Memo to Michelle Obama

Cherie Blair, wife of England’s former prime minister, gives advice to our new first lady.

By Lynn Sherr

The honorific title first lady never properly belonged to Cherie Blair while her husband, Tony, served as prime minister of Britain from 1997 to 2007. Women in her position "don’t have a title as such," she says. "In fact, the first lady of Britain is Prince Philip." Which didn’t stop the British press from making her the first target, skewering, among other things, her clothes, her New Age crystals, and her involvement in an unsavory real estate deal. An established barrister (trial lawyer) and human rights activist, Blair has famously spoken out about the challenges of being the first career wife at 10 Downing Street. Now reveling in her freedom (her husband stepped down in June 2007), Blair, 54, passes on what she’s learned — in her trademark take-no-prisoners style.

MORE: You’ve said that while your husband was prime minister you felt you were in "prison," that your voice was "silenced."

Blair: It’s a strange thing, isn’t it? In a world where women are speaking out more, a political wife is almost more disenfranchised. Once upon a time you could say, "Well, he’s got his views, and I’ve got my views." But when he’s elected…it’s almost like you cannot afford to express any separate views.

MORE: Who would tell you "You can’t do this, you can’t say that"? I mean, does the queen come and yell at you?

Blair: No, it’s more the office. You have people around you 24 hours a day who are not your family.

MORE: So the spouse is discounted even though your marriage was originally one of equals?

Blair: Yes. You have a partnership, and the man and woman are equally educated, but that dynamic changes suddenly when one of them is elected. Whatever it is you’re doing as first lady, it is not equal to being president of the United States. Your husband comes home at the end of the day, and the kids have been fractious and they’ve gone to bed and he hasn’t seen them. And you want to say, "Look, I’ve had a hard day too, but I manage to [get everything done and be here for you]." And he says, "You know, I’ve been on the phone to the president of China." There is no answer to that, is there?

MORE: So you just suck it up?

Blair: You take it as a consequence of having this ringside seat to history and an opportunity to make a difference. I feel very passionately that otherwise [the position of first lady] is some sort of high-class tourism. You can just walk away and say, I won’t do anything at all. But that seems to me a squandered opportunity. In a world of 24-hour media, the person who’s married to the head of state has a platform. So how do you use the platform?

MORE: What’s your advice to Michelle Obama on that?

Blair: A first lady can have influence, but she can not be seen to have power. She needs to identify causes that she wants to take on but from an angle that isn’t the hard policy angle.

MORE: And noncontroversial?

Blair: Well, there’s nothing in life that’s completely noncontroversial. This is the delicate line you have to tread. You don’t want to give traction to your husband’s political opponents.

MORE: As you’ve said, only one of you is elected.

Blair: You know, I’m a career woman. But I think in the end Michelle’s primary role is to give her husband support and succor. It’s such a lonely job being president. Not even Michelle can go all the way with him, but she can go further with him than anyone else.

Lynn Sherr, a former ABC correspondent, would love to report on a first spouse who is a man.

Read more of Lynn Sherr’s interview with Cherie Blair at The Daily Beast.

Originally published in MORE magazine, February 2009.

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