A lovely tribute here upon the death of Hazel Hawke, wife of former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke.
The public response to spouses of leaders is intriguing. What-ever happens, the reaction is almost always driven by the public attitude to their partner, the nation’s leader.
Sometimes we feel sorry for them, because of the human frailties that national leadership exposes in their spouse. Sometimes we’re embarrassed or impressed by their performance alongside their spouse or representing them.
For example, people are impressed by the way in which Michelle Obama has risen to the first-lady role. In contrast, the public were embarrassed for Naomi, the ‘pink-cardigan’ wife of New Zealand Prime Minister David Lange. In further contrast, ex-model Carla Bruni, wife of French President Sarkozy, has an intriguing pre-politics life, but her fame is now closely tied to her marriage.
This was equally true of Hazel Hawke, who loyally stood in the shadow of her husband. Public sympathy and support followed her divorce from Bob when he fell for his biographer.
She subsequently, and almost consequently, usurped Bob’s fame, becoming a national public figure for her ‘good public works’.
Yet, this work wasn’t about her personal talents; it was about her post-marriage life. She didn’t try to stop it. Advertisements and public appearances often featured her family, with Bob Hawke conspicuous in his absence.
I can’t help thinking that even when she was a national figure in her own right, it was still very dependent on the public’s knowledge of who she had been; the spouse of a Prime Minister.