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Running Mates: the Image and Reality of the First Lady Role.

Running Mates: The Image and Reality of the First Lady Role Running Mates: The Image and Reality of the First Lady Role. Ann Grimes. William Morrow, $21.95. After Fortune did a story on "trophy wives"--the phenomenon in which wealthy businessmen reward themselves the second time around with lovely younger wives who have glamorous careers--Michael Kinsley, the mordant columnist and television debater, mused about what the Washington equivalent of a trophy wife would be.

"In politics," suggested Kinsley, "a trophy wife is the older first wife who doesn't have a career. The fact that these guys stay married to the same woman for 30 years is the trophy."

If New York trophy wives are sleek superwomen like fashion designer Carolyn Roehm, wife of Wall Street's Henry Kravis, and public relations expert Linda Robinson, wife of American Express Chairman James Robinson, Washington trophy wives are stalwarts like Helena Schultz, Jane Weinberger, and Barbara Bush.

Political wives are a fault line in our society; they reflect a contradictory and ambivalent range of feelings about women's shifting roles. We use the political wife to gauge the character of the candidate in times when character counts more than ever. We want our first ladies to have charisma and don't want them to meddle in Cabinet meetings, arrange summit schedules according to the position of Uranus, or distract the president with any Valley-of-the-Dolls or conflict-of-interest problems.

No one is sure how much independence is expected from mates any more or how much will be tolerated by the electorate. Journalist Susan Riley of The Ottawa Citizen wondered, "What is the political wife saying about women, about marriage, about the way power is distributed in our society? It sounds as if she is saying that women are status symbols, possessions, mirrors for the men they live with. But aren't those days over?"

As Ann Grimes documents in her new book, those days are far from over.

It is no accident that the most famous rehabilitation center in the country for drugs and alcohol bears the name of a former first lady. Ever since the days of Mary Todd Lincoln and Edith Wilson, first ladies have been going nuts and usurping presidential power. But America still clings to the old-fashioned image of wives as loyal, well-balanced helpmates. America loves to glamorize the role of first lady for the same reason we love Princess Diana: we are still royalists at heart. Someone must represent the ceremonial side of government and provide juicy celebrity gossip.

The 1988 campaign forced everyone to reexamine the role of political wives. No one who watched Gary Hart drag Lee Hart around to shopping malls on his post-Donna Rice reentry into the Democratic race--dubbed "Return of the Living Dead" by reporters--could help but wonder whether it wasn't time for abused political wives to start screaming, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more."

Most spouses of the candidates in the Democratic primary were career women who refused to be treated as meek appendages. Hattie Babbitt, an attractive and celebrated trial attorney in Phoenix, set the new tone. Crushed in a crowd trying to get to her husband at a Democratic candidate debate in New Hampshire, she noted: "This is about as interesting as a bad cocktail party--with no booze." After the campaign was over, she told a journalist, "I've heard one of the candidate's wives say she loves every minute of the race, and all I can say is, either she's lying or she's wacko."

There were sounds of rebellion on the Republican side as well. When her husband was chosen as George Bush's running mate, Marilyn Quayle quickly made it clear that she resented not being paid for her services as the wife of the vice-presidential candidate and that, once her husband was in office, she might return to the work force as a lawyer or run for her husband's old congressional seat. Mrs. Quayle gave up those ideas, realizing that America, especially her husband's conservative constituency, was not ready for the image of a woman marching out of the White House every morning with a briefcase. She also realized that she could have more fun with her official job. But she still shows impatience with her volunteer status by referring to herself on travel manifests as second lady, even though no such title exists, and by handing out Marilyn Quayle key chains--take note, David Letterman--with her signature engraved on them instead of her husband's.

The Wellesley students who protested the choice of Barbara Bush as their commencement speaker argued that young women no longer need as role models wives who have spent their lives enhancing a man's career. Would an all-male college invite Denis Thatcher to give a commencement address?

Barbara Bush gracefully responded that it was a matter of different generations and different expectations, and that, perhaps, by the time those graduates were her age, there would be a first gentleman looking adoringly at a female president.

In a book that focuses largely on Kitty Dukakis and Barbara Bush, Grimes shows--with a plodding prose style but a raft of reporting and a refreshing sardonic perspective--the suffocating box in which the modern political wife finds herself.

There is the newfangled model, Kitty Dukakis, a feminist who tested conventions and tried to move beyond the phony deference expected of political wives, a woman who spoke out strongly and made it clear that she tried to influence her husband's opinions. But the electric energy, radiant smile, and passionate strength were all an illusion, behind which Kitty Dukakis was frantically trying to hold on to her selfworth. Grimes points out that when the illusion cracked, her ordeal raised disturbing questions about where the line of privacy should be drawn for candidates' family members. If Kitty Dukakis had become first lady and fallen apart, a nightmare she now believes might well have happened, what effect would her illness have had on his presidency? And if her family knew about her cyclical depressions and the extent of her addictive nature and emotional fragility--which eventually led her to drink rubbing alcohol while she was on antidepressants--why did her robotic husband put her through the grinding experience of a presidential campaign?

