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Wives Take the Campaign to Newsstands
As the candidates for president debate in the press over weighty topics like taxes and health care, their wives are waging their own campaigns in women’s and celebrity magazines to show voters their spouses’ softer sides.
“Election time, they really want coverage,” said Ellen Levine, editorial director at Hearst Magazines, who has edited Woman’s Day, Redbook and Good Housekeeping over the past 30 years. She said that as women’s magazines have steered away from controversial political topics like abortion, they have become even safer destinations for candidates to share their views. “Both parties wanted to be included.”
In Good Housekeeping’s November issue, which appears on newsstands this week, Michelle Obama reveals how she and her husband make time to exercise together every morning and how her husband has fit in time to be an assistant basketball coach to his daughter Sasha’s team.
Rosemary Ellis, editor in chief of Good Housekeeping, who interviewed both Mrs. Obama and Ann Romney, said the challenge was scheduling, not cooperation.
“They know it’s not a puffball story,” Ms. Ellis said. “But they know I don’t have an ax to grind.”
A four-page “Family Scrapbooks” spread in the October issue of Woman’s Day features photographs of both women as children, on their wedding days and with their own children and, in the case of Mrs. Romney, her grandchildren.
In that issue, Mrs. Romney describes the early days of dating Mitt Romney when he worked as a nighttime security guard at the Chrysler Corporation, and how he still writes her love notes, and brings her lilacs on Mother’s Day.
Readers can learn about how much Michelle Obama liked “mac ’n’ cheese” as a child and how Ann Romney loves that when her grandchildren take riding lessons, the horses “turn into these little pussycats.” They even talk about their favorite movies: Mrs. Romney likes “The Sound of Music” while Mrs. Obama favors “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
There’s little discussion of political rivalry in these articles but editors say that they are often surprised how closely readers scrutinize these interviews for fairness and balance. Ms. Ellis said that in 2008 when she asked Mrs. Obama and John McCain’s wife, Cindy, the same questions, she was surprised at how many accusations of partisanship she received.
“We got a boatload of mail from Republicans saying that we were sympathetic to Democrats,” Ms. Ellis said. “Then we got a boatload of mail from Democrats saying that we were sympathetic to Republicans.”
Larry Hackett, editor in chief of People, which has steadily reported on both candidates in recent months, warns that the impact of these interviews should not be underestimated and that the candidates’ handlers take them very seriously.
“While it may not be what husbands talk about, there should be no illusion that they’re less protected and less disciplined than their husbands,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for them to show a side of them that helps people make up their minds.”
While Mrs. Romney is doing most interviews with her husband, Mrs. Obama has agreed to a broader range of press interviews with and without her husband. Both women were interviewed with their husbands by Oprah Winfrey for the November issue of O. They also appeared with their spouses in People and Parade magazine. But Mrs. Obama and President Obama also sat for interviews with Ladies’ Home Journal and Ebony. In the three months leading up to the election, she appeared independently in Elle, Redbook, Women’s Health, Us Weekly, Latina magazine and People en Español.
Mrs. Obama also has reached out to some publications that appeal to younger women. While Mrs. Romney cooperated with Good Housekeeping, whose print readers have a median age of 53, she is still considering whether to appear in Us Weekly, a magazine popular with young women whose readership has a median age of 34.
Michael Steele, editor in chief of Us Weekly, said that Mrs. Obama, who cooperated on four interviews with Us Weekly in the last four years, recently appeared in the Sept. 17 issue, talking about “25 Things You Don’t Know About Me.” (Guilty pleasure: French fries.) Mrs. Obama also has experimented with social media, for example, appearing in a video to accompany an essay she wrote for Redbook about voting.
The closest thing to a poll in any of the women’s magazines suggests a tight race ahead. In the famous Family Circle cookie baking contest in which the magazine encourages readers to bake recipes submitted by the candidates’ wives, Michelle Obama’s white and dark chocolate chip cookies beat out Ann Romney’s M&M’s cookies by 287 votes, about 3 percent of all the votes cast.