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The Lives of Dictators’ Wives

The fancy clothes and charitable works aren't incidental: The dictator’s spouse is an important part of maintaining power.
Michèle Duvalier leaves Haiti. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Michèle Duvalier leaves Haiti. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

As the United States reacts to allegations that Syrian President Bashar al Assad used chemical weapons against his own people last month, one of the more interesting controversies, as least for journalists, has to do with the president’s wife, Asma al Assad, the British-born first lady of Syria.

In March 2011 Vogue ran an article about Assad (reproduced by Gawker here) that praised her stylishness, grace, and enthusiasm for modern ideas. The article, by Joan Juliet Buck, said the dictator’s wife—who met her future husband in London, where she was working as an investment banker while he was studying ophthalmology—was “glamorous, young, and very chic—the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies.”

It was, Buck later wrote, part of a campaign by the public relations firm Brown Lloyd James for the purpose of “handling and improving the public image of the regime.” We’ve seen this person before. The beautiful, stylish woman married to an insecure, awkward, or pudgy dictator and in charge of improving his reputation is a familiar feature of the world’s authoritarian regimes.

According to research by German academics, there are certain characteristics dictatorships need to last, and spouses can play an important role in keeping them in office and reasonably powerful.

While often associated with strange stereotypes of excessive femininity—Imelda Marcos and her massive shoe collection, Chantal Biya of Cameroon and her enormous hair—the more common spouse of a dictator is someone like Assad: attractive, well tailored, and foreign educated.

Soong May-ling, the wife of China’s Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, provided perhaps America’s first significant exposure to a glamorous dictator spouse. May-ling's husband presided over China during a tumultuous period in the country’s history. He took over right before World War II and then found himself in the midst of a huge civil war and struggle to keep the communists from seizing power. To maintain control Chiang Kai-shek committed horrible atrocities. Some claim he is responsible for at least one million deaths.

Madame Nhu, the de facto first lady of South Vietnam from 1955 to 1963, and Lyndon Johnson, 1961. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)


His wife, however, worked hard to smooth over slaughters with charm and pure ambition. She married the general in 1927 shortly after he became commander-in-chief of the Chinese army. The Wellesley College-educated woman established special orphanages for children of parents killed in the Chinese Civil War. The children of Nationalist soldiers (orphans of Communist soldiers weren’t allowed) enjoyed well-appointed facilities with playgrounds and swimming pools, built on a thousand-acre site in Nanjing. May-ling referred to these children, rather patronizingly, as "warphans" and frequently referenced them in her appeals for additional foreign aid.

Her address to the House of Representatives in 1943 helped to promote continued American support for the Nationalist forces. When her husband’s regime was finally overthrown in 1949 she went into exile with him, becoming, effectively, the first lady of Taiwan until her husband’s death in 1975.

Another member of this very exclusive club was South Vietnam’s Trần Lệ Xuân, popularly known as Madame Nhu, the French-educated sister-in-law of President Ngô Đình Diệm. (Because Diem never married, Madame Nhu was seen as the most powerful female figure in Vietnam through the early 1960s, and was treated as such.)

She was well known (one of my great-grandmothers apparently named her cat Madame Nhu), if not particularly well liked, in America, and frequently critiqued. After she won election to the National Assembly in 1956, she was a major force in legislation that increased women’s rights. Despite her famously tight and low-cut dresses, she also took it upon herself to try improve the country’s morality. She tried to get the government to ban contraceptives, abortion, adultery, and divorce, as well as close opium dens and brothels.

She was, according to her New York Times obituary, “beautiful, well coiffed and petite. She made the form-fitting ao dai her signature outfit, modifying the national dress with a deep neckline. Whether giving a speech, receiving diplomats ... she drew photographers like a magnet.”

She was also famous for her ability to charm foreign leaders, who were crucial for securing foreign aid.

After the regime collapsed she fled into exile in Rome where she died in 2011, at the age of 86.

The dictator consort exists for a reason, and can have a very important role to play in the success or failure of a regime. According to 2011 research by Wolfgang Merkel and Johannes Gerschewski, there are three things that dictatorships need to survive:

Legitimacy, co-optation, and repression. Referring to historical institutionalism’s key concept of critical juncture, the hypothesis is based on the observation that these junctures become regime threatening when a serious crisis in one pillar occurs and the two other pillars can no longer sufficiently compensate this instability.

Looking at 42 different countries over the course of the last half-century the researchers determined that regimes with these three characteristics can survive, despite general opposition to such forms of government. And first ladies can be particularly useful in helping to secure at least two of these things. Legitimacy "has essentially two foundations," according to the researchers:

[O]ne that is normative-ideological and one related to performance. Anti-liberalism, anti-parliamentarianism, racism, nationalism, law and order, religious-anachronistic orders of salvation, and Marxist-Leninist future designs are at least temporarily capable of creating a normative approval amongst those who are subjected to the rule.

