America's next top spouse

A guide to the brassy, opinionated, loud, difficult and plum-crazy partners on the arms of their president-running partners. Who says the campaign season is dull?

Published November 13, 2007 12:03PM (EST)

Presidential candidates, all too regularly, are people whose entire lives have been clipped and trimmed and buffed to meet polling specifications. But their spouses, their children, their siblings! If we're lucky, these dapper power brokers are surrounded by far less perfect and conventional characters: blissfully untamed bohemians, wack-jobs or deliciously unreconstructed nogoodniks. When a candidate has a partner with texture, with flair -- with an arrest record -- there is the chance that she or he will leaven the weighty wonk of the endless campaign season. These rogue spouses have the potential to entertain us through the made-to-order claptrap of the debates, cheer us when we can't bear to hear the word "Rasmussen" again.

Most important, the weirdest and most wonderful of them remind us that behind their mates' pearly veneers and ill-tailored pantsuits lie the beating hearts of actual live human beings who once -- possibly many moons ago, maybe at Shirley MacLaine's house -- abandoned their talking points and just plain fell in love.

Sadly, compelling stump marriages have historically been rare. Far too many contenders seem to have selected their better halves from the Political Helpmate Bin made available to eighth-grade boys who already know they want to be president. I often wondered if these guys were spirited away during gym class and presented with a kick line of apple-cheeked, god-fearing, pearl-wearing, cookie-baking girls willing to sacrifice independent thought, sensuality and their postgraduate education in service to the highest office.

But in recent decades, these cookie-cutter expectations have begun to change. (Thank you, Jesus, and Hugh and Dorothy Rodham for producing a child so desperately ill-suited for her wifely destiny.) In a post-Hillary universe, as the second wave and children of the second wave grow up and form more egalitarian partnerships, there are more brassy, opinionated, loud, difficult, plum-crazy partners on the arms of their front-running partners. Just consider that Clinton was the first first lady ever to have earned a postgraduate degree. But in recent years, the primary fields have been lousy with lawyers and doctors and professors.

In the 2004 election, the spousal uprising hit another peak with the rocking Dr. Judith Steinberg Dean, who caused much consternation by refusing to give up her job as a doctor and join her husband, Howard, on the campaign trail. Apparently, she felt that helping sick people might be a more vital commitment than addressing every bridge club in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

And then -- and I confess, my heart skips a beat just thinking about her -- there was Teresa. Oh, Teresa. I still dream about you, in your scarves, with your abiding love for your long-dead husband, and at least one son who had become a Buddhist blacksmith of medieval armor and no longer spoke to you, and your tendency to tell reporters to "shove it." You crazy old super-smart coot who was fluent in five languages, come back! Just don't bring the husband with you! Sigh.

Political spouses: When they are good they are very, very good, and when they are bad they are awesome!

Of course, everyone loves to blame these colorful birds for the troubles their ill-fated partners encounter on the electoral market. But that's face-saving hogwash. Terrible Teresa and Dr. Dean Medicine Woman didn't sink their husbands' candidacies; the boys took care of that just fine on their own. No, in addition to thrilling and entertaining us with their inappropriate behavior or unseemly show of intellect, nettlesome spouses also serve as a release valve for all the blame that frustrated campaigns and the media like to throw at anyone but the actual ham-fisted, saluting, yelping, straying, triangulating candidates. Realistically, no out-of-control spouse is actually going to sink a winning campaign. Unless, of course, he or she is a Vicodin-popping, intern-diddling, tongue-pierced, vegan puppy-killer! Bwahahahaha!

Welcome to the end of 2007. Before the field clears, let's look at the brave man and women who've been hitting pancake breakfasts all over this great country of ours (or at least Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina), trying their damnedest to push their partners across the primary victory line so they can spend another year eating chili dogs in Ohio. Is there anyone with real Teresa potential out there? Might any of them become America's next top spouse?

THE ALSO-RANS: I'm not saying these spouses are dull, but...

