NEW YORK — Ernestine Schlant Bradley, the wife of Democratic presidential hopeful Bill Bradley, didn’t mention Hillary Clinton by name. But we all know who was lurking in the subtext when, at a “Women for Bradley Network” fund-raising breakfast on June 2, she talked about what kind of a first lady she’d be.
“I wouldn’t like it if someone came into my classroom and started teaching just because he knew how to read,” Bradley, a comparative literature professor, says. “I don’t want to go out and pretend I’m a political expert on issues. I’m not an expert on health care. I’m not an expert on China.”
Translation: Ernestine Schlant Bradley is not Hillary Rodham Clinton.
It’s a common refrain from the chorus of potential first spouses. From Bradley and Tipper Gore to Laura Bush and Cindy McCain, the nation’s leading candidates for first lady are all embracing more traditional roles in their husbands’ campaigns. Just as the candidates are trying to define themselves in contrast to President Clinton, the leading members of the First Wives’ Club are all keeping a deliberate distance between themselves and the current first lady.
The current crop of prospective first ladies “really does seem — certainly compared to 1996 — a radical departure from” the strong professional-woman role exemplified by Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Dole, says historian Carl Sferrazza Anthony, author of the two-volume “First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents’ Wives and Their Power, 1789-1990.” In an attempt to avoid the negative images — aggressive, assertive, acerbic and worse — that have dogged Hillary Clinton, the other four first ladies-in-waiting are sending softer messages. The issues they champion are traditional “soft” ones — illiteracy, breast cancer awareness, humanitarian aid for third-world countries. So far, the four leading candidates for first spouse have cast themselves as supportive and demure figures, playing Harriet to their husbands’ Ozzie.
And certainly, none of their husbands have boasted of voters getting “two for the price of one,” as then-Gov. Clinton did in ’92.
All of which is normal, says historian Anthony. “In the wake of a controversial first lady, there’s always speculation about, ‘Now what?’” he says. And the answer is always: something very different.
The most interesting maneuvering comes from Ernestine Bradley and Tipper Gore. Both women display more independence than any of Hillary Clinton’s predecessors, yet they sometimes seem to try to hide their feistiness beneath sensible dresses and even the occasional apron. With their strong personalities, neither of these women seem as different from the controversial Ms. Clinton as their husbands’ campaign aides would probably like.
In her high-profile attempts to cast herself as the nation’s first soccer mom, Hillary Clinton’s ’92 co-cheerleader, Mary Elizabeth “Tipper” Gore, has found herself in almost the same uncomfortable spot as her husband, as she tries to edge away from her first-couple counterparts without seeming rude or unappreciative.
It’s difficult terrain to negotiate. “Tipper Gore doesn’t foresee a policy role,” read an Associated Press headline of March 29. “With four children and aging parents,” Gore bubbled, as if stepping right out of a 1950s commercial for Swanson’s TV dinners, “I find that I only spend so much time on issues that I care about, and I spend a lot of time on keeping the family together.”
Officially, Gore’s public task so far in campaign 2000 has been to embrace the uncontroversial. She appeared alongside her husband on TV talk shows in June to chat up the 10th anniversary of Race for the Cure, a five-kilometer run put on by the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. And she’s also been dispatched with the hard sell of convincing the world that her automaton husband has a pulse.
“If you’re talking about the fact that the man is somewhat reserved, yes, he is,” she told NBC’s Claire Shipman. “That’s part of his personality. That’s the way he was when he was 17, when I met him. That was something I liked in him, handsome, sexy, a little reserved. Watch out, America.”
She even told Shipman that the vice president sleeps in the nude. “I tell you, he isn’t wearing anything when we go to bed.” It’s hard to imagine the current first lady making such a statement; but, of course, we already know far too much about her husband’s bedroom rituals.
When reporters have picked up on the possible “I am not Hillary” translation of how she foresees her first ladyship, Gore has insisted that she means no disrespect. “Everybody’s different. We’re all different people,” Gore explained.
A senior political advisor for Vice President Gore insists that the second lady isn’t trying to win converts for her husband by subtly assuring the world that in a Gore administration we won’t find Tipper arrogantly trying to revamp the nation’s health care system behind closed doors.
