Politics: a family business


With politicians becoming more and more accessible through the media, Sisi Rabenstein and Nora Costigan investigate the claim that they use their families for their own gain.


In these days of constant media focus, being in a position of political prominence has ceased to be just about the job you do.

For people who might not read through reams of political objectives or even to listen to rousing speeches, snap decisions will be made about politicians based on photographs or brief snippets of information gleaned from whatever publication they may be flicking through. For these people, seeing the smiling faces of a politician’s happy family are always going to have a positive effect in the mind of the individual.

This is what has given rise to the family as a political tool. Be it a beautiful or vocal wife or a smiling brood of children, politicians’ families are becoming increasingly more visible in the eyes of the public.

‘Behind every strong man, there is a strong woman’, or so the saying goes. Never has this idea been more prevalent, than in the upcoming presidential elections in the United States. Michelle Obama, wife to Democratic presidential candidate, Senator Barack Obama, has faced much criticism from the media, with many sources naming her an ‘angry black woman’ and an American TV station even using the term ‘baby mama’, which they have since retracted.

However, the positive influence that Michelle has had on her husband’s campaign cannot be ignored. Obama has given numerous ‘stump speeches’, which passionately advocate her husband’s policies and paint a very hopeful and bright future. Her intelligence and fervence gleamed through and her message was undoubtedly well received. So would it be right to say that Barack Obama uses Michelle as part of his image, to help him appear more wholesome and possibly reassure a number of the more conservative voters?

Although the concept of a ‘wife-on-the-arm’ has been, rightly, outdated, Michelle Obama, despite receiving criticism for her sarcastic humour and strong statements, has been a prominent figure in her husband’s popularity. One way that Michelle has helped her husband more recently, as the campaigning draws to a close, is supposedly to tone down her public image, as the ‘firebrand’.

Evidence of this can be seen in her fashion choices as of late. Michelle, often on the best dressed lists, for her stylish formal garb, has taken to wearing sundresses and more feminine attire. This returns us to the idea of a submissive and dutiful wife, but if anything, this is also evidence of an astute and highly political mind.

It seems that in Obama’s case, his wife has created a new role in which to aid her husband, which is of an equal in many respects, as it is her intelligence and presence that make her speeches so hard-hitting and their synchronicity, which is often remarked upon in the press.

Showcasing a happy family will appeal on a subconscious level to vast numbers of indifferent voters

Another stately wife worth mentioning is Carla Bruni, singer, former model and wife of the President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy. When elected, Sarkozy was still married to his second wife, Cécilia Ciganer-Albéniz, with whom he shared ten years of marriage. They divorced in October 2007, six months into his presidency. Sarkozy met Bruni at a dinner party a month later and couple were married on 2nd February, 2008.

Perhaps not as vocal as Obama, Bruni takes every given opportunity to appear in public. In the last two months alone, Bruni has met the Dalai Lama, Pope Benedict XVI, Laura Bush, Queen Rania of Jordan and Wendi Murdoch, the wife of business mogul Rupert Murdoch.

Though Bruni may have taken a backseat when it comes to delivering inspiring political rhetoric, she has said does not want to project an image of being a pretty presidential wall flower. She told Vanity Fair magazine: “Unconsciously, I would project myself more like Jackie Kennedy than for instance, Madame de Gaulle, who would be much more like the classical French woman behind her husband.”

Bruni’s somewhat paradoxical awareness of her “unconscious projection” of this image may seem a little conceited however she is not the only one to make the connection between herself and America’s favourite first lady, with countless publications remarking on her similarity to the icon. She has certainly come into the affections of swathes of the public with her beauty and style, affections perhaps that President Sarkozy felt he would naturally become the object of also.

If this was his thinking then it has severely backfired on him as his he saw his approval rating go from a spectacular 66 per cent in December of last year (the highest since Charles de Gaulle returned to power in 1959) down to a poor 33 per cent in July of this year. Sarkozy’s public are non-plussed with his international jet-setting lifestyle while he shows off the charming Bruni while his public remains more concerned that his inspiring pre-election promises have not been fulfilled.

Another premier whose family has always been a part of his heavy media artillery is our own self-titled Íar-Thaoiseach, Bertie Ahern. Having married his wife, Miriam, in 1975, they separated in 1992, having had two daughters, Georgina and Cecilia.

When Bertie took the office of Taoiseach in 2002, he and Miriam had long since parted ways making Bertie the first Taoiseach to have been legally separated.

Bertie tackled this admirably and dealt with the issue of bringing his then-partner Celia Larkin on official engagements. It may seem a ridiculous issue to be raising concerns with the public in this day and age, but Ireland was like a snake still trying to free itself from the tight skin of the memory of church/state integration and there was weeks of work for the likes of Joe Duffy and Marian Finucane in placating the vocal citizens of Ireland.

The fuss was short lived and it was eventually turned into an PR exercise with Bertie portrayed as the forward-thinking liberal leader of the new Ireland. Though things with Celia Larkin eventually came to their natural end, Bertie was always happy to be photographed with his daughters and maintained cordial relations with Miriam.

However heartening these constant exposures to his clearly happy family life may be, are they always good for credibility? For example, Georgina Aherne’s popstar husband and Cecelia’s ‘chick-lit’ writing career may be admirable on a personal level but they may seem to the public like frivolous associations for the leader of a nation. Or when such mass exposure to the personal life of someone places them in our affections, is their image in our minds as a serious politician irreparably undermined?

One thing is certain; the family card is one that is being played more and more by politicians the world over and definitely one which they can use to their advantage. Showcasing a happy family will appeal on a subconscious level to vast numbers of indifferent voters. The trick will always be treading the fine line to make sure it results in making them popular as opposed to just ‘pop’.