TOPICS > Politics

Candidate Spouses Serve as Partners on Campaign Trail

August 16, 2007 at 6:40 PM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: There’s a new breed of candidate spouse on the campaign trail. On the Democratic side, there’s Elizabeth Edwards demanding husband John’s campaign go on despite being diagnosed with incurable cancer, spearheading changes in campaign tactics and staff, playing attack dog, telling Salon magazine last month that rival Hillary Clinton is, quote, “just not as vocal a women’s advocate as I want to see; John is,” and chastising reporters for making a big deal out of his $400 haircut.

ELIZABETH EDWARDS, Wife of John Edwards: You know, we’d much rather have you talk about not how they look and what they’re wearing or how attractive they are, but what it is they have to say.

MARGARET WARNER: There’s Michelle Obama, who just left her high-powered job as a hospital administrator chiding reporters to “stop that nonsense” of asking if her husband is black enough to appeal to African-American voters. “We are messing with the heads of our children by raising the question,” she said.

And then there’s former President Bill Clinton, by all accounts the most powerful fundraiser and strategist in his wife, Hillary’s, circle.

The Republican spouses are less outspoken, but they, too, have come in for unusual scrutiny for so early in the game. Mitt Romney’s wife, Ann, who suffers from multiple sclerosis has been challenged for her evolving position on abortion. She was asked recently why she contributed to Planned Parenthood in 1993.

ANN ROMNEY, Wife of Mitt Romney: I don’t even remember writing the check. I know today I wouldn’t write the check.

MARGARET WARNER: Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s wife, Judith — a third marriage for each after a secret affair — has prompted pieces about her lavish spending and meddling with his staff. Giuliani also raised eyebrows in March when he said she’d be welcome at cabinet meetings.

Cindy McCain is more outspoken than she was in her husband’s 2000 campaign, bluntly criticizing the Bush administration in June for mishandling the Iraq war. “I’m angry at them,” she said.

And though former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson isn’t even officially in the race, his much younger wife, a former Republican staffer, is reported to have instigated a shakeup in his staff. And she’s been mocked for her dress on talk shows and the Internet, prompting a leading newspaper to ask, “Is America Ready for a Trophy Wife?”

For a look at how these women, and one man, are reshaping the role of the political spouse, we turn now to Kathleen Dolan, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. She’s the author of “Voting for Women: How the Public Evaluates Women Candidates.” And Kati Marton, a journalist and author of “Hidden Power: Presidential Marriages that Shaped Our History.”

Welcome to you both.

So, Kati Marton, just how different does this crop of candidate spouses look to you?

KATI MARTON, Journalist and Author: Well, it’s a tremendously interesting and quite different field. And we don’t usually get to know the candidates’ spouses this early in the game, but the country seems very much in the mood to get on with — to basically turn the page on the current period and get to know these candidates and is giving the candidates’ spouses the kind of scope to express themselves and to weigh in, which I think, Margaret, really reflects where women in the country are, which is pretty much everywhere and doing everything.

A change in campaigning

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree, Professor Dolan, one, that this is a change at least in the field, and that it says something, not just about the candidates, but about the country?

KATHLEEN DOLAN, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee: I do agree, except that I would say that a lot of the criticism that some of the spouses are taking, I think, is borne from a disconnect that we still have between what we expect the candidate's spouse to do and the role we expect them to fulfill and the people who are fulfilling these roles.

As Kati said, the women, largely candidates' spouses, are reflecting the diversity of women in society, but we still have lots of ways in which we're struggling with which roles and how women are supposed to play those roles.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Kati Marton, what do you think explains the different nature of these candidates, in the sense of the generation -- that is, the spouses -- in the sense of the generation of the candidates? Isn't it a lot a reflection of the candidates' generation?

KATI MARTON: Absolutely. Look, in elections past, the candidates' spouses really were subordinate, and even very strong women, like Lady Bird Johnson, always knew to stand back, stand just a little to the side and behind the man.

We're uncomfortable with that kind of a role now. Really, the exception appears to be -- the exception to strong, forthright and substantive candidates' spouses appears to be Judith Giuliani, who seems now to have been shunted to the side because they went a little bit too soon into presenting her as somebody who was going to play a big role in a Giuliani administration, long before the country got to know her.

Now, the other candidates' spouses, Elizabeth Edwards, Michelle Obama, Ann Romney, obviously that unique figure, Bill Clinton, we know these characters. We know that they're qualified to weigh in on issues. And therefore we give them much more margin to state their opinions. And nobody is reacting against those very strong opinions.

