First-rate first ladies

No matter what you think of Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.), we owe them a debt of gratitude. When either wins in November, our next first lady will be a woman of bold strength, accomplishment and elegance, and a devoted mother inspired to public service.

Yes, we’re talking about Cindy McCain and Michelle Obama. While their husbands are nearly opposites, and the women themselves seem a picture of contrasts — a sole heir to a $100 million fortune, and a black woman from the south side of Chicago who only recently paid off her student loans — Mrs. McCain and Mrs. Obama share many things in common. Both are protective mothers who distanced themselves from politics and never leave home for more than a few days, both have chosen to contribute to the greater good despite wealth or great income potential, and both say they genuinely believe their husband is precisely the leader America needs right now.

Cindy, who earned a master’s degree in special education and taught disabled children in a poor neighborhood after college, chose to raise the couple’s four children alone in Arizona, save for weekends when her husband was home. In 1991 she started the American Voluntary Medical Team, providing medical relief missions around the world. Cindy has traveled extensively, working to remove land mines from former combat zones, provide plastic surgery to children born with cleft palates and bring awareness and attention to refugee issues like rape. Throughout it all she has endured back surgeries, battled an addiction to painkillers, suffered a debilitating stroke (which required her to learn to walk again) and had a hysterectomy and a knee replacement. She also ran a marathon eight months after her stroke, learned how to drive racecars and has overcome a fear of small planes by learning to fly them as well.

Michelle was raised in a one-bedroom apartment by her father, a city pump operator, and her stay-at-home mother, who told their kids, “Don’t tell us what you can’t do” and “Don’t worry about what can go wrong.”

Their wisdom gave Michelle the confidence to go to Princeton and succeed in a nearly all-white environment, writing a thesis titled “Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community” and hanging out at the Third World Center, the multiethnic and -cultural center on campus where she coordinated an after-school program for local kids. After meeting her community-organizer husband and losing both her father and a best friend, the Harvard Law School grad decided to leave her partner-track job at a law firm to work for the city, helping businesses with the bureaucracy — then later, for even less pay, to become director of the Chicago Office of Public Allies, a leadership-training network helping young adults enter public service.

Michelle quit her last job, at the University of Chicago hospital, and cares for her daughters while her husband campaigns. She would like to focus on the balance for working women with children if she becomes first lady.

Michelle speaks as passionately about Americans struggling to make it as Cindy does about the ravages of war-torn countries, and those discussions are likely to continue when one of them becomes first lady. Cindy and Michelle have already shown us women can steadfastly support and nurture their husbands’ careers while keeping their distance and their dignity, that they can be hands-on mothers while carving out their own contribution to society and to the world. As they balance their disparate roles, they have shown humility as well as the steely strength required to carry them through pain and loss.

For the job of first lady, in which at the very least a woman must lead by example, it is hard to imagine we could ask for more.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.