Breaking Character

I don’t read her often enough to know if this is an unusual development, but in her latest column Maureen Dowd actually makes a pretty good point about the peril Ann Romney is courting by gloating in public about how she won the famous battle of Hilaryrosengate:

Shaken Democrats dived for cover and threw Rosen under the campaign bus. The media, worried about being perceived as favoring President Obama, jumped in on the side of the maligned Ann.

She pressed her advantage, scolding Rosen on Fox News. “She should have come to my house when those five boys were causing so much trouble,” Ann said. She alluded to her brave battles against breast cancer and multiple sclerosis: “Look, I know what it’s like to struggle.”

But at a fund-raiser at a private home in Palm Beach, Fla., on Sunday, the night before her 63rd birthday, Ann made it clear that she wasn’t really aggrieved. She was feigning aggrievement to milk the moment.

“It was my early birthday present for someone to be critical of me as a mother, and that was really a defining moment, and I loved it,” a gleeful Ann told the backyard full of Florida fat cats, sounding “like a political tactician,” as Garrett Haake, the NBC reporter on the scene, put it.

It’s important when you act the martyr not to overplay your hand. If you admit out loud to a bunch of people — including Haake, who was on the sidewalk enterprisingly eavesdropping — that you’re just pretending to be offended, you risk looking phony, like your husband. (It also doesn’t fly to tell Diane Sawyer that your dog “loved” 12 hours in a crate on top of the car or that it’s “our turn” to be in the White House.)

The broader issue is that politicians–and I’d put Ann Romney in that category given her prominent role in the campaign–need to be careful not to “break character” the minute the cameras are turned off, at least if anyone outside the inner circle is within listening range. If you are paying experts many millions of dollars to shape your public image, and you are pursuing a strategy in which every public utterance contributes to that “message,” you can do double damage by more or less admitting it’s all just another day’s work on the bamboozlement trail.

That’s particularly true if, like Ann Romney, you have been cast in the role of the humanizing spouse who keeps the future Leader of the Free World in touch with the experiences and perspectives of the 99.9% of the electorate who have not shared the Romney lifestyle.

I’ve always found the unwritten rule that the spouses and children of presidential candidates have to campaign as though auditioning for the Royal Family a distasteful quirk of American politics, and probably an Oedipal legacy of our beginnings as a British Colony. But once you accept that role, it’s a good idea to stay right in it to the bitter end.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.