Barbara Flavin Richardson, wife of Gov. Bill Richardson: A New Englander (Concord, Mass.) transplanted to the Southwest, Richardson is an immensely likable figure who recently told a luncheon crowd in South Carolina about how whenever the presidential spouses are in the same place, they get separated by organizers, "like we're going to get into a catfight or something." Richardson, a graduate of Wheaton College, is committed to standard first lady causes like "Read Across America," "Big Brothers/Big Sisters" and improving the childhood immunization record in her state, and she was instrumental in the establishment of New Mexico's Office of Domestic Violence czar. She also brokered a deal in which Disney donated 20,000 Baby Einstein videos to low-income New Mexico families. These are all wonderful choices, but they do not put Richardson in hot contention in the race to be most scintillating political partner. She did offer a whisper of potential when she told the South Carolina lunch that when you're married to a candidate, people are always coming up and telling you what "a wonderful man" your husband is. "Well, while Mr. Wonderful is out there campaigning, or doing whatever he does," Richardson said, "the rest of us as spouses are still schlepping through the airport to get to the commercial plane with kids in tow, missing our connections, standing in line at the grocery store, just trying to keep body and soul and house and home and family together while they go out and make nice." So it sounds like she's already having a great time!

Dr. Jill Jacobs Biden, wife of Sen. Joe Biden: Jacobs married Biden 30 years ago, after the death of Biden's first wife, Neilia Hunter, and their young daughter in an automobile accident. Together, the couple has raised Biden's two sons from his first marriage and the daughter they have together. Biden is an English professor at Delaware Technical and Community College, about whom one of her students has eloquently written, "great teacher, straightforward and to the point. Very Smart. Dresses nicely." MSNBC host Chris Matthews was even snazzier in his praise earlier this summer, when he opened an interview with Biden by calling her "the best-looking campaigner." Stay classy, Chris!

Whitney Stewart Gravel, wife of Mike Gravel: It is very difficult to find any information at all about Whitney Stewart Gravel, except that she married Mike in the mid-1980s after his marriage to his first wife, Rita Jeanette Martin, ended. In 1958, his first wife was named Anchorage's "Miss Fur Rendezvous," an honor that would almost certainly have catapulted her to one of the more interesting categories in this story, except that she's not married to him anymore.

Jackie Tancredo, wife of Rep. Tom Tancredo: Jackie met her husband in junior high school; they have two children and five grandchildren, and since her husband has discussed avoiding "the siren song of multiculturalism," it's pretty safe to say they're all as white as the driven snow. Jackie is a pretty ideal political spouse, telling Time magazine that as first lady, when asked about her "signature issue," that she feels "very strongly that child safety, whether it be physical safety in the school or protection from other predators such as those on the Internet, are vital to the well-being of our children." But alas, when asked by Time if she would expect to have a say in presidential politics, she answered succinctly, "No." Oh well. As conservative pundit Jane Chastain once wrote, in a column called "Run, Tom, Run!" Jackie's husband has charisma that "fills a room and literally oozes out the doors and onto the street." Literally oozes. Lucky, lucky Jackie.

Carolyn "Carol" Paul, wife of Rep. Ron Paul: She asked him out at a Sadie Hawkins dance in high school, and they were married in 1957. Carol has been a secretary at U.S. Steel in Pittsburgh, ran a dance school in the basement while Paul was doing his medical residency in obstetrics and gynecology, and has published cookbooks of family recipes that she posted on Paul's congressional Web site for years. The couple has five children, 18 grandchildren and one great-grandchild. In a video called "The Ron Paul Story," in which a narrator seems hell-bent on calling Paul a "baby doctor" (the "vajayjay" of obstetrics!), Carol made this creepy assertion: "Any other doctor can make you well, but the obstetrician actually gives you a present." Awesome fact: Carol, 71, totally has a MySpace page. Where she lists her occupation as "General Manager of the Paul Family" and has 739 friends! Including this guy!

Lynne Layh Hunter, wife of Rep. Duncan Hunter: Lynne has been married to her husband for 34 years, and their son Duncan Duane is fighting in Afghanistan. This is another spouse about whom information is not plentiful, but she has helped her husband to put their son's military service in the spotlight, suggesting at a recent speech, "This is a great country and we have to keep this country strong. And I think we need to let our military know that every time you see one of them at the airport and walking down the street..." Lynne has also suggested that "If we don't keep this war over there, it's gonna be right here in our own backyard." She also got behind the border patrol agents convicted of shooting an unarmed, suspected Mexican drug dealer, telling a radio host that "it's the most ridiculous thing that's ever happened."