Elizabeth Edwards has not only become, as you've said in your setup piece, Margaret, an attack dog, but she's keeping everybody's feet to the fire in her on party on what their obligations, what their commitments are, and nobody is saying, "Whoa, wait a minute, who elected her?" Because we know that this is a very intelligent woman with a professional life behind her, as we do with Michelle Obama.

So I think that -- look at what the first lady of France is getting away with, negotiating with Libya on behalf of her husband, and I haven't seen too many eyebrows raised about that. So I think that we are getting accustomed to having first ladies -- and let's face it, Hillary Clinton, when she was first lady, broke down a lot of barriers. Laura Bush then took us back to a far more traditional first lady.

But the fact is, Margaret, that this is an absolutely legitimate field for us now during this campaign to be exploring, because once they are picked, they are with us for at least four years. They're in our lives. This is not like celebrity marriages. We need to know who these people are because they have a big role in our nation.

Impacts of a candidate's spouse

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Dolan, from your research, what would you say ultimately is the effect of a candidate's spouse on the assessment voters make of a candidate? And I would say the candidate's spouse and the candidate's marriage, because some of the criticism the Giulianis' marriage and the Thompson marriage has been about the marriage.

KATHLEEN DOLAN: Right. I would say that we know from a long line of research that candidates' spouses, candidate family issues are not going to be a primary influence on people's decision when they're choosing a candidate. But for many people, it is an important consideration, and in many ways it gives us a window into the candidates', him or herself, their values, the way they might conduct themselves in office.

And people are sometimes comfortable saying, if they can't manage a family life, how can they manage a country? So I think that some of the candidates and their spouses and the relationships there will be seen positively or negatively by people, but they really, for most people, will not be a primary influence.

MARGARET WARNER: And as Kati Marton pointed out, I mean, the role surrogate speaker isn't new, but what some of these women are saying on the trail is new in its nature, and also the role of campaign strategist is certainly more overt in some cases. Is there any research telling us whether the public really ultimately comfortable with that or whether there's some kind of a double standard, that on the one hand we want candidates to reflect us and their spouses, but ye sometimes we want an idealized version?

Sorry, let me finish with Professor Dolan first.

KATHLEEN DOLAN: There's not a lot of research on this question, and I think that that's part of the struggle that I see us still going through as a society. We have a sort of frame in which we want to put candidates' spouses, and when the candidates' spouses don't really act by staying in that frame, we're not really sure how to evaluate them.

I would agree with Kati and her comments about Elizabeth Edwards, except I would say that I don't think Elizabeth Edwards' attempts at being much more vocal have been without criticism and have been without cost, so individuals are going to evaluate these people and their spouses in very individual ways, through individual frames and through individual attitudes. And so whether they are positive and negative on balance is really hard to say.

Do spouses affect voters?

MARGARET WARNER: And, Kati Marton, back to you about what you think voters take away from the spouse in terms of really when it comes down to assessing the candidates?

KATI MARTON: Well, first of all, the marriages reveal so much, as all our marriages reveal things about who we are, our nature, our character, how we conduct ourselves in that core relationship, tells a great deal about who we are. And therefore I think it's worth studying.

And as to -- Elizabeth Edwards seems to me to be playing the role that, in a prior election campaign, Betty Ford played. She has taken on the role of the truth-teller, you know, not at all shy about saying controversial things the way Betty Ford did and getting away with it, I think subconsciously in part because -- not only because she's an admired woman, but also because she has, let's face it, a terrible disease.

She's suffering from cancer, and therefore we know that, whatever she tells us, is going to be maybe at a different level of honesty, because at this point, as she keeps telling us, "What do I have to lose? I'm going to give you the straight goods." And therefore she's breaking ground. And the criticism that sometimes she generates calls attention to her husband's campaign, which, by the way, John Edwards needs, because, between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, it's very hard for John Edwards to get the media's attention.

So I think she's playing a useful role of advocate for her husband, as Betty Ford did for her husband and, by the way, Barbara Bush did for her husband. Do you remember when Barbara Bush called Geraldine Ferraro a word that rhymes with "witch"? Excuse me. So, you know, she played a role that her husband wasn't able to play.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, and I think we have to leave it there. Kati Marton and Kathleen Dolan, thank you both.

KATI MARTON: Thank you.