First Ladies: They Need to Complement Their Husbands

Roundup: Media's Take

Ginia Belafante, writing in the NYT (Feb. 1, 2004):

Americans have historically maintained a high regard for complementarity in public marriages. The impish are better served by upright spouses than by charmingly impudent ones; the ponderous enlivened by the light of heart; the swaggeringly confident (Franklin Roosevelt) humanized by the sheepishly less self-assured (Eleanor).

Mitigating Kennedy's overweening passion was his wife's remove. Hardly a union of opposites, the Clinton marriage failed to satisfy. Politicians, particularly those aiming for highest office, score a public relations coup when their partners are perceived as completing them.

Though the value of her unbridled volubility has been the subject of debate since her husband's entry into the presidential race, Teresa Heinz Kerry has unquestionably animated the Massachusetts senator's bid for election. A foil to his stiffness, she is the sort who is happy to tell an interviewer - as she did on CNN Tuesday night - that her husband learned of his victories in Iowa and New Hampshire while in the bathroom. In the first instance Ms. Heinz Kerry delivered the news while he was shaving, and in the second instance as he made his way out of the shower.

In her stylishness and social facility, Ms. Heinz Kerry bears at least some likeness to Grace Goodhue Coolidge, the wife of Calvin Coolidge and a woman with the flapper-era equivalent of an enormously high personality rating. As a vice-presidential wife in the early 1920's, she had already become one of the best loved figures in Washington. As first lady, in a coy act of protest against Prohibition law, she named her collie Rob Roy after the Scotch cocktail.

"Coolidge was so incredibly laconic,'' noted Carl Sferrazza Anthony, a historian of first ladies and their political roles."His whole public persona was built around this idea of silent Cal.

"He was shy to the point of not really wanting to talk in public, and she had so much personality and warmth. He desperately leaned on her social ease, and she offset his peculiarly cranky way."

What is expected of someone bound by wedlock to a presidential contender has evolved as women's roles have changed. Though Eleanor Roosevelt addressed the Democratic National Convention in 1940, calling on her party to nominate her husband for a third term, she worked largely in the background, contrary to current assumption, during her husband's two previous bids for the White House.

Wives first assumed a highly visible role in presidential politics in 1960, at a time when middle-class women had become the country's most important consumer targets. On the occasion of his wife's funeral in 1993, Richard Nixon privately remarked that he felt unpopular on the campaign trail but always knew that"everybody liked Pat." Republicans, in fact, built a whole merchandising effort around Mrs. Nixon, distributing buttons and other paraphernalia that read"A Winning Team: Pat and Dick Nixon," or"I'm for Pat."

Jacqueline Kennedy wrote a column in the fall of 1960, distributed by the Democratic Party, in which she discussed health care, education and the atomic bomb. As the wife of the vice-presidential candidate, Lyndon Johnson, Lady Bird Johnson traveled 35,000 miles stumping for various Democratic contenders. In 1964, with her husband running for president, Mrs. Johnson embarked on a train called the Lady Bird Special and toured eight Southern states to seek support for her husband.

During the women's movement of the 1970's, the voting public paid increasing attention to what a candidate's wife could bring to the table. Rosalynn Carter independently promoted the welfare of the mentally ill during her husband's presidential campaigns. While immersed in the Iranian hostage crisis during his 1980 re-election effort, Jimmy Carter sent his wife as one of his surrogates to campaign in the New Hampshire primary.

Today, as the debate around Mrs. Dean indicates, spousal involvement seems a cultural imperative - as long as the spouse does not appear to be doing so in service of her own ambitions.

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