Ann Romney, wife of Mitt Romney: Ann Romney is used to pressure. When she was a 16-year-old high school student, her boyfriend's father, Gov. George Romney, gave the commencement address at his son's prep school, and told the entire class, "If the girl you're interested in doesn't inspire you to greater effort than you would undertake without knowing her, then you'd better look around and get another." Um, speaking for former 16-year-old girls everywhere: Eep? Also, the first time little Mitt went in for a kiss, the story goes, Ann cock-blocked him, asking instead, "What do Mormons believe?" Hot, hot, hot! But whatever he answered, it totally worked. Ann, the daughter of a lapsed Episcopalian, attended Brigham Young University, married Mitt, bore him five sons, and kept her trap shut the time he strapped the dog to the roof of the car! Fun fact: The Romneys held out till marriage (four years!) to get it on, a decision that has undergirded Ann's enthusiasm for abstinence in her work with teenage girls. Ann suffers from multiple sclerosis. She's also big into dressage. In the signs of life department, she gave $150 to Planned Parenthood in 1994, an inconvenient truth for her husband, who now opposes abortion. Though he didn't used to.

Elizabeth Edwards, wife of John Edwards: Elizabeth has, from the start of this interminable campaign season, come off as almost unbearably smarter than her husband, the political spouse who really should be running herself. She grew up traveling the world with her military father, later getting her law degree from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where she met her pretty mate, to whom she has been married for 30 years and with whom she had four children. Their oldest son, Wade, died in a car accident in 1996, and she gave birth to Emma Claire at age 48 and Jack at 50. Elizabeth was diagnosed with breast cancer at the end of the 2004 presidential campaign, and waited to announce it until after the election. It has since returned, but she and her husband have continued their active presidential bid. Edwards was a high-powered lawyer until the death of her son, after which she retired from the full-time workforce. She's also a serious liberal and feminist. But none of this has stopped her from taking a swipe at Hillary Clinton last year when she told a crowd that her choice to stay at home with her family has afforded her a happier life than Clinton has had. Edwards is a ballsy and vocal spouse, who openly disagrees with her husband on gay marriage, sensibly asserting, "I don't know why someone else's marriage has anything to do with me." She provided America with a huge dose of wish fulfillment when she tore Ann Coulter a new one on national television. Edwards is also responsible for uttering the most inspiring, if slightly chilling, line of the campaign so far, telling a New York Times reporter after the announcement that her cancer was back that the most valuable lesson she could teach her children was how to "stand by themselves in a stiff wind." Edwards is possibly the single biggest hard-ass on the entire 2008 presidential landscape.

Jackie Marie Clegg Dodd, wife of Chris Dodd: After the end of his first marriage, Chris Dodd dated Bianca Jagger and Carrie Fisher, so there is a good chance, based on historical precedent, laws of attraction, etc., that Jackie is eccentric. A Mormon (they are everywhere!) business consultant, Dodd was a political staffer who met her husband on the slopes after organizing a benefit ski event in Park City, Utah. "I don't think Chris and I would ever have started dating if we had met in Washington where he was a senator and I was a lowly staffer," she recently told a crowd. "But when we were on the ski slope, in Park City, everything was equal. Actually it wasn't equal. He was a still a senator and I was still a lowly staffer but I knew how to ski and he didn't know how to ski, so it became the great equalizer." She has also said that they dated for almost 12 years "before rushing headlong into marriage." That was eight years and two daughters ago.

Cindy Hensley McCain, married to John McCain: The daughter of beer distributors who still runs her parents' huge company, Hensley and Co., Cindy married McCain, who is 18 years older than she, in 1980. Maine Republican Bill Cohen and Democrat Gary Hart were best man and groomsman, respectively. The couple has four children. Cindy is the founder of the Arizona Voluntary Medical Team, a nonprofit organization that sends doctors and nurses to disaster-stricken areas around the world. Her involvement in the organization also led the McCains to adopt a child from Bangladesh. In 1994, she made a series of bravura confessions: that she had had a longtime addiction to painkillers like Vicodin and Percocet, some of which, most unfortunately, she had stolen from the charity organization that she had founded. Also ill-timed was the revelation from a colleague who claimed that Cindy had asked him to lie about her drug use when she was in the midst of the adoption process. McCain suffered a stroke in 2004 from which she has reportedly recovered.


Jeri Kehn Thompson, wife of Fred Thompson: Raised in Naperville, Ill., the DePauw graduate has already received a healthy amount of media attention, almost exclusively for her looks, which are good, and her age, which is not as young as everyone seems to assume. Yes, she is 24 years younger than her spouse, the "Law and Order" actor and Republican candidate, but the notion that she is a slutty twinkie is just the wet dream of every hard-up pundit on cable news. The Washington Post noted this summer that Thompson would be "the nation's youngest first lady since Jacqueline Kennedy," while the New York Times labeled her a trophy wife, and, naturally enough, Joe Scarborough felt free to wonder if Jeri "works the pole." But sorry, boys! Thompson is 41, a political consultant, and she is deeply, heavily, seriously involved in her husband's campaign. As one anonymous staffer told the Post, "Everything for her is at Defcon."