“She is just a fundamentally different person,” the advisor says. “Hillary is an Eleanor Roosevelt figure for her time; she has redefined on her terms what a first lady can do. Hillary’s a polarizing figure. She’s a very strong woman who expresses her views. She’s clearly a woman of the future and there are still people living in a different age who aren’t willing to accept that. Tipper does not necessarily fit that role for anybody pushing for that type. She’s not interested in playing any transformative role through the positions she’s occupying.”
But this is selling the second lady short. In fact, Tipper Gore has been more than willing to embrace controversial issues and serve a policy role both as a Senate spouse and in the Clinton administration. Her bubbly blonde exterior belies a far more involved wonk (or at least wonk-spokesperson), someone not entirely unlike her mother in-law, Pauline LaFon, who was one of the first women to graduate from Vanderbilt Law School.
Tipper was sounding the alarm about the pervasive influence of pop culture on children, for instance, long before most of us had heard of Littleton or even Bill Bennett. Her epiphany came when a babysitter played Prince’s “Purple Rain” for the Gores’ daughter Karenna in the mid-1980s, and Tipper heard the masturbatory lyrics to “Darling Nikki.” After Tipper fielded questions from the younger two Gore girls about Van Halen and Mvtley Cr|e videos on MTV, and a had subsequent conversation with Susan Baker — the wife of President Reagan’s then-Treasury Secretary James Baker — the Parents’ Music Resource Center was born.
Whether you think she’s playing responsible parent or meddling with the First Amendment, Tipper Gore’s leadership on the issue far exceeded that of her husband. While the infamous September 1985 Senate committee hearings on the issue of dirty song lyrics suggested little in terms of actual legislation, Tipper Gore held fast to the PMRC’s hope that the music industry would voluntarily tag their records with warning labels. Musicians and First Amendment activists singled out the blonde Democratic housewife with the silly-sounding nickname, and delivered crushing ad hominem, often vile, personal attacks against her.
Conversely, then-Senator Al Gore told furious testifier Frank Zappa, “I have been a fan of your music … I respect you as a true original and a tremendously talented musician.” Later, right before he launched his 1988 presidential run, Al Gore distanced himself from his wife’s works, telling a group of Hollywood big shots that “I did not ask for the hearing. I was not in favor of the hearing.”
Fourteen years later, in early June of this year, Tipper once again eclipsed her husband when she embraced another controversial issue, revealing that she had been treated for depression, though she refused to disclose the name of the drug. While plenty of pundits speculated that Tipper’s revelation came as a preemptive strike for the 2000 campaign battle, make no mistake: Any admission by a political wife that she has suffered from mental illness and taken psychotropic drugs is courageous.
“The fact that we had the first White House conference on this issue speaks for itself,” says the Gore political advisor.
“Tipper’s own decision to discuss her struggle with depression is a testament to her courage and commitment to change attitudes and build understanding about mental illness,” President Clinton said during a recent radio address. Later this year, Clinton announced, Tipper Gore and the surgeon general will “unveil a major new campaign to combat stigma and dispel myths about mental illness” through public-service announcements.
“Tipper Gore I can see very much in the mold of Lady Bird Johnson,” Anthony says. “Johnson had very specific areas of interest — in environmental protection and the Head Start program. I think within a very certain area, which was self-limited to those issues, Lady Bird had an impact. I think someone like Tipper Gore could have a big impact on mental health in that same way.”
Indeed, though she may want to feign the simplicity of a bubbly soccer mom who focuses her energies on her kids and tells the media that her husband sleeps in the buff, Tipper Gore is far more complex and potentially incendiary than that.
But don’t tell anyone — that’s her dirty little secret. It’s much safer to be a non-Hillary, after all.
Those first-lady watchers searching for even more interesting reverbs after the blasts from the HRC THX can also check out Tipper’s one Democratic rival for the office, Ernestine Schlant Bradley.
Despite her insistence that she’ll stay mum on issues of substance outside of breast-cancer awareness, for instance, Dr. Ernestine Schlant — Mrs. Bill Bradley’s professional name — is every bit as intellectual as her Rhodes Scholar husband. Though her lively personality is a more than a tad warmer than that of her frostily elusive hubbie.
