So You Want to Buy a President?

Wendy Gramm

If Wendy Gramm has her way, she will replace Hillary Clinton in the White House next year. Like Mrs. Clinton, Wendy Gramm is the smart, ambitious wife of a smart, ambitious politician. Her husband Senator Phil Gramm of Texas is a candidate for the Republican Presidential nomination. Like Clinton, she too is a graduate of Wellesley College near Boston. Gramm also holds a PhD in economics from Northwestern University in Illinois and has had a successful career apart from her husband.

This phenomenon -- spouses with professional careers of their own paired with political candidates -- not only reflects the changing role of women but also creates new ethical dilemmas and ambiguities in election campaigns. Mrs. Gramm is the granddaughter of a laborer in the Hawaian sugar cane fields and the daughter of the first Korean-American officer of a U.S. sugar cane company. Mrs. Gramm declined to be interviewed by FRONTLINE.

She and Phil Gramm met in 1969 when the future senator was a professor of economics at Texas A&M University. He interviewed her for a job at the school. "As a single member of the faculty, I'd be very interested in having you come to Texas A&M," she quotes him as saying at the time. In a recent interview with The New York Times, Mrs. Gramm recalled her initial response to his subsequent marriage proposal: "Yuck." Gramm persisted, and the couple wed in 1970 (it was Gramm's second marriage). They have two sons, Marshall and Jeff. In 1979, Phil Gramm, then a Democrat, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Five years later in 1984, he switched his party affiliation to the GOP and won the Senate seat that he still occupies. The move to Washington began a succession of appointed federal jobs for Mrs. Gramm. She headed the economics bureau of the Federal Trade Commission's Division of Consumer Protection and served as administrator of information and deregulatory affairs in the Office of Management and Budget. In 1987 The New York Times described her as "one of the Reagan administration's most vigorous deregulators." President Reagan called her "my favorite economist," naming her chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the powerful regulatory agency which oversees the nation's commodities and futures exchanges.

Her dual roles as CFTC head and Senator's wife put her in a difficult position. There were times when Senator Gramm sought the support of some of the same agricultural and business interests that she was regulating. On trips to Texas during his 1989 Senatorial campaign she worked both on CFTC business and for her husband's reelection. After leaving the CFTC in early 1992, Wendy Gramm accepted lucrative directorships on the boards of several corporations she had regulated. Several of these corporations were also financial supporters of her husband's Presidential campaign. One of the boards on which Mrs. Gramm sits is Enron Corporation, a Texas natural gas company, which has given almost $35,000 to Phil Gramm over the years. She was named to the company's board, just five weeks after stepping down from the CFTC, which around the same time, exempted Enron and a group of other oil and gas companies from federal regulation on some of their commodities trading. The move was a big financial boon to Enron.

Enron pays Wendy Gramm $22,000 a year for her service on its board, plus $1,250 for every meeting she attends. The CEO of Enron, Kenneth Lay, is regional chair of the Gramm for President Campaign. When Senator Gramm kicked off his campaign last February with a record-setting fund raising dinner, Lay and his wife were present.

Another board Wendy Gramm sits on is that of Iowa Beef Processors (IBP), a large meat processing company. Based in Dakota City, Nebraska, IBP is a powerful corporation next door to a key election- year state, Iowa. Support for Senator Gramm at IBP came in handy last August at the Iowa straw poll in Ames. IBP sent a memo to its management level employees encouraging them to attend the straw poll, which is not restricted to Iowa residents, and informing them that $25 tickets and bus transportation would be provided by the Phil Gramm-for-President campaign. Gramm campaign buses picked up the IBP employees at eight separate locations in the states of Iowa, Nebraska, and Illinois and transported them to the straw poll, where their votes helped Gramm tie front-runner Bob Dole and gave the Gramm campaign an important boost.

In a written statement to FRONTLINE, an IBP spokesman said, "Many of the campaigns provided tickets and bus transportation to the event, some bringing in people from as far away as Kansas. While the Gramm campaign paid the way for the IBP employees who attended, our people were not told to vote for Senator Gramm or any other candidate."

FRONTLINE learned that the request for IBP's help in the straw poll came from the late Alec Courtelis, the former finance chair of the Gramm-for-President campaign. (Courtelis, long a leading Republican fundraiser, died this winter) Courtelis also sat on IBP's board of directors and was responsible for bringing Wendy Gramm onto IBP's board.

While no one has accused Mrs. Gramm or anyone else of breaking any laws, the IBP case nonetheless shows how questions can arise when a candidate's spouse is appointed to a well-paying corporate directorship and when that company helps promote the husband's candidacy.

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