Archive for Saturday, July 24, 2004

Candidate wives have tough job

July 24, 2004

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— Of all my campaign 2004 memories, one of the fondest is from November when the Democratic candidates at a New Hampshire debate were asked the wife question. What role would the first lady play in your administration?

The twice-married, twice-divorced Dennis Kucinich brought the house down when he said that "as a bachelor I get a chance to fantasize about my first lady." He then proceeded to do just that. He fantasized about "a working partner ... a dynamic, outspoken woman," who was also "fearless in her desire for peace in the world, for universal single-payer health care and a full-employment economy." And after one deep breath, he added: "If you're out there, call me."

John Kerry then quipped that we had just heard the "first presidential personal advertisement." Maybe, said Kucinich, "Fox would like to sponsor a national contest or something."

Welcome now to the convention and to the reality show, "Who Wants to Marry a Presidential Candidate?"

Want to have your life scrutinized 24/7? Want to have your wardrobe, hair, weight, shape, age, wrinkles (and lack thereof) a matter of national discussion? Want to have your marriage analyzed free of charge and free of fact? Do you look forward to a substantive contest between your pumpkin spice cookies and your opponent's chocolate chip cookies? Sweetheart, have we got a guy for you!

In the Democratic primary season, the wives included a doctor, a lawyer, a foundation chairman, a general's wife, moms at home and moms at work. The good news was that they reflected a large range of choices that are now open to women. The bad news was that whatever choice a woman made, she was going to get trashed.

Need we recall the Iowa primary when Judy Steinberg Dean was labeled a political refusenik as if she were back home in Vermont nursing grievances instead of patients? Her husband didn't "require her to be a prop." Still, this down-to-earth woman was transformed into a weirdo wife who wouldn't even take the time to prop her hubby up. Extreme Makeover? You bet.

The treatment of Dr./Mrs. Steinberg/Dean was so embarrassing -- good reporters behaving badly -- that I thought it would provide some immunity for the rest. Then Teresa Heinz Kerry appeared on Newsweek magazine with the cover line "Loose Cannon Or Crazy Like a Fox?" What, no third choice?

Since then, Teresa has been described as refreshing and flaky, forthright and impolitic, outspoken and too outspoken, opinionated and too opinionated. The only good thing was being cast as "sultry" at 65.

In turn, she has said that "none of us are perfect and my imperfections are easy to see, but I don't want to be bottled. I'm not ketchup." Nevertheless, we have 57 varieties of commentary on everything from her independence of thought to her independence of pocketbook to the way she holds hands with her husband.

If Elizabeth Edwards has had an easier time so far, it's only because her husband got the "Breck Girl" treatment. Stay tuned for the South Beach Diet beat.

Presidential politics have focused on first wives since Eleanor Roosevelt accepted the nomination for FDR in 1940. They've been a campaign staple since 1960 when the Nixon camp passed out "I'm for Pat" buttons to combat the Jackie effect.

The attention ratcheted up in 1992 with Hillary, Love Her or Hate Her. It went into full gear in 1996 when Hillary and Liddy Dole were featured on the cover of a magazine duking it out for their guys.

Both Hillary and Liddy are now senators. Do I hear "Survivor" anyone? But this week, Hillary's only prime time appearance will be a reprise of the role of former first lady introducing her husband.

It's worth noting that the least controversial woman in the 2004 campaign is the most cautious. The one woman with immunity from the modern media is the most traditional. Indeed the only thing that makes Laura Bush testy is when she's labeled a 1950s first lady.

It's now easier for a woman to be a candidate than a candidate's wife. Easier to be judged for yourself than to have every move you make, every breath you take, calibrated for its effect on your husband.

Political handlers will tell you -- fingers crossed -- that a spouse humanizes a candidate. But how come he can't do this for himself? And what does this do to his wife. Dehumanize her?

It's no wonder that Dennis couldn't find a fantasy figure while he was running. Who Wants to Marry a Presidential Candidate? Somehow this reminds me of another reality show. Maybe it's "The Ultimate Love Test"? Or is it "Fear Factor"?




Ellen Goodman is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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