Political spouses like George Conway are fair game

In recent months, George Conway, the husband of Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway has created a stir -- and ama...

Posted: Aug 18, 2018 4:30 PM
Updated: Aug 18, 2018 4:30 PM

In recent months, George Conway, the husband of Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway has created a stir -- and amassed a considerable Twitter following -- with a series of disapproving tweets about President Donald Trump, his wife's boss. In a buzzy Washington Post profile of the couple in which George is similarly not shy about expressing his disdain for the President, Kellyanne tries to bury the topic of George's tweets and questions whether it's fair game -- or just more so-called fake news -- to bring up a spouse in relation to a person's job. "If you make this story all about him," she tells the writer, "I'll definitely push back on that after it's printed."

Putting aside the hypocrisy here -- after all, Kellyanne Conway frequently cited Bill Clinton in her anti-Hillary Clinton rhetoric during the 2016 campaign -- in the case of public figures, and especially political figures, a spouse is almost always fair game. If one half of a couple's actions, opinions, or behaviors have a direct relationship to the work of the other, then examining those actions, opinions, and behaviors in the context of the public-figure partner in question isn't conflating their views; it's a necessary step in any reckoning with how the high-profile spouse -- in this case a mouthpiece for this controversial President -- wields power.

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For one thing, marriage, even in cases where two people are fiercely independent -- as Kellyanne insists she and George are -- by definition consists of two people sharing if not a belief system, then a life. Or, at the very least, a home. Surely, they share some common ground. It's certainly within reasonable bounds to speculate.

And in the case of the Conways, there's no doubt that George's opinions are entirely worth noting: For one thing, he chose a public platform to express them. This would make them fair game even if they weren't about his wife's boss -- and the fact that they are makes them unquestionably so. Kellyanne might not have invited him, but George has inserted himself into her daily work life. She can't ignore him, and neither should the rest of us.

That's not to say that one spouse should be held accountable to the other's actions. While it's interesting that the President's closest adviser is married to a man with such staunch anti-Trump beliefs that he's compelled to share them with the world, it's not accurate to assume that George speaks for Kellyanne, or vice versa. Or that one partner can control the other. When Louise Linton, the wife of Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, was blasted for an Instagram post in which she both touted her wealth and belittled a commenter, many took the opportunity to blast Mnuchin for letting that happen. That's wrong. Married people don't share the same brain. But they often do share the spotlight, and especially when they willingly put themselves there via social media.

What is interesting to note is that the court of public opinion is clearly more lenient in its judgment of "husband halves" of a couple, at least in tone. The Post piece describes George Conway as an "honorary member of the resistance." Meanwhile, Slate describes Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas as "moving closer to the right wing fringe," but call out his wife Ginni's ultra-conservative opinions, many expressed on Facebook, as "inappropriate." A recent outburst from Ginni Thomas directed at survivors of the Parkland shooting caused such outrage that she was forced to make her account private. And who could forget Jill McCabe, the wife of ex-FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe? He was a frequent target of Trump's scorn, but when Jill tried to run for office in Virginia, it was she who Trump singled out for particular and additional humiliation.

Which, of course, brings us to those instances in which pulling a partner into the conversation inappropriately conflates one spouse's views with the other. This is a tactic meant to demean and distract and one that's used frequently by Trump.

Consider the President's recent tweets about two women with whom he has beefs -- Lisa Page, a former FBI lawyer who worked on the Russia investigations, who Trump called "lovely" while also noting her extramarital affair with recently fired FBI agent Peter Strzok, and Nellie Ohr, whom he called "beautiful" while disparaging her for her work with a research firm that commissioned a critical dossier about him. Trump is now using his animosity towards Nellie Ohr to take aim at her husband Bruce Ohr, a longtime Justice Department staffer who now finds himself on the list of Trump targets whose security clearances he's threatened to revoke.

It's entirely possible that many of Trump's tweets don't pass muster with Melania, just as, it's likely, her routine public rebuffs of his affection do not likely pass his. But just as we won't stop wondering what goes on in that marriage, neither will we do so with others in the spotlight.

Husbands and wives can influence while remaining independent. But when one puts him or herself into the public eye, the other can't expect to remain entirely unentangled. And when the other follows, well, then it's most definitely fair game for public scrutiny.

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