But Hillary Rodham Clinton seems to have broken that mold.
Video of her dancing with the Masai and at a Nairobi nightclub are on the Internet, and she really broke through the clutter with a teeth-clenched response to a mistranslated question.
A Congolese student asked what the president thought about a pending natural-resources deal with China. Instead of saying "Obama," the translator inserted "Clinton" and the former first lady bristled:
"My husband is not the secretary of state - I am. If you want my opinion, I will tell you my opinion. I am not going to be channeling my husband."
That made cable TV and the Internet and gave assorted commentators a chance to bring back the American sport of happily hashing over the dynamics of the Clintons' marriage and eclipsed her message to the Congolese to stop killing each other in the tens of thousands.
Broken elbow aside, the secretary of state has had a rough go of it lately. Vice President Biden has been picking off the glamour foreign assignments while Clinton has been doing the heavy lifting in Africa, India and Southeast Asia.
And then as she's leaving for an 11-day trip to Africa, the former president appears out of nowhere to fly off to Pyongyang - to confer with reclusive dictator Kim Jong Il and return with two appealing young U.S. journalists who had blundered into North Korea. Months of planning by the secretary of state were eclipsed by her husband's calling in a few chits and making a long flight in a luxury private jet.
It was as if the Clintons sensed that the American public were suffering from Clinton deprivation and they obligingly rushed to fill that need. Even their daughter got into the act when a Kenyan offered 30 cows and 40 goats for Chelsea's hand in marriage.
On the rare occasions when the Clintons can't find the spotlight, the spotlight finds them - even in Africa.