ANALYSIS: Spousal support assumes greater political relevance

Whether outspoken, reserved, or somewhere in between, candidates' wives are increasingly impacting their husbands' campaigns for the White House.

Whether outspoken, reserved, or somewhere in between, candidates' wives are increasingly impacting their husbands' campaigns for the White House.

There are two types of political wives: the Hillary and the Laura. One makes herself known with vocal viewpoints and sharp commentary. The other sticks to literacy campaigns and devoted, but silent support of her husband's policies. What the two share is rising importance in the success of their husbands' political fortunes. From speeches and handshaking to policy decisions and fundraising, candidates' wives are no longer campaign accoutrements, but working parts of the political machine. "It has increasingly become a more equal team effort," says Clarke Caywood, professor and director of Northwestern University's graduate program in PR, of a wife's role in Presidential campaigning. In fact, wives these days are often just as busy as their husbands on the campaign trail, filling in for their spouses at events and even interviews. As such, their public image is as important as that of the candidates. And it goes beyond the intended messages and carefully crafted media personas. Voters pick up on the relationship between spouses, and how that interaction reflects on the potential President and his values. "It's pretty clear that the whole world is watching how you divide up workloads inside your family, and whether you are a contemporary family or a more traditional one," says Caywood. "That puts more pressure on the women to both be a family leader and get on the road as part of the work force that gets the candidate elected." Even the couple's emotional life is part of the modern election, giving voters another subtle indication of the man behind the politician. "When the public senses the romantic relationship of the first couple, it makes a difference," says Molly Meijer Wertheimer, associate professor of speech communications and women's studies at Penn State University, and author of a book about first ladies, Inventing a Voice: The Rhetoric of American First Ladies of the Twentieth Century. As an example, she points to the kiss that Tipper and Al Gore shared on stage at the 2000 Democratic National Convention. While Gore is widely criticized for his stiffness, the lengthy lip-lock helped humanize him and show a different side to the TV cameras. "That kiss was a significant move," she says, noting Gore's "bounce" in popularity after the convention. Increasing visibility in 2004 With the Presidential primaries approaching, candidates' wives are taking on even more visible campaign roles in the final push for the Democratic nomination, and their Hillary/ Laura tendencies are solidifying in the public's mind. In a field where the candidates have struggled to break out of the pack and create strong images, their wives are surprisingly distinct. From Teresa Heinz Kerry's outspoken directness to Hadassah Lieberman every-woman approach to Gertrude Clark's dutiful support, the public images of the wives of the Presidential candidates are slipping into the media, and into the consciousness of voters. And while Sally Stewart, a former political journalist and current PR pro, notes that "it's not like anybody elects the spouse," the next few weeks will cement those images, and help one woman prepare for the larger election to come. So who's a Hillary and who walks in Laura's shoes? "I don't think any of the wives of the Democratic candidates have really broken out to create their own media image like Theresa Heinz Kerry," says Stewart, pointing to the woman the press has already compared many times to Hillary Clinton. Heinz Kerry, a multimillionaire heiress, has actually had a strong public persona for years as the head of Howard Heinz Endowment and Heinz Family Philanthropies. If anything, being a candidate's wife seems to have given her a wider platform for her views. She has publicly spoken on topics ranging from Botox (she's in favor) to the current administration's policies regarding the status of Guantanamo Bay prisoners (against.) And she's not shy about laying those opinions out. She recently told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "(T)his administration is the most cynical, most venal, most Machiavellian administration in my 32 years in Washington." Such outspokenness, say campaign experts, could hurt John Kerry in a post-Clinton world where many saw Hillary as too involved in her husband's job. "This is a very strong woman who independently has a lot of wealth, clout, and power," says Stewart. "She has generated quite a bit of controversy. So she hasn't exactly been a help to the wider audience." In fact, Wertheimer says Hillary Clinton may have sparked a backlash against outspoken first wives, leading some voters to prefer women like Gertrude Clark and Hadassah Lieberman, who fill more traditional roles. Mrs. Lieberman has traveled extensively to campaign for her husband, visiting everywhere from college campuses to senior centers. But her husband-centric message and her low-key style has made it clear that Joe is the only one running for office. Clark, who has also hit the campaign trail, has made it clear that she'd rather not be in the media spotlight, but is willing to support her husband in any way. Although she has a reputation for being tough and outspoken, when it comes to Presidential politics, the general's wife has been a model follower. "Gert Clark might still be riding that pendulum swing, that no one wanted a first lady like Hillary," says Wertheimer. "She is not doing this for her own ambition. That would be perceived as a positive because it's not something easy for her, but she makes herself do it. That was true for Laura Bush, and [the sentiment] might still exist." A different type of spouse Of course, putting all political wives into two categories is too simplistic. There are always the exceptions who don't fit in the easy analysis, which is where front-runner Howard Dean's wife Dr. Judith Steinberg Dean falls. A working physician, Dr. Dean has been largely and purposefully absent from the campaign scene, telling media that she doesn't intend to neglect her patients in order to help her husband's campaign. In fact, she has given few media interviews and has said she'd likely continue to practice medicine if her husband is elected to the Oval Office. "I love and have a commitment to my practice. I can't just leave my patients," she recently said in an interview with The Des Moines Register. While the Judy Dean model of political wives may be a new one for voters to grasp, it isn't necessarily a negative image. "America has become [very] good in its ability to see the [candidate's] family like their own families," says Caywood. "There are always people that are a bit weird in their own ways in the candidate's family. If it's about drug abuse, or a continued misbehavior, you'll probably have a push back. But for the most part, we're not looking to elect Mrs. Cleaver, or her husband." Perhaps not, but Mrs. Bush is as close to June Cleaver as most American women come. "She's somebody who makes people feel really comfortable," says Stewart. "She seems strong. She seems to have a strong influence on her husband, but she never overshadows him." For the Democrats' wives, that's a tough image to follow.

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register
Already registered?
Sign in

Would you like to post a comment?

Please Sign in or register.