Woodruff: When Politics Is a Family Affair

BY Judy Woodruff  May 13, 2011 at 3:22 PM EDT

Watching all the anticipation Thursday night over how the wife of Indiana governor Mitch Daniels would handle herself in front of a large Republican party crowd reminded me of so many political campaigns, when all eyes are on the candidate’s spouse.

I’m sure there was a time when American politicians could run for office without regard to how their wife — or husband — viewed the enterprise. But if so, it ended when the news media grew into the modern-day force it’s become. Signing on for any big statewide or national campaign, especially one for president, means inviting reporters and hot lights into your living room, kitchen and the private parts of your life you may not want to talk about. And if children are old enough to have an opinion on the subject, they become part of the equation as well.

In Governor Daniels’ case, the press has been waiting for weeks for him to decide if he’s jumping in the race for the White House. The word being spread quietly was that his wife, who left him and their four daughters in 1993 to move to California and marry another man, only to return to Indiana to re-marry Daniels in 1997, has been opposed to the idea. So Cheri Daniels’ taking on a rare speaking role at Thursday’s GOP dinner in Indianapolis was seen as a signal that her view may be softening.

News reports gave her credit for using self-deprecating humor, showing videos of herself milking cows and taking on other less than glamorous jobs as Indiana’s first lady. But as reporter Jeff Zeleny wrote in the New York Times, Mrs. Daniels suggested that it’s not only her opinion that matters, but apparently their now-adult children as well:

“We’re having a lot of talks. It’s not just me. I have four daughters and I have three sons-in-law and everybody has a voice,” Mrs. Daniels told reporters in a brief interview before an aide swept her away. “It’s like any other kind of major decision. You have good days and bad days. One day you feel one way, another day you might feel differently.”

I happened to later see Zeleny, who told me she was whisked away before he could ask her if a good day was a day when the family favored a run for president or opposed it.

Other candidates and potential candidates this year have spoken about the need to have “fire in the belly” in order to take on a campaign that amounts to a physical and emotional endurance contest. Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour said he’d concluded he didn’t have the “fire,” shortly after his wife told a reporter she thought the idea of his running was a “horrible” idea.

Meanwhile, the wife of former Georgia congressman Newt Gingrich, who announced this week that he’s running, is described as “constantly at his side.” Presumably that means she’s prepared for the scrutiny that comes with competitive politics. Although, when asked that question directly by the New York Times’ Sheryl Gay Stolberg, Callista Gingrich didn’t comment. Her husband said, “We’ve talked about it for a year. It’s difficult.”

No doubt every couple comes to politics differently: former President George W. Bush has said when he asked his wife Laura to marry him in 1977, she had said, “yes, but only if you promise…I’ll never have to make a campaign speech.” The next year, he was running for Congress, and she was soon speaking publicly in his behalf.

But political wives run the gamut: Michelle Obama initially didn’t enjoy the hand-shaking and fundraising that were part of her husband’s career; she told her boss at the University of Chicago that the most memorable thing about campaigning in people’s homes were the decorating ideas she picked up. Later, she was worried about the effect of a presidential campaign on their young daughters. Today, she seems fully engaged as First Lady.

Richard Nixon’s wife, Pat, never seemed very comfortable on the campaign trail, but Rosalynn Carter and Nancy Reagan embraced the role of candidate wife with zeal. Both were very close to their husbands, and seemed true partners in the quest for the most powerful job in the world.

As for women candidates, former President Bill Clinton seemed every bit as enthusiastic — if not more so — about his wife Hillary’s run for the White House as she did in 2008. And competitive snowmobile racer Todd Palin appeared fully behind his wife’s bid for Vice President that same year.

Four years later, it’s not clear if his wife, Sarah, the former governor of Alaska, will try to be president, but since he seems behind her 100 percent on most everything else she does, it would be a surprise if he stood in her way. The same seems to apply to the husband of Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, with whom she has five children, and has foster parented another 23.

What’s certain is that running for President is an exhaustive, all-out effort, requiring massive doses of money, energy, time and a skin thick enough to withstand the relentless glare of the news media. It’s hard to imagine whom candidates can turn to if their spouse, and closest confidante, isn’t on board. Whatever conversations are going on between Governor Daniels, his wife Cheri and their adult daughters, it’s better to have those now, as difficult as they are, than after the election is underway — or worse, after arriving at the White House.