as his most unyielding defender. The attacks reached a fever pitch this week and left the public gobsmacked after Trump hit back, calling George Conway a “stone cold loser” and “husband from hell.”
The spectacle of one spouse exalting a man for unprecedented achievement while the other publicly denounces the same man as a liar, fraud, and clinical nutcase has made for great theater, especially among the chattering classes in Washington. The question on everyone’s minds is: how on Earth can these two function in a long-term marriage?
CNN’s Anderson Cooper summed up the widespread reaction Wednesday night after a segment about the ideological divide chez Conway: “I just found the whole thing bizarre.”
It’s remarkable that someone who is so intent on defending the President on national television can’t convince her own husband. And Cooper is certainly familiar with Kellyanne Conway’s determination to present the case for the President with withering tenacity. That tenacity – or mulishness, depending on who you ask – was on full display as recently as last week when she drove another television anchor crazy.
Don Lemon, who spoke on behalf of other anchors and millions of viewers, shared his exasperation with Chris Cuomo and questioned why it was worth trying to endure the pugnaciousness and misdirection that mark Conway’s responses. (And whatever else you can say about it, you have to credit her with being extravagantly talented at this peculiar art.)
Lemon argued that she should no longer be given a platform because “she never answers the question; she berates you; she’s condescending; she uses our network to give her talking points.”
Cuomo, who had just wrapped up another combative interview with Conway, acknowledged the frustration of trying to deal with her level-headed belligerence. But he argued that it is President Trump’s right to have a spokesperson of his choice appear on TV. “I want people to see what he considers his line of defense,” Cuomo said. “I want people to see what he thinks is appropriate for his main counselor to do on television.”
Cuomo is one of the few anchors outside Fox News to regularly book Conway and try to press her on the day’s news. Verbal sparring is a feature of his show, and Cuomo has frequently confronted his guests for presenting arguments he perceives as ill-reasoned or flat out wrong.
But he also has a rapport with Kellyanne; they frequently talk about each other’s families in warm terms. (She calls him “Christopher” in an endearing way.) But that doesn’t change the nature of their exchanges, which inevitably descend to incomprehensible babel with a remarkable speed: She unspools some non-answer; Cuomo calls her out; she presses on autonomically; he cites her points as immaterial and fabulist; and at some point it escalates to ear-splitting static.
It’s a bit like asking Alexa if it’s going to rain tomorrow and having the machine go off on a disconnected rant about cat dander, the world percentage of left-handed people, how tall Napoleon really was, phrenology, what currency is used in Nepal, and who would win between King Kong and Godzilla, until you finally can’t take anymore and yank the plug out of the wall.
Ultimately these exchanges beg two questions, the first being: Isn’t there a better way?
There obviously is. One idea might be to run these interactions like traditional debates, with a set period of time for Kellyanne to answer a question uninterrupted and unleash as much verbal sleet as she wishes. Cuomo would then have the floor to himself to clarify, contradict, or put in context all her points. Even if she were unwilling to give an inch, this approach might at least curtail the cacophony of having two people talk at the same time.
But the other question is more intriguing: Does this sort of thing go on at home with the Conways?
If some writer at “SNL” doesn’t come up with a sketch that shows the Conways’ conversations over things like kids’ playdates and family vacation plans devolving into the pattern we often see in Kellyanne’s arguments with Cuomo, it will only be because the idea may be too obvious to be funny.
Maybe it would be more astute to have a sketch that imagines the marital clash as a ruse, and show the Conways as totally committed and loving partners who laugh behind closed doors at the idiots who think this family feud is for real.
Many have floated the notion that the Conways are too close a couple to have a genuine, hostile split over this in public. But why would an otherwise devoted husband put his wife’s job at risk by eviscerating her boss in public? And why would a devoted wife not ask him to stay out of it? Could she actually share his view that the President is in some way unhinged, but believe it is best to retain one of the longest tenures in a volatile White House in order to continue exerting her influence over the President’s behavior?
In that speculative case, George might be going out front to express their mutual opinion, willingly taking the public heat from Trump and Kellyanne – what better way to show loyalty than to take the President’s side over her own husband’s? By doing so, she can continue to survive the tempest surrounding this President and maybe do some good for the country by mitigating his most radical notions. As she told CNN’s Dana Bash, “I know he hears me.”
The idea of the two Conways being in cahoots is perhaps unfairly skeptical of their sincerity and wildly antithetical to Kellyanne’s fire-breathing public defenses of the President.
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I have met Kellyanne Conway only once, at a social occasion in New York during the transition after Trump’s election. She was understandably in high spirits that night and exuded charm and warmth. Someone introduced me. I didn’t congratulate her like so many others, but I did offer words of admiration for managing this hugely demanding, high-profile political career while simultaneously juggling the challenges of mothering four children.
She had a twinkle in her eye when she replied: “Well, five really.”
Maybe she meant George?