Janet Huckabee, wife of Mike Huckabee: Married for 33 years to her high-school sweetheart, Janet Huckabee joins Hillary Clinton in demonstrating that they grow girl ambition as big as the watermelons in Arkansas. She ran for Arkansas secretary of state in 2002. She and her husband also had the cojones to register for more than $6,000 worth of gifts on a wedding registry when they threw themselves a 2006 housewarming party for their new digs in Little Rock.


Bill Clinton, husband of Hillary Clinton: Well, what is there to say, really? But let's take a crack: First, Bill clearly gets points for answering the "one of these things is not like the other" riddle. He is a boy. The only one on this list. He met Hillary in law school at Yale; they have been married for 32 years; they have one daughter, Chelsea. He is a longtime governor of Arkansas who now runs the Clinton Foundation, an organization that aims to help alleviate the problems of poverty, AIDS and global warming around the world. An enthusiastic saxophonist, Clinton was once impeached after getting caught receiving blow jobs from a White House intern during his eight years as president of the United States. Bill has a penchant for fast food that he's had to overcome after undergoing serious cardiac surgery three years ago.

Michelle Obama, wife of Barack Obama: Michelle met Barack when he was hired as her underling. A powerful lawyer raised on the south side of Chicago and educated at Princeton and Harvard, Michelle married her husband in 1992; they have two daughters. She is now the vice president for community and external affairs at the University of Chicago Hospitals. Obama is unrelenting both in her support for her husband, and in her sharp criticism of him and the campaigning process. She has called him "snore-y and stinky," and kvetched about the amount of time he's not at home, and about his inability to make the bed. This earned her an odd enemy in Maureen Dowd, who ripped her for being "emasculating." But there's something refreshingly transparent about the willingness with which the couple has discussed the strife that arose when he began devoting so much of his time to his political career. And it's hard not to cheer a candidate's spouse who willingly tells USA Today that she doesn't want to get "so tied to all that [her husband] is that I don't have anything for me." Michelle might actually be a feminist superhero, whose best and most famous line is what she told her husband before he took the podium for his star-making speech at the 2004 Democratic convention: "Don't screw it up, buddy."

Elizabeth Harper Kucinich, wife of Rep. Dennis Kucinich: Where to start, or more realistically, where to stop? The tall, pre-Raphaelite 30-year-old is British, and met her swain, the elfin Dennis Kucinich, while touring his office with the American Monetary Institute. She sent him an e-mail with the signature quote, "Knowing love I shall allow all things to come and go, to be as supple as the wind and take everything that comes with great courage. My heart is as open as the sky." They next got together at Shirley MacLaine's house, confessed their love to each other in front of the fire, and were engaged to be married within weeks. This is a description of Elizabeth's early life, from the Cleveland Plain Dealer: "She grew up in the 1980s in the tiny English village of North Ockendon, in a cottage where Pea Lane meets Dennis Lane. At Maytree Cottage, she planted flowers, listened to her mother read stories by the wood stove in winter, and with her younger sister tended stray animals." Now, the wood nymph has a MySpace page on which she has included the complete lyrics to "Stairway to Heaven." She recently scored major points for talking straight back to uptight interrogator Nora O'Donnell; when asked about her tongue piercing, Elizabeth shot back, completely reasonably, "I'm 30 years old. I've had it for 10 years. I don't see it as being a problem. I do still wear pearls."


Judi Giuliani, wife of Rudy Giuliani: Judi is Giuliani's third wife, the woman he left second wife Donna Hanover for in a televised news conference. She sits at the front row of fashion shows, had a secret marriage she only came forward with when her husband announced his nomination, which was around the same time the couple announced that she would sit in on cabinet meetings were he elected. It has been reported that while her husband was still mayor of New York, if aides referred to her as "Judi" instead of "Judith," she would bawl them out. She buys extra seats on planes for her Louis Vuitton handbag. She has inspired an open rift between the candidate and his children: Andrew, who helpfully explained to reporters that he is estranged from his dad because "a problem exists between me and his wife," and Caroline, a Harvard student who demonstrated the froideur earlier this year by admitting on her MySpace page that she was supporting Barack Obama. But it is the fact that Judi Giuliani once held a job in which she demonstrated medical equipment on puppy dogs who often died after or during the demonstrations that really kicks her up a notch and puts her head and shoulders above the rest of the pack.

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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