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An important thing to remember about the extraordinary lineup of smart, savvy, engaged campaign spouses in the 2008 race is that none of this is entirely new. What's new is knowing so much about it.
First Ladies have been deeply involved in politics all through history. In 1776, even as John Adams was helping invent the Republic, Abigail was warning him, "Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could." Mary Todd Lincoln had such strong views about Cabinet members and Supreme Court nominees that some White House aides called her "the Hellcat." Edith Wilson secretly held the government together for her stroke-incapacitated husband, though she opposed giving women the vote. Rosalynn Carter was basically in charge of mental-health policy. As her husband staggered through 1979, columnist Jack Anderson dubbed her the "co-President." "Many, many women have brought to the table so many different things," says Cindy McCain. "It just depends on how deeply you want to look."
McCain whom voters got to know as a smiling, beautiful, St. John-suited presence in her husband's 2000 campaign played a hard-knuckled tactical role this time around by engineering the shake-up of a high-priced campaign organization that had spent itself into near insolvency. In large part at Cindy McCain's instigation, her husband's longtime political strategist John Weaver was fired; his 2000 campaign manager Rick Davis was brought back from internal exile to take over. "Truly, the only person my husband can trust is me," McCain says. "I don't have anything to lose by telling him not only what I think but what I think he did wrong."
In the pre-Hillary age, with different expectations for gender roles, that kind of influence was wielded privately over everything from policy to personnel to political strategy more than publicly. With the conspicuous exception of Eleanor Roosevelt, who was an outspoken and polarizing figure in her own right, the modern era saw a procession of generally pliant First Ladies: Bess, Mamie, Jackie, Lady Bird, Pat. It really was Betty Ford, arguably the archetype for today's aspiring First Spouses, who changed the rules. Faced with a traumatized electorate and an omnivorous press corps after Watergate, she responded in the way that came naturally which is to say forthrightly, answering whatever questions were thrown at her because her Midwestern manners precluded the idea that you could just ignore a question you didn't like. There was Betty on 60 Minutes saying she wouldn't be surprised if her teenage daughter Susan were having sex or if her kids had tried pot. When she observed to a columnist that the only question she hadn't been asked was how often she slept with her husband, the reporter came back with: "Well, how often do you?" Her answer: "As often as possible!" The Fords "flung open the White House windows and declared there are real people living here," says journalist Kati Marton, who wrote Hidden Power, a book on presidential marriages, and who herself is married to former Clinton Administration official Richard Holbrooke.
But then, Betty Ford got the First Lady's job without ever having to campaign for it. And not everyone was charmed by her candor. Some of the President's aides wanted to muzzle her, and his pollsters said she could cost him 20 points with conservative GOP voters. First Lady aspirants have more typically acted as fabric softener. Tipper Gore made her husband look looser, as did Kitty Dukakis, though in both cases that wasn't saying much. Laura Bush has almost always been a more popular figure than W., though most people could not name a policy position that she's passionate about.
The current class of candidates' spouses has plenty who still fit the traditional mold like Mary Brownback, 49, who married Sam while she was in law school and proudly declares that she's never worked outside the home. "Basically," she says, "I live in the kitchen." Ann Romney calls herself the CFO chief family officer and her husband Mitt's campaign website says she "places primary importance on her role as a wife, a mother and a grandmother." Mike and Janet Huckabee were high school sweethearts; now 52, she was 18 when they married, and they renewed their vows in a covenant marriage on Valentine's Day, 2005. Jill Tracy Biden, 56, was a student teacher when she and Joe Biden married in 1977, and has dropped off the campaign trail now that the school year has begun again.
In fact, for a politician's spouse, some things never change. This is how Barbara Richardson, 58, a veteran of her husband Bill's successful campaigns for the House and the New Mexico governorship, summed it up before a debate in South Carolina: "While Mr. Wonderful is out there campaigning, the rest of us as spouses are still schlepping through the airport to a commercial plane with kids in tow. We miss our connections. We're standing in grocery-store lines, and frankly, we're just trying to keep body and soul and house and home and family together, while they go out and make nice—Mr. Popularity!"
Have voters really adjusted their ideas and expectations of a First Mate? The spouses themselves don't sound so sure. "As much as it may sound a little archaic, I think the American voter wants a traditional situation," says Cindy McCain. "In other words, I don't believe they want a spouse who is involved in day-to-day politics. And I'm not criticizing any former Administration. I'm just telling you what people have told me. They still kind of want the traditional-looking family."
Even Elizabeth Edwards, for all her outspokenness, agrees. "There are certain baseline things people require in a First Lady a graciousness," she says. "There is sort of a sense of maternal capabilities that we might be looking for. I don't think that in any way disqualifies Bill, but I do think that if it's a woman, they're looking perhaps for something like that."
Marriages Under the Microscope
Many a first marriage has been the subject of rumor and speculation, but the Clinton presidency put political marriage under the microscope in a way it never had been before. In this new season of full disclosure, there's Elizabeth Kucinich, 29, who told the Associated Press that a lazy day at home consists of getting up for brunch and then going back to bed until 4:30 p.m., "John Lennon and Yoko Ono-style." But it's hard to think of another spouse who has taken openness as far as Michelle Obama. Her idea of managing her husband's image seems to begin with knocking him off his pedestal.
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