Ann Romney has described her job during the Republican presidential primary as “trying to let people see the hidden side of Mitt: the laid-back guy, the funny guy.” In the grand tradition of political campaigns, Mrs. Romney has the task of humanizing her husband—a man burdened by the albatross of uptight perfection.
He has the public persona of a well-born man who has upon occasion been a tourist among the disadvantaged. He struggles to shake the perception that he understands their plight intellectually but not emotionally.
To help him along as the Republicans enter primary season, emotion has been outsourced to the missus.
To be fair, the candidate has made an effort—at least aesthetically—to be less formal, less stand-offish, less awkward He has shed his tie and taken to wearing sport coats and open-collar shirts while on the hustings and sometimes even for television interviews. His infamous hair is not quite so perfect. (And Mrs. Romney has assured the public that his hair is, in fact, virtually messy when he is home.) But his jokes still seem forced; his body language is rigid; and he has the impatient speech rhythms of a man for whom personal interactions with the little people are not just fruitless, but also annoying.
In contrast, every aspect of Mrs. Romney’s public persona speaks of empathy, informality and the warm fuzzies. She’s like a Snuggie come to life. On the Romney campaign website, Mrs. Romney is pictured wearing an ankle-length floral skirt, a white shirt with the cuffs pushed up and a raspberry-colored cardigan that ties casually at the waist. Her hair is wind-blown. And she’s wearing flat brown sandals.
It’s what she was wearing when her husband announced that he’d be making a second run for the White House. To mark the event at a New Hampshire farm, the couple served up chicken and bean chili to the assembled crowd.
Mrs. Romney could have been dressed for a trip to the grocery store, a parent-teacher conference, or any number of events that fill the days of average folks. Her style is neither formal nor fashionable. She is safely middle-of-the road. A soccer mom writ large. She has a look that is full-bore Chico’s.
In general, Mrs. Romney tends towards pullover sweaters and pushed-up sleeves, preppy skirts, easy blazers and tousled hair. Her style is tidy but not polished. She wears gumball baubles and even pearls, but the multi-strand necklaces are often in a jumble around her neck; they don’t lie pristinely flat like they do in store displays, in gift boxes or on Callista Gingrich. This is an era when political spouses proudly occupy the role of professional partner—from Michelle Obama, who candidate Obama regularly touted as the real orator and problem-solver of the family, to Callista Gingrich, who is the other half of the “we” that candidate Gingrich refers to when weighing in on policy and politics. By contrast, Mrs. Romney, who married after graduating from high school and quickly became a stay-at-home mother, gives voice to home, hearth and tradition.
When Mrs. Romney takes to the lectern, she often talks about having been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1998. Her health was under siege and, for a period, she was severely incapacitated—unable to care for her family and barely able take care of her own basic needs. But her husband stood by her through her illness. He didn’t waver. He didn’t leave. (The subtext? He didn’t have an affair, divorce her and run off with an aide. See: Newt Gingrich.)
When Mitt Romney was governor of Massachusetts from 2003-2007, the disease helped define Mrs. Romney’s tenure as first lady. Advocacy for multiple sclerosis research was a significant focus of her time. And now, as she campaigns for her husband, multiple sclerosis has become a point of pathos in the story of their lives. There has been sorrow within this picture-perfect family. The candidate has had personal trials; he has been tested.
Mrs. Romney’s illness must have been—and must continue to be—a daunting physical and emotional struggle. But for the campaign, the complicated story has been compressed into a Lifetime feature—with references to alternative medicine and therapeutic dressage horses. And the costuming of the soft-focus heroine is feminine, maternal and homey. She is a survivor, not a warrior—or at least, that is the look.
Mrs. Romney wears print—not always, but often. Aside from being distracting, prints don’t exude the kind of clear expression of authority that a solid-colored sheath or a deeply-hued suit might. TV reporters typically avoid prints, so do politicians, corporate chieftains and the like.
Mrs. Romney is willing to break away from the typical uniform of power-brokering, professional women and choose a style that is almost by definition, fun and whimsical. Sometimes, though, she looks determinedly frumpy in bold, geometric cacophonous patterns. Mrs. Romney isn’t dressing to impress, which could cause folks to think about the vast Romney wealth, which could in turn put people off.
She’s dressing to make her audience smile and relax and emote. She is the dessert to Mitt Romney’s meat and potatoes talk.
In campaign 2012, Mrs. Romney is the pretty blonde heroine in the decorative sweater who’s doling out the equivalent of warm milk and cookies.