A candidate rarely gets very far in American politics without putting his family in the spotlight. Look at the most recent presidential election: The daughters of both President Bush and John Kerry spoke at the party conventions. The candidates' wives made regular public appearances. And at the end of each debate, their families joined them onstage, where they hugged and smiled and helped project the idea that this was the kind of good family man who deserves your vote.
But it's different in Germany. Consider Joachim Sauer, a 57-year-old quantum chemist and professor who is married to German chancellor Angela Merkel. You probably haven't heard of Sauer — in part because he has assiduously stayed out of the public eye.
While his wife was sworn in as Germany's first female chancellor last November — a landmark moment for Merkel that had her fighting back tears — Sauer was at home, watching on television. While she campaigned for the job, Sauer refused to give interviews unless they concerned his work in science.
"I have decided not to give interviews and not to hold conversations with journalists who deal with the political activity of my wife rather than my activity as university teacher and researcher," he told the newspaper Berliner Zeitung.
Thanks to his shunning of the spotlight, the German media has come up with a nickname for Sauer, whose last name means "sour" or "angry" in German: The Phantom of the Opera. That's because he attends an annual Wagner festival with his wife, but other than that is almost never seen.
Sauer is in something of a difficult position. Germany, like many countries, has no history of female leadership, and thus no protocols for how a first husband should comport himself. The best contemporary comparison is Denis Thatcher, who was married to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Sauer seems to have no intention of wading into the thorny waters of gender politics. But for Merkel, at least, uncomfortable gender issues have been impossible to avoid. She once went by the motto "those who have something to say need no makeup," and, much like Ms. Thatcher, she has been derided by critics for seeming insufficiently feminine. As for Sauer, in a culture in which deference is still seen by many as a feminine trait, he has a difficult line to walk as well.
Or he would, anyway, if he hadn't decided to simply avoid the problem by staying out of the spotlight. But one wonders if that strategy could have worked in Britain — or if it ever would in America, where politicians are expected to offer up their family for public consumption. It's hard to imagine a first husband who simply ignores the press and public and goes about his business as if his wife weren't running the country.
In the case of the most talked about candidate for the 2008 U.S. presidential election, that's not really an issue. Yes, Hillary Clinton is potentially the first female president in history. But she's married to one of the few American men whose resume she won't overshadow if she wins.
Even though Sauer and Thatcher are successful in their fields, they never ran a country — a resume item that tends to take the sting out of those questions about who in the family wears the trousers.
At some point, however, America will likely have to deal with a first husband who can't fall back on such lofty credentials — and it will be interesting to see how he handles it. Sauer may be a private man, but his reluctance to appear in public seems based at least in part on his recognition that while Germans may be ready for a female leader, they still might not quite know what to make of the man at her side.
An American first husband may come to the same conclusion. But unlike Sauer, he's probably not going to be able to make the problem go away by staying out of the spotlight.