TAMPA, Fla. – As Lisa Wolfe drove home from a frustrating day at work, Ann Romney’s voice blared over her car radio. Every word of Mrs. Romney’s speech to the Republican National Convention on Tuesday night made Wolfe angrier.
“She just kept saying, `Trust him!’ And I’m like, `I want to, but speak to me intelligently. Tell me more about his solutions, not that other stuff I don’t want to know,” said Wolfe, 54, a Phoenix-area single mother who’s leaning toward voting for President Barack Obama for a second time.
And what, precisely, was “that other stuff”? A selection of intimate scenes that the wife of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney chose to make public ahead of the long-awaited speech in Tampa, in which she honored her four-decade-long marriage.
The time Mitt crawled into bed and curled up with his wife when, in 1998, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and became depressed. Several miscarriages. Craig Romney’s wrenching grief over one of his mother’s pregnancies when it ended after four months, a scene that apparently was news even to Mitt Romney as his wife related it in a TV interview.
In the post-Oprah era of reality shows and TMI, Ann Romney communicates with a level of candor never seen from the spouse of a president or a man who might someday be one, experts say.
“The reproductive aspect is unprecedented,” said Catherine Allgor, a history professor at the University of California Riverside who specializes in the roles of first ladies. “The use of the miscarriages, especially, shows that her handlers quite correctly understand how far they have to go to make (sure) this man, this woman, this family, is relatable.”
Rather than draw inviolate lines between public and private life or merely invite the public in, Ann Romney has brought the details to American voters just when her husband is struggling to convince undecided voters that, despite dizzying wealth, he is concerned about the average Joe – or in 2012, Josette.
All of that sharing sat just fine with Vicki Sciolaro and Arlene Krings, a pair of GOP delegates from Kansas who were in the hall Tuesday night when Ann Romney delivered her long-awaited speech. The arena was packed to the balloons hanging from nets overhead, the audience riveted in silence by the lady in red when they weren’t on their feet cheering.
“She really made me feel better,” said Sciolaro, 51, mother of four and the wife of a heart surgeon who has had to close some offices due to the recession. The speech “didn’t just humanize her,” Sciolaro added. “It made her more like us.”
“I don’t think that middle America is uncomfortable with it,” Krings, who said she is over 65, said of Ann Romney’s revelations. “We’re not as stoic as people say. We like to see that the Romneys are real people too.”
Out in Arizona, the intimate lead-up to the speech spoiled it for Wolfe.
“It creeps me out,” Wolfe said of Romney’s sharing. “I don’t want to hear the intimate details of anyone’s life, unless it’s my best friends’ or my family’s.”
Oversharing is a risk of intimacy politics, a mainstay of American electioneering for candidates trying to control their images in voters’ minds. For voters trying to assess who is behind the microphone, aspiring to represent them in Washington or Albany or Atlanta, the information revealed is a critical part of the process. For the candidates and their spouses, though, the light shone into the sanctuaries of their family lives can be uncomfortable, even painful.
Most times, the revelations aren’t something the candidates or their spouses really want, but they feel forced to reveal details they know are coming out anyway.
Details from inside the family lives of presidents and candidates were considered inappropriate until well into the 20th century, when then-first lady Eleanor Roosevelt published a column called “My Day,” a sort of snapshot of her experiences as first lady that was considered intimate at the time. But throughout her husband’s campaigns, the family and later the White House went to great lengths to conceal President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s paralysis, possibly the result of a 1921 bout with polio.
A half-century later, as television progressed and sickness became less taboo, Betty Ford revealed ahead of her husband’s 1976 campaign that she had undergone a mastectomy for breast cancer. Later, it emerged that she had fought a long-standing addiction to pain medication and alcohol.
In 1987, as her husband, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis geared up for his presidential run, Kitty Dukakis held a press conference to announce that she had kicked a quarter-century addiction to amphetamines. And in 1992, Democratic presidential hopeful Bill and Hillary Clinton confirmed reports that he had been unfaithful.
Aspiring and actual first ladies have sometimes drawn firm lines between what’s public and private. The Clintons declared their daughter, Chelsea, out of bounds. And First Lady Michelle Obama demurs from questions about her family’s spiritual life.
“I have a hard time talking about something that is so personal,” she said in a February, 2011 interview. “At some levels it’s like all that we have that’s ours...Some things are just mine, you know?”
Ann Romney has her boundaries, too. Telling ABC News in July that the couple would release no more tax returns, Ann Romney declared: “ We’ve given all you people need to know.”
Politically, the intimate details of Romney’s married life that Romney has chosen to reveal clearly fall into “need to know” territory, a shift from Ann Romney’s strategy earlier this year of combatting the Democrats’ narrative that says Republicans are waging a “war on women.” The route to women’s votes, she said, was through a stronger economy.
But just more than two months before Election Day, Obama and Romney remain virtually tied, with swing-state undecided voters – especially women – likely to decide the results, polling shows. Obama holds the advantage on likability, while Romney is more trusted on handling the economy.
Married women are a source of support, especially for Romney. They typically make up about a third of voters in presidential election years, according to exit polling. In 2008, they broke 51 percent for John McCain to 47 percent for Barack Obama. The group last supported a Democrat in 1996, when 48 percent backed Bill Clinton, 43 percent Bob Dole and 7 percent Ross Perot. Unmarried women, on the other hand, break solidly in favor of Democrats: Seventy percent of them backed Obama in 2008.
So Ann Romney has unpacked some of what she is known to call her “bag of rocks,” the burden of challenges everyone carries. But that path can be a fraught one, and political scientist Merle Black of Emory University says Mrs. Romney would do well to mind the boundaries.
“I don’t think voters want to know ALL of that ... when it’s really personal and really sad,” Black said. “Because it makes everybody uncomfortable.”
AP National Writer Allen G. Breed in Washington contributed to this report.