Then there is the oldfangled model, Barbara Bush, who gave out the recipe for her favorite oatmeal lace cookies on the trail and joked that the only training a woman needed to become first lady was "to marry well." Although she has more liberal views than her husband on issues important to women, such as abortion and gun control, Mrs. Bush refuses to talk publicly about those differences or to hammer at her husband to change. He was the one who was elected, she insists. Clearly, Grimes hopes and believes Barbara Bush is a dinosaur, the last of a breed of strong first ladies who must publicly feign disinterest in power, even as they privately wield it.

"Mrs. Bush is interested in the needs of poor women and women who have been left by their husbands and need job training," Grimes writes. "She is concerned about the problems facing teenage mothers. But, she said, 'I am not going to be one who's speaking out on women's issues, so-called.' She makes no connection between these women's needs and what Americans have traditionally come to perceive as women's issues: pay equity, abortion rights, and an equal-rights amendment. Nor has she lent her voice toward shaping a national family policy. . . ."

Explaining her determination not to differ from the president in public, the first lady said: "I think a good mother and father make a decision about a child behind a closed door and then come out united."

But those who know the first lady well joke that she is "the real Nancy Reagan," or "Nancy Reagan with brains," and point out that she is just as much a lioness when it comes to protecting her husband from those she considers disloyal and just as much a force when it comes to issues she cares about. She has a quiet influence over her husband, teaching him sensitivity on issues such as AIDS and the homeless, and she influences staff choices, having promoted the pro-choice Dr. Louis Sullivan as secretary of Health and Human Services.

Mrs. Bush wears expensive designer clothes and has used society interior designer Mark Hampton to redecorate several rooms at the White House and Camp David, but, as Grimes points out, Mrs. Bush has used wit and political skill to elude the sort of criticism that the brittle "Queen Nancy" engendered.

Grimes writes: "Though she is admired for her warmth and caring and her grandmotherly ways, Bar's real strength lies in her political know-how, her tough-mindedness, her charisma, and her formidable ambition--and in the facade she maintains that politics is a hardball business that mere 'wives' sensibly shun. Like many political wives, Bar has in a way been almost smuggled into power alongside her elected husband."

The double-edged sword that political handlers face these days when they try to figure out how best to use political wives can be seen in the sagas of Kitty Dukakis and Barbara Bush.

The Democrats unashamedly used Kitty to try to give her stiff husband an aura of passion. But that technique backfired badly--in one of the episodes that helped cost him the election--when Dukakis could not muster any emotion in his answer to a debate question about whether he would want the death penalty for someone who had raped and murdered his wife.

Once, during his long quest for the presidency, George Bush was approached by an adviser about whether he could have a word with his wife about dying her hair and sprucing up a little. He threw the messenger out of his office.

Now that Mrs. Bush's snowy hair and wrinkles have become a beloved part of her growing myth, now that she is a potent political symbol on her own, GOP strategists leak information designed to bolster the belief that Mrs. Bush has her own discreet agenda that is more liberal than her husband's. That way, the strategists reason, they can please both sides of the spectrum without Mrs. Bush ever saying a word. "The assumptions about her position on abortion are true," a White House source confides in Grimes. Just another clever way for the Bush administration to try to have it both ways.

When I think of how hard it must be to be a political wife, I recall two incidents.

One was after the election, when the Bushes invited the traveling press corps over to their Kennebunkport home for wine and cheese on Thanksgiving weekend. As the gaggle of reporters, photographers, and technicians tagged after Barbara Bush up the driveway to the house, Jessica Lee of USA Today thanked her for the invitation.

"Don't thank me," the first lady-elect said, with an edge to her voice that distinctly implied she would prefer to be alone with her husband. "Thank George Bush. He invited you."

Another time, when I was following Gary and Lee Hart around in a mall during their sad revived campaign, I broke off to go into a drug store. Lee Hart--pinioned by cameras--asked me if I could pick up some hairspray for her. I bought her the first small canister I could find. When Gary Hart came up a few minutes later to reimburse me, he asked how much. I said, $6.50. He said, a bit resentfully, "You have expensive taste." His wife and I just looked at him. He could afford to take Donna Rice out on the town, but he begrudged spending $6.50 for his wife to look good for his pathetic campaign.

I looked at Lee Hart and she looked back, chagrined. What a life, I thought.
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Author:Dowd, Maureen
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1990
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