Born in Passua, Germany, the former Pan Am flight attendant graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Emory University, where she also went on to earn her master’s and doctorate degrees in comparative literature. A professor of German and comp lit at New Jersey’s Montclair State University, Bradley has co-authored several university textbooks, co-edited “Legacies and Ambiguities: Postwar Fiction and Culture in West Germany and Japan,” and translated Kate Millet’s “Sexual Politics” into German.
She’s also penned three books — two examining the work of Austrian philosopher/novelist Hermann Broch, and “The Language of Silence: West German Literature and the Holocaust,” which was published in March. Hardly the stuff of the little woman who watches soaps all day in between bake-offs.
Thus, it’s tough to imagine that Ernestine Bradley doesn’t have opinions on policy issues. But the message from the Bradley campaign is entirely different. There’s her insistence that she won’t “pretend that I’m a political expert on issues,” delivered at that June breakfast, incongruously packed with Manhattan professional women and hosted by Anna Quindlen, no less. Bradley spokesman Eric Hauser is loathe to describe Ernestine Bradley’s role on the campaign in anything other than the vaguest terms.
“Bill thinks of her as a partner in every sense of the word, and she is a sounding board for him on a lot of things,” Hauser says, “but that is something they keep pretty private, which is appropriate.” Having taken a leave of absence from Montclair State University in May, she’s now “an active part of the campaign,” making solo runs to Iowa and California. But “the extent to which Bill Bradley talks to his wife about policy is something that they keep to themselves.”
When I ask if breast-cancer awareness (she is a breast-cancer survivor) is the only issue she would be active in promoting from the mini-bully pulpit of the first lady’s cozy-laden office, Hauser again shakes me off, relating that “she has said that it’s way too early to think about what her agenda might be.”
Odd talk from a campaign that heralds Dr. Schlant as its “secret weapon” on the stump. But then, as Hillary Clinton has found out, weapons can backfire. And in a nation still coming to terms with how it likes its women, a strong, intellectual, independent woman doesn’t always sell.
Cindy Hensley McCain may be the first-lady-in-waiting with the most baggage, though for vastly different reasons than Hillary Clinton.
Cindy Hensley grew up in Arizona society with beauty and wealth and central air conditioning. Born to Jim and Marguerite Hensley, who own one of the largest Anheuser-Busch distributors in the nation, she went to the University of Southern California, where she got her master’s in Special Education. In 1980, she married a divorced war hero almost 20 years her senior, John McCain, the U.S. Navy liaison officer to the U.S. Senate. Then-Sen. Bill Cohen, R-Maine, was his best man; then-Sen. Gary Hart, D-Colo., was a groomsman.
Two years later, McCain was elected to the House; four years after that, he joined Cohen and Hart in the Senate.
In 1988, Cindy McCain founded the Arizona Voluntary Medical Team, or AVMT, a non-profit organization that organized trips for doctors and nurses to third-world countries where disaster had struck — Micronesia, Nicaragua, Bangladesh, El Salvador.
While at Mother Teresa’s orphanage in Bangladesh, Cindy adopted a child and helped coordinate the adoption of another little girl for Wes Gullett, a family friend. “She’s just that kind of person,” Gullett says. “She saw these kids in need and said, ‘They can have a better life in America. How can I help them?’ She’s done that throughout her life.”
In August 1993, she and the AVMT were honored with an award from Food for the Hungry. “She looks beyond politics and military action in an effort to provide the world’s children access to their basic right of medical care,” said the group’s president.
But it was already becoming clear that Cindy McCain’s life was not all altruism and awards. The previous year, volunteer doctors began complaining that Cindy McCain had been using their DEA numbers. The Drug Enforcement Agency itself had been calling and asking about rather sizable orders of Percocet, an addictive painkiller. Hundreds of Percocets were missing from AMVT’s inventory.
In August 1994, a long, grim and protracted scandal blew open. What eventually came out is that Cindy McCain had been addicted to painkillers such as Percocet ever since she had back surgeries in 1989, sometimes popping as many as 20 in a day. And she had been stealing them from the nonprofit organization she had founded. The lawyer that her husband had used during the Keating Five scandal was put on the case; she eventually signed off on an agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s office that included financial restitution and treatment for her addiction.
