Barbara Bush set the stage for nominees' wives

Associated Press
FILE - In this Aug. 18, 1992, file photo, first lady Barbara Bush reacts to Sen. Phil Gramm, who delivered the keynote address to the Republican National Convention at the Houston Astrodome. Expecting Ann Romney and Michelle Obama to take the stage to assure Americans that their men are swell husbands and fathers may sound like a holdover from the 1950s, but it’s a relatively recent political convention tradition. It wasn’t until 1992 that Bush pioneered the wifely testimonial. She was assigned a prime Republican convention slot in hopes that her matronly charm would steady her husband's wobbly re-election bid. (AP Photo/Marcy Nighswander, File)
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FILE - In this Aug. 18, 1992, file photo, first lady Barbara Bush reacts to Sen. Phil Gramm, who delivered the keynote address to the Republican National Convention at the Houston Astrodome. Expecting Ann Romney and Michelle Obama to take the stage to assure Americans that their men are swell husbands and fathers may sound like a holdover from the 1950s, but it’s a relatively recent political convention tradition. It wasn’t until 1992 that Bush pioneered the wifely testimonial. She was assigned a prime Republican convention slot in hopes that her matronly charm would steady her husband's wobbly re-election bid. (AP Photo/Marcy Nighswander, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Expecting Ann Romney and Michelle Obama to pick out a nice frock and take the stage to assure Americans that their men are swell husbands and fathers may sound like a holdover from the 1950s, but it's a relatively recent convention tradition.

Among first ladies, politically savvy Nellie Taft was the first to attend a national convention — and it was the opposing party's. Gazing up silently from a front-row seat in 1912, she intimidated Democratic speakers into muting their criticism of her husband, Republican President William Howard Taft.

Eleanor Roosevelt's unscripted plea for unity quieted a 1940 convention upended by war in Europe. In the television age, first lady Pat Nixon said a few informal words, and petite Nancy Reagan greeted her husband's colossal image on a video screen.

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It wasn't until 1992 that Barbara Bush pioneered the wifely testimonial.

She was assigned a prime Republican convention slot in hopes that her matronly charm would steady her husband's wobbly re-election bid. Mrs. Bush praised "the strongest, the most decent, the most caring, the wisest" man she knew and declared, "However you define family, that's what we mean by family values."

"She's the first first lady to have prepared remarks," said Carl Sferrazza Anthony, historian of the National First Ladies' Library. "And without saying anything overtly political, she's talking about the political issues of that period."

George H.W. Bush lost. But Mrs. Bush proved the potential of putting an adoring spouse in front of millions of TV viewers.

So every four years, the wives come out.

"The wives are in a unique position to talk about their husbands in more personal terms, rather than policy terms," said Martin Medhurst, distinguished professor of rhetoric and communication at Baylor University. "And a lot of people vote on personality."

In 1996 both the first lady and her rival, Elizabeth Dole, spoke at a convention. Dole, wife of Republican candidate Bob Dole, left the stage to mingle Oprah-style with the crowd. First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton talked up her husband, Bill, and responded to conservative criticism of her credo "It takes a village to raise a child."

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"The face-off between Elizabeth Dole and Hillary Clinton in 1996 is probably the rhetorical high point of those conventions," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, an expert on political speech and director of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center. "Each one very effectively makes the case for her husband, and the press played it as the battle of the wives."

And what wives: Both went on to serve in the Senate and run for president — stirring thoughts that someday a man will grace the convention stage as the nominee's supportive spouse.

No matter what Mrs. Romney and Mrs. Obama say this year, they won't match the gravity of the first convention when a first lady spoke.

Adolf Hitler's forces had overwhelmed Western Europe and begun bombing the British coast when Democrats gathered in Chicago in 1940. The delegates rallied behind Franklin Roosevelt for an unprecedented third term but rebelled at his choice for running mate and fought over how to help Britain without being drawn into war. The president stayed away, instead dispatching Mrs. Roosevelt to persuade the fractious crowd to unite for the good of the nation and a world in peril.

"We cannot tell from day to day what may come," she told them. "This is no ordinary time."

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