The Real Running Mates

Article excerpt

Byline: Michelle Cottle

What candidates' wives want. What we demand of them.

The state of the political spouse.

On May 12, some 1,000 Republicans and a truckload of local and national journalists descended on the JW Marriott in downtown Indianapolis for the state GOP spring dinner. The draw? Keynote speaker Cheri Daniels, wife of governor--and possible presidential candidate--Mitch Daniels.

It didn't matter what Cheri had to say so much as that she had agreed to speak at all. Up to now, Indiana's first lady has declined to take part in her husband's political quest. In fact, the final hurdle to Mitch's joining the White House race is said to be Cheri's anxiety about their personal life getting shredded like a chunk of ripe Parmesan.

It is not an unreasonable fear. In 1993, Cheri left Mitch and their four young children to move to California and wed another man--only to return, reconcile, and remarry Mitch four years later. Suffice it to say this is not the sort of personal narrative common among aspiring first couples. (One can only imagine the chitchat when Laura Bush recently phoned Cheri to recommend the joys of White House life.) In his remarks to the dinner crowd, Mitch reassuringly recounted a vow he made to Cheri when he first ran for governor in 2003: "I will never ask you to be any different or go anywhere you don't want to go."

Hmmmm. If the governor is really looking to run this cycle, now might be the time to revisit that promise. Because these days, the life of a presidential wife is all about contorting herself to satisfy the constant, constantly shifting demands of a nation that still can't decide what it wants from the role.

We were supposed to have figured this out by now. The whole political-wife thing. After all, didn't Hillary (Rodham) Clinton get thoroughly bloodied--and traumatize half the electorate--wrestling the institution toward modernity two decades ago? Screw the cookie baking. Save the world. Change your name and hairstyle if you must, but don't let the boys put you in the corner.

Yet here we are, with combatants suiting up for the third White House cage match of the no-longer-quite-so-shiny 21st century, and the role of the political wife--not just what Americans expect of her but what she demands of the experience--grows ever more confused, confusing, and downright unpleasant. "Everything you do is criticized--your clothes are ugly; you're not doing enough; your politics are questioned. It gets mean," says Jenny Sanford, who endured 15 years of political wifedom while wed to South Carolina Republican congressman turned governor Mark "Appalachian Trail" Sanford. "I could not wait to get out of the job," she says."The demands are significant and they are endless."

Let's blame it on feminism! With women empowered to do more than nurture their husbands, political wives--in whom women often seek a more polished version of themselves--are increasingly expected to be more than just the perfect helpmeet. (Though, make no mistake, that is still required.) Standing beside your man with an adoring gaze remains a part of the job, only now you need to exhibit goals and interests of your own--a passion if not exactly a portfolio.

Unsurprisingly, the top rung of the political ladder remains the trickiest. While senators' and governors' wives can lead relatively normal lives, aspiring first ladies face a level of scrutiny so brutal it would reduce Simon Cowell to sobs. Small wonder that Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour's wife, Marsha, put the kibosh on his White House plans this month. Who needs that kind of grief?

Parts of the role remain as they ever were: A political spouse should be poised and gracious and able to smile benignly for 16 hours straight while wearing pumps and panty hose in 100-degree heat. She should make frequent mention of how much she cherishes her role as wife and mother. And she should strive to look the part. …