There were accusations of blackmail, and a coverup. When Cindy McCain publicly revealed her addiction — saying that she hoped it would give other addicts courage in their struggles — some of her detractors thought it was nothing more than a political preemptive strike.
“Although my conduct did not result in compromising any missions of AMVT, my actions were wrong, and I regret them,” she said in a statement. A few weeks later, the Variety Club of Arizona had to cancel its Humanitarian of the Year Award dinner in her honor because of poor ticket sales.
Since then, McCain has kept a comfortable distance from the media. She continues her charity work, traveling around the world (the Balkans in May), and founding another nonprofit in 1995 — the Hensley Family Foundation, which donates money for children’s programs in Arizona and the rest of the country.
“She’s involved in great humanitarian efforts, on top of being a very busy mother, which she sees as her main priority,” says Sen. McCain’s campaign spokesman, Howard Opinsky. “She sees herself as very traditional first lady, and she’s very proud of that fact.”
Understandably, Cindy McCain is wary of reporters. One reporter tells the story of a press event at the McCains’ Arizona house where she’d roped the media off, much to her husband’s chagrin. “That’s just the way she operates,” says Gullett, now a fulltime staffer on the McCain 2000 campaign, who says that Cindy has always kept a low profile. “She’s not shy or anything; she’s just a private person. Part of that is that she grew up and lived in Phoenix all her life, and we’re kind of private people … we like to keep to ourselves.”
Opinsky insists that Cindy McCain’s low profile is in no way attributable to her relatively recent scandal. “She talks about the situation and how she was able to overcome it,” he says. “She’s very proud of her ability to overcome it and get clean.” He says that her role as first lady would probably include talking about addiction, in addition to more comfortable subjects like children and humanitarian aid. “She really hasn’t given that much thought so far,” says Opinsky. “But those are issues she’s involved with today and she has said she wants to continue with those things.”
Aside from her good works and bad habit, members of the Arizona media don’t seem to know much about her. She even stays out of the society pages. A spokesman for the McCain 2000 campaign couldn’t even tell me whether or not the candidate’s wife had ever appeared with him on the stump. Staffers acknowledge their slight discomfort whenever anyone asks about her; she prefers to stay hidden.
That anonymity going to be tough to maintain if her husband’s campaign catches on — which is the point, right? Aside from a “family” journal she occasionally pens for her husband’s Web site, Cindy McCain seems to be taking the concept of a stay-at-home mom to an extreme.
“It’ll change somewhat,” Gullett says.
The starkest anti-Hillary of all is the current front-runner for the office. It’s clear to all who meet her that Laura Welch Bush — the demure Texan who tamed the once-wild mustang now known as Texas Governor George W. Bush — differs considerably from the woman whom she would succeed, and not just regarding the apparent success of her bronco-busting.
A former elementary school teacher and librarian, Laura Bush exudes proper ladylike schoolteacher manners and discipline. Texas reporters say that though she’s growing more comfortable in the campaign limelight, she does not relish it, often preferring to huddle anonymously in the back of the rooms during Dubya’s gubernatorial meet-and-greets. She prefers to focus her energies on raising her twin teenage daughters. Though she taught until her daughters were born, she is the female prototype whom Hillary Clinton derided in ’92 for staying at home and baking cookies, and not pursuing the professional path Hillary pursued at the now-infamous Rose Law Firm.
“She’s a very loving, caring, compassionate person, and America would see that and feel that,” says George W.’s friend and money man, Don Evans. “Her priorities are her faith and her family and her friends.” As first lady of Texas, Laura Bush has spent her capital on that most uncontroversial issue that her mother-in-law, former first lady Barbara Bush, addressed: combating illiteracy.
But while George W.’s brother, Marvin Bush, says that his sister-in-law, is “cerebral and very steady,” he says that as a first lady she would be even more subdued and less of a spitfire than his mother. “My mom would probably be a little more of a maverick than Laura,” Marvin says, “Mom has that wise-cracking sense of humor. Laura’s more mellow.” Marvin says that first lady Laura Bush would combine the altruism of his mother with the “grace” of Jackie Kennedy.
