The Cameo Role of a Presidential Spouse

Timothy Cook
September 19, 2012

Presidential spouses don't generally receive awards for the roles they play. The best spouses function unobtrusively, away from the spotlight, which they don't crave anyway. Theirs is a cameo role; they are the character actors who subtly enrich the main proceedings.

I've been in my support position for 16 years—long enough, presumably, to have mastered its requirements. I've tried to leave as little to chance as possible. I've drilled myself on potential responses to hypothetical situations. For example, what topics are off limits for presidential spouses at social events? Should we not mention state appropriations? Should we avoid political observations about the Tea Party or the Occupy movement? My guiding principle: One's inner commentator may enjoy an audience, but discretion trumps venting opportunities. An inopportune comment can damage "the cause."

In some cases, I've found preplanning to be helpful. Once I have the names of the expected guests at a specific gathering, I usually compile a list of topics best left unexplored. Generally, though, like a quarterback calling an audible, I improvise, because currents at social events can shift rapidly. Even then, my style can be categorized as "spontaneously cautious" because I've come to understand how comments can be deprived of context or simply misquoted.

My wariness has sharpened over the years. In 1996, when my wife assumed her first presidency, I projected a series of wonderful and foolish plans. I would teach stimulating literature courses at her institution and be an active member of committees empowered to change what required changing. After conversations with some veteran spouses, however, I altered my wish list. My confidantes assured me that being a superlative teacher wouldn't insulate me against imputations of nepotism from disaffected sources. I was warned, too, that on committees, I could be viewed as a rubber stamp for the administration.

I found that advice disappointing, disheartening, and probably wise. Having recently retired from teaching, I had been intrigued by the prospect of reallocating my time and continuing my professional interests. Subsequently, I've decided to offer my services less conspicuously, such as tutoring student writers and assisting student-government leaders with their oral presentations. To faculty members and administrators who might be interested, I framed my willingness in "if you can use me, I'm available" terms. Primarily, I wanted to avoid appearances of trying to build a power base—not a paranoid caution on any campus.

So far, an uplifting story, no? Idealistic presidential spouse, desirous of being an asset, rather than an impediment, to his wife, develops social sensors that help him avoid academic pitfalls. In one incident, however, I came perilously close to a serious misstep.

It's always important to remember that eternal vigilance is the price of being a Teflon spouse. I dropped my guard one day at the place on the campus where I felt most at ease. I swim laps most days at the university pool. The discipline keeps me in decent condition, an obsession for this once-pudgy kid. Equally important, I find churning through my solitary water world soothing and therapeutic.

At the gym, most faculty members leave academic issues at the door. On this particular day, entering the locker room, I noticed a faculty member who wasn't a regular at the gym and had a dodgy reputation as a campus gossip. Despite my dislike, I had always managed a neutral correctness toward him when we met at university events. From those encounters, he had to know I wasn't one of his fans, but I felt that I had successfully managed to conceal my true feelings.

My locker was several rows from his, but I could hear from his strident tone that he was already on a rant. Short of inserting earplugs, there was no way I could ignore his performance. I changed into my swim gear quickly, anxious to escape. As I was about to enter the shower room, I distinctly heard the words "president's husband." I stopped immediately and, unseen by him, edged closer to where he was holding forth. Undeterred by the indifference of his one-person audience, he was in the midst of castigating "the president's husband" for "throwing his weight around and demanding the water temperature be raised."

That was completely untrue. Certainly, like most swimmers, I have a temperature preference. But I wouldn't have stated it openly, even if, one day, I found polar bears romping in the university pool. My choice in that circumstance would be clear: Share a lane with a very bulky bear or join an off-campus swim club. So I was beyond annoyed to hear this mischief-maker attacking me for allegedly doing something I had scrupulously avoided. As someone with a vexed relationship with the administration, he was obviously using me to advance whatever idiosyncratic personal agenda he had.

That was my quick, rational take on his motivation. Then anger took over. I suddenly regressed to the schoolyard culture of West Philadelphia, where my principles of justice were forged. Those don't include coolly analyzing motivation for insulting behavior, nor do they calculate potential consequences of aggressive response.

Impatiently, I waited for the locker room to clear out before approaching him. Doing nothing for those extra few minutes may have been the best nonaction of my spousehood. Squirming impatiently, I began to think about my impending action. First, with relish, I previewed my retaliation; then, I reviewed the entire planned scenario as a fait accompli. Without warning, a sense of responsibility infiltrated my anger. Were a few seconds of great personal satisfaction worth a thoroughly unpleasant aftermath? My days of being id-driven should long since have ended, I conceded.

I blinked as light overcame inner darkness, but I forced myself to follow its illumination. I walked toward his locker, inner pit bull leashed, and stood there long enough to get his complete attention. He seemed surprised to see me. I stared at him. He looked away, and I left the locker room.

Trivial as the incident was, if I hadn't controlled myself, its ripple effects could have been dire. I am not completely a free agent. Every action of mine that is even remotely university-connected affects my wife. You have to keep reminding yourself of that.

Having survived such dicey situations many times, I would like to offer some observations for my fellow presidential spouses. They're intended to partially repay the debt I owe to my early mentors.

Don't ignore personal vulnerabilities. Your role as a presidential spouse can actually exacerbate them. For example, if you have a temper, being a quasi-public person will present multiple opportunities for it to emerge. Resolve to resist provocation. You, not circumstances, are in control.

Don't ever think you've mastered the art of your position. Every situation, social or professional, brings new challenges. Tailor your approaches to carefully crafted perceptions about fresh audiences.

Renew yourself regularly. That's a command, not a suggestion. As noted, I'm partial to physical workouts because the endorphins they generate provide healthful "highs" with surprising staying power. Whatever your personal strategy, be sure to nourish your spirit. It's a renewable form of energy.

Keep perspective. Most presidential spouses I know have found that enjoyment and satisfaction exceed stresses of their avocation. The proportion depends largely on personal assets like sociability, but even those not to the "manner" born can relish being instrumental in advancing higher education. I wouldn't have been a first-round draft pick for my position, since I tend toward the introvert. But, unlikely as it seemed at first, I, too, have found that the positives of the role have come to outweigh the negatives.

After a decade and a half of experience, I acknowledge I'll never stop being the spousal equivalent of a work in progress. The narrowly averted gym escapade confirms that. Over all, I sense personal improvement, but that's only my impression. The real arbiters are those I meet in my varied campus-related activities. If I'm effective, I'll help strengthen their support of the university. That's my fundamental goal as a presidential spouse.

Mort Maimon is a retired educator and full-time writer. His wife is Elaine P. Maimon, president of Governors State University.