In 2007, as Senator Barack Obama was launching his run for the presidency, Chicago newspaper columnist Lynn Sweet went to a fundraiser where the candidate and his wife were to speak. Sweet knew the Obamas well enough to know that Michelle Obama, a Harvard-trained lawyer, would emerge as a key player in her husband’s White House bid.
Allowed into the private event only for Barack’s speech, the Sun-Times columnist ducked into a room next to the ballroom of the Chicago Hyatt and pressed her ear to the wall when it was Michelle’s turn at the microphone.
“She sounded like Obama in soprano,” Sweet recalls. “Same mesmerizing style and cadence, similar message.”
A year and a half later, there are few walls between the candidates’ wives and the American people. Both Michelle Obama, 44, and Cindy McCain, the 54-year-old wife of GOP nominee John McCain, have been on magazine covers, on TV talk shows, in countless high-school auditoriums and hotel banquet rooms as they’ve introduced themselves to a public that’s trying to picture each of them in the East Wing of the White House.
The women have navigated the campaign trail in different ways. Obama has crisscrossed the country on her own as number-one surrogate and impassioned speaker. Her husband, she told Vanity Fair last year, is “ready to change the world.” McCain prefers to campaign alongside her husband, usually making only introductory remarks. But they’ve both hit the key spots on the political-wife circuit—girl talk on The View, glam shot in Vogue—and revealed everything from their tax records to their taste in music (McCain likes Cream and the Rolling Stones; Obama is a fan of Stevie Wonder and Lauryn Hill).
Their every move has been scrutinized, from Obama’s fist bump with her husband to McCain’s hairstyle changes. And their wardrobes have been analyzed like a cryptic code. Did Obama choose a purple dress because it’s the color of royalty or because, with a political map in mind, it’s a mix of red and blue? Is she going after a Jackie Kennedy look with her hair flip and jewel-toned sheath dresses? Does McCain, who travels with a stylist, really wear size-zero jeans? (Yes, according to Vogue).
Along the way, each has had image problems. Obama has had to prove she’s not a wild-eyed radical after an early gaffe in which she said she’s been proud of her country only since her husband has been running for president. She’s become more scripted in recent months and toned down her speeches, playing up her soccer-mom side after early reviews called her sarcastic and angry.
McCain often stands beside her husband with a Pat Nixon–like gaze—the picture of political-wife perfection with her dance-school posture and French-manicured nails. She’s had to counter the perception that she’s merely a trophy wife, an empty (Escada) suit.
“I think that’s a misreading of her,” says John McCain biographer Robert Timberg. “Cindy is much more accomplished than people think.”
In fact, both spouses are professional women who have held executive jobs as they’ve raised their children. McCain is chair and majority owner of her family’s beer business, Hensley & Co., with her share estimated at about $100 million, and is involved in humanitarian groups that bring help to some of the world’s bleakest regions. She has earned a pilot’s license and bought a plane; several years ago she learned to drive racecars.
“She likes to go fast,” says her longtime friend Betsy Bayless, a former Arizona secretary of state.
Until she went on leave to work for the campaign full-time, Obama was vice president for community affairs at the University of Chicago Medical Center, where she earned $273,618 in 2006, according to her tax records, and sat on half a dozen boards. An athletic five-foot-eleven, she’s so passionate about exercise that she used to get up at 4:30 am to start her workout, which included running up eight flights of stairs to her gym.
Michelle Obama’s life story—in some ways as inspiring as her husband’s—has been a key part of the campaign’s narrative. The daughter of a working-class family, she grew up in a one-bedroom apartment on the South Side of Chicago, followed her basketball-star brother (now coach at Oregon State University) to Princeton, and went to Harvard Law School.
She met her future husband when she worked at the law firm Sidley Austin in Chicago and was assigned to be the adviser to summer associate Barack Obama. They married in 1992 and had two daughters, Malia, now ten, and Natasha, seven. Like her GOP counterpart, Michelle stayed back home with her children when her husband went to Capitol Hill.
Cindy McCain is less well known, according to polls, despite the fact that her husband has been in Washington for more than two decades.
An only child born into one of the richest families in Arizona, she chose not to join the family business after college at the University of Southern California and instead worked in a poor Phoenix neighborhood as a special-education teacher.
She met John McCain, a Navy captain and celebrated Vietnam prisoner of war whose first marriage was coming apart, while on a trip with her parents to Hawaii in 1979. A year later, they married and settled in Arizona.