The glamorous spouse can help cement legitimacy by establishing and reinforcing the cult of personality often surrounding a dictator. Their role as positive representative of the nation, and as a benevolent “mother figure” for the state, is a large part of securing that “normative approval amongst those who are subjected to the rule.”

The first lady can also provide an advantage for dictators trying to retain power when it comes to the second element—co-optation—of the researchers' three-part guide, particularly by winning over or neutralizing opposition groups. Merkel and Gerschewski:

The selective use of co-optation enables the autocratic ruling elites to tie important actors and groups from outside the original regime core to the dictatorship so that they do not employ their resources against the regime. Those strategically important actors consist mainly of economic elites, the security apparatus and the military.

Because the dictator spouse often doesn’t come from a political or military background she can help secure the support of opposition groups and deflect criticism of the regime.

Closer to home we’ve got one of the Western hemisphere’s more infamous dictator spouses in American-educated Michele Duvalier, who came to power in Haiti when she married Jean-Claude (“Baby Doc”) Duvalier in 1980 and made a strong effort to improve perception of one of the world’s poorest and most corrupt countries.

Baby Doc’s new wife set up hospitals and orphanages, including one specializing in treating Haiti’s children. This earned her lines like this, from an 1981 article in the Palm Beach Post: "[she] presses her husband to 'democratize' Haiti, and asks Haitians to call them by their Christian names. The couple are now building their own medical-church-school center near Port-au-Prince, at a personal cost of $1 million.” Apparently she was also "determined to pull her people and her country out of their poverty."

This was part of a carefully orchestrated public relations campaign to show the country off as new, prosperous, and stylish. “She was the first one in those 30 years to understand that show business was the name of the business. And her show business was very well done,” said Haitian painter Bernard Séjourné in 1986. She was the face of the new Haiti.

Even Mother Teresa got involved, visiting Haiti in 1981 and praising Michele Duvalier because she had "never seen the poor people being so familiar with their head of state as they were with her. It was a beautiful lesson to me." Mother Teresa said that she could tell that the first lady really cared and was "someone who feels, who knows, who wishes to demonstrate her love not only with words but also with concrete and tangible actions."

The first lady’s feelings didn’t stop her from spending millions on things that didn’t appear to have much to do with “demonstrating her love” for the Haitian poor. In 1985, as her country faced bankruptcy and reeled from food shortages, she flew to Paris to go shopping. She spent $1 million in a week. “And she asked for another million from the governor of the central bank. And she got it.” So she spent $1.7 million, over two weeks, “on clothes, on paintings, on fur coats,” said Raymond Joseph, editor of the Haiti Observateur and laterHaitian ambassador to the United States, in 1986.

Duvalier was overthrown in 1986 and his family fled into exile in France.

But if the glamorous first lady so often can't stop a coup d'etat anyway, what’s she there for?

She’s supposed to be doing what all first ladies are supposed to be doing, if we accept the literature: making the president and the country look good. As the George W. Bush Presidential Library puts it in describing the American first lady, such people are “often the most famous women ... and were able to influence, or at least were perceived to be able to influence, the President.” The president’s spouse also represents, or is supposed to represent, the leader and the nation itself. This is true even if the country is overseen by a dictator.

Does it work? Can a well-regarded first lady generate enough positive press to make a dictatorship look good? As Harper’s contributing editor Ken Silverstein discovered back when he went undercover to investigate two PR firms in 2007 with a fake project to try and win good press for dictators, there’s only so much you can do with pretty dresses and sophisticated PR:

These lobbyists will tell the countries that they can make great achievements and that they can really impact public opinion and political opinion. And in some cases, they can achieve real results.

But for the most part, when you’re dealing about a thuggish regime ... that is just not going to fly. They really can’t achieve a lot in a terrible situation.

Despite the use of the glamour spouse in attempts to improve foreign perception of autocratic regimes, some have suggested that the very existence of such people is itself a big part of the problems with such dictatorships. As Elizabeth Abbott wrote of Baby Doc’s wife in Haiti: The Duvaliers and Their Legacy: "That [such] a woman ... could have such an impact on so many is one of the most convincing arguments that exist against the very nature of dictatorship, which invites such tragedies and also provides the mechanics to keep such regimes in place."

In a regime where the people’s rights are limited, atrocities are common, and one person has total control over the entire state, everything everyone even remotely tied to the dictator does takes on huge importance. The problem isn’t how much money Asma al Assad or Michele Duvalier spend on clothes; it is that where the first lady shops or how she raises her children (according to the Vogue article, in the Assad household “Seven-year-old Zein watches Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland on the president’s iMac; her brother Karim, six, builds a shark out of Legos; and nine-year-old Hafez tries out his new electric violin. All three go to a Montessori school.”) can be thought to say anything meaningful about the country at all.