When a potential first lady makes matronly Barbara Bush sound wild and crazy, you know you’re talking about a return to more subdued times than Hillary wrought.
“Look,” George W. said to the Texas Monthly in 1996, “Laura and I read the paper together every morning, and we discuss different issues. She’s always asking what I’m going to be doing about this or that. But I think she trusts me to make the right decisions.”
Of course, in an article on first ladies, we can’t ignore the question “What about Bob?” After all, we have a relatively serious candidate for first gentleman: former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Republican of Kansas.
Bob Dole is of course a special entity unto himself. Having run for the vice presidency in ’76, and the presidency in ’80, ’88 and ’96, he can be forgiven for any Schadenfreude he might be taking in his wife’s somewhat underwhelming candidacy. In fact, some believed Bob’s biggest attention-getter to date — admitting he was mulling over a financial contribution to the campaign coffers of his wife’s rival, Sen. John McCain — underscored not only the obvious gender difference afoot, but might have provided a disconcerting peek into the sourpuss recesses of a candidate who was always a bridesmaid, never a bride.
If any senator alive had earned the right not just to the nomination but the whole enchilada, it was the war hero turned loyal GOP foot soldier. The speculation was that his rambling mid-May New York Times interview — in which he discussed giving cash to McCain — was directly attributable to the fact that his wife’s new role in the limelight was eating him up inside.
While that interpretation might be understandable, it’s also forgetful. Bob Dole’s always been a straight shooter. For him to suddenly emerge as a spirit bunny for Liddy 2000, after a generation and a half of callin’ it like it is, would just be contrary to his nature. So saying, as he did, that his wife’s campaign was “getting there,” or that “It’s too early to tell” if she’d be able to mount a strong challenge to Al Gore, well, that’s just Bob being honest. Plus, as chuckling pundits failed to mention, when John McCain was a POW at the Hanoi Hilton, Bob Dole was wearing a POW bracelet in his honor almost the entire time — years before he married Elizabeth Hanford.
Still, since those comments, Bob Dole has all but vanished. Dole himself didn’t return calls for comment, but Elizabeth Dole’s communications director, Ari Fleischer, joked that he had been “sent to the woodshed” after the NYT interview — one can only hope that the trip didn’t end up at the woodchipper — but adds that now the former senator “has escaped.”
So what kind of role can we expect from the first “first gentleman” (the nomenclature that Fleischer says “the two of them have decided upon”)? Interestingly, even though Bob Dole could serve as a cabinet secretary for anyone — and has even carried out various missions in Kosovo on behalf of his ’96 opponent — the first thing Fleischer says is that “Elizabeth Dole has made it clear that it will not be a co-presidency.”
In fact, the picture Fleischer paints of the former senate majority leader is that of a traditional first spouse: “The senator will devote considerable amount of time toward helping those with disabilities, as he has done throughout his life.” He adds that the Kansan will also take a role in agricultural issues. But as an advisor, Bob Dole will be just like any other White House spouse. “They have a close marriage,” Fleischer says, and in that role “they talk to each other, share ideas and thoughts like any other couple.”
While Dole would certainly make history as the first first husband, if he adopts a kinder, gentler incarnation, he would also fit a historical pattern. The fact that Laura Bush, Cindy McCain, Tipper Gore, Ernestine Bradley and Dole are not only positioning themselves as non-Hillaries, but are also genuinely different from her, is historically par for the course.
Groundbreaking first ladies are always followed by more quiet types: Florence Harding, who lobbied for equal pay for women, was succeeded by Grace Coolidge, an apolitical teacher for the deaf; Eleanor Roosevelt — a whirling dervish on behalf of civil rights, women’s rights, and the New Deal — begat Bess Truman, who never even gave an interview.
“These sorts of ‘benchmark’ women [like Harding, Roosevelt or Clinton], who seem to somehow embody the popular idealized notion of the new American woman, get a lot of press and a lot of attention, and this whole persona develops that frequently has little to do with who each is as a person,” Anthony says. “They’re always followed by women who are perfectly intelligent and capable, but they’re not lobbyists or public advocates.”
At least, that’s what they want us to think.