The first wives club plays safe

The leaders’ spouses avoided protesters—and any whiff of substance

Ozer Kayhan/AP

As mayhem erupted on Toronto streets on Sunday, the spouses of G20 leaders were above the fray quite literally—ferried more than 800 m up to the revolving restaurant atop the CN Tower. The occasion was a brunch with “Canadian women of distinction” hand-picked by G20 summit hostess Laureen Harper. Flutes of bubbly and strawberry juice circulated, and the most pressing decision was whether to order the rosemary-mushroom gnocchi or the French toast.

It was a fitting finale to an event that saw politicians’ partners kept at a hermetic remove unprecedented in the G8’s 25-year history. Gawking at spouses has become part of summit spectacle, a justification for big-buck spending, a way to promote the global family. While world leaders thrash out big issues, their partners tour local landmarks—a high-tech incinerator in Japan, an earthquake site in Italy, a Harry Potter party in London.

Michelle Obama used last year’s G20 meeting in Pittsburgh to further her arts-and-nutrition agenda, taking spouses through the Creative and Performing Arts School where Yo-Yo Ma performed, on a private tour of the Andy Warhol Museum (where they silkscreened flowers on souvenir bags) and to dine on organic fare at Teresa Heinz’s farm.

Security concerns in Toronto precluded such easy movement. While G8 leaders convened on Friday in Huntsville, Ont., a smattering of their spouses gathered within summit fencing at the Fairmont Royal York hotel for a “Muskoka Experience” as ersatz as the Metro Toronto Convention Centre’s lake. An Aboriginal artist demonstrated how to bead moccasins and a master builder provided canoe-building tips and an opportunity to cane a canoe seat. A “Flavours of Muskoka” lunch followed: strawberry soup with “pepper organic cream and drunken berries,” freshwater pickerel with “nasturtium butter and fennel pollen” and an “Algonquin canoe filled with mascarpone cranberry mousse” with a chocolate canoe paddle. The obligatory photo op was one of few things to remind the world of a spousal presence amid the summit lockdown: it showed the women signing two canoes to be donated to camps for sick children.

That image featured three G8 member spouses, two G20 member spouses and three wives of EU or UN heads. The higher-wattage G8 wives, notably, were absent. Michelle Obama arrived late the following day. A pregnant Samantha Cameron bowed out, as did Carla Bruni Sarkozy, who did attend the Pittsburgh summit. Other no-shows included the male political spouses Joachim Sauer, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s quantum-chemist husband, and Néstor Kirchner, the former Argentine president married to his successor, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

That’s not surprising. The teacup diplomacy pioneered by Nancy Reagan and her Soviet counterpart, Raisa Gorbachev, in the mid ’80s, and formally reinstated as the “spouse’s program” in 2004 by Laura Bush, is archaic at a time political spouses are as professionally accomplished as their mates—and increasingly male. The disconnect between the two orbits was acute after Saturday’s cocktail-casual red-carpet reception: world leaders held a working dinner while their wives supped together before rejoining them for a concert by the Canadian Tenors.

Spouses themselves are beginning to bristle at the shopping, sightseeing, theme-park photo ops and Martha-Stewart craft moments—either not showing up or voicing dissent. Nobuko Kan, the wife of Japan’s new prime minister, Naoto Kan, a summit newbie, griped in an interview that conversation between the women rarely strayed beyond “nature, animals, hobbies, holidays, a little bit of talk about cooking and what they eat during Christmastime,” she told the Globe and Mail. “I was . . . hoping they might be more interested in talking about politics.”

It’s unlikely she was happier during brunch. There, Friends of Laureen, or FOL, were in force, including senators Pamela Wallin and Nancy Greene Raine, Olympians Joannie Rochette and Silken Laumann, TV personalities Jeanne Beker and Julie Snyder, astronaut Julie Payette, and federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq. Harper also invited two of her Ottawa friends, Jacquie and Joy, as invitee and embedded Globe and Mail columnist Christie Blatchford reported in a glowing account.

“It was a great group of gals,” says Beker, who sat across from Michelle Obama. Conversation ranged from the need for home economics to be taught in schools to health to diets to fashion, she reports: “I was delighted to learn Mrs. Obama has been wearing [designer] Lida Baday for years without knowing she’s Canadian.”

The ugly scene on the streets below wasn’t discussed, says Beker. “That wasn’t what we where there for. It was just a great ladies’ lunch.”

Afterward, everyone received a loot bag filled with mementoes contributed by the FOLs: a sealskin pin from Aglukkaq, a Céline Dion DVD produced by Snyder, books written by Blatchford, Laumann and Beker. And someone must have remembered Michelle Obama’s fondness for brooches: the swag included an Olympics Cold-FX pin.

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