Much ado has been made about Jodi Kantor’s book, The Obamas, for its focus on the First Couple’s marriage and the role that First Lady Michelle Obama has a White House influencer. Critics (of both Michelle Obama and Kantor) have chimed in with the question, “Why do we need to know about married life in the White House?” That’s easy – getting to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is a team effort, whether voters like to admit that or not.
Many conservatives have taken exception with how Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama fashioned their stints as First Wives, while praising women they’ve described as more “traditional,” like Laura Bush and Nancy Reagan. But the fact of the matter is that the so-called traditional First Lady model has been an activist one for decades. Reading The Obamas reminded me I had a copy of Hidden Power: Presidential Marriages that Shaped Our Recent History on my shelf, which examines first marriages from Woodrow Wilson through Bill Clinton. And guess what? It turns out there’s plenty of political power in being a First Lady, even if it’s sometimes behind the scenes.
Of course we know Eleanor Roosevelt was an active First Spouse, especially since her husband FDR was limited in his travel due to his polio. But other extremely influential “helpmates” include Edith Wilson, who essentially ran the White House after Woodrow Wilson’s stroke in his second term, and Barbara Bush, who is credited with coining one of her husband’s most famous phrases about a “kinder and gentler” nation.
So in 2012 it’s not a fluff question to ask, “What do we need to know about the wives of the remaining GOP candidates?” Do they fit the mold of a Bess Truman, who inspired her husband Harry S Truman, but was mostly hands off when it came to day-to-day politics, or do they follow more of a Bill and Hillary Clinton “two for the price of one” relationship? Here are a few tidbits to help make you decide:
Ann Romney – Mitt Romney has openly talked about the fact that his wife Ann is the glue that holds the Romney family together. She’s never held a job outside the home since they married, and she likes to brag that even though they have incredible wealth she still folds her own laundry. Some reports suggest Ann is the one who’s encouraged Mitt to run for president, and in one interview Mitt acknowledged that has Ann pushed him to do things he might not have done otherwise, including running for governor of Massachusetts. Maybe it’s really Ann who wants to be President?
Callista Gingrich – We already know a lot of infamous things about Callista, the second mistress and third wife of Newt Gingrich. On the eve of the South Carolina primary, Newt’s second wife accused him of wanting an “open marriage” so he could be with his wife and then-girlfriend Callista. Interestingly, conservative religious voters there didn’t shun him for that. So could Callista be Newt’s “secret weapon” that will take him at least to the Republican Convention? That’s entirely possible. While she doesn’t say much on the campaign trail and she seems quiet at Newt’s side with the overly-perfect Nancy Reagan wannabe look, don’t underestimate the role this former Capitol Hill staffer. Gingrich’s campaign has been declared DOA several times, but some news reports contend that Callista is the one who held the effort together to give her husband a chance for the presidency. Perhaps she’ll be the subject of Iron Lady 2?
Karen Santorum – While Rick Santorum’s campaign plays up Karen Santorum’s role as a mother, she is no June Cleaver. She’s got degrees in law and nursing, and spent several years in the challenging field of neonatal intensive care. But her past could be the last nail in the coffin for her husband’s campaign. Rick Santorum is the darling of the religious right, especially for his unwavering views on abortion. But stories have been circulating about the fact that in her college days Karen had a relationship with an abortion provider, and questions remain about whether Karen herself had an abortion, something the couple has characterized as a premature delivery. If her husband’s supporters give his wife a pass on these personal questions, it’s a safe bet that someone who’s had to endure the Socratic method, moot court and law review will have a thing or two to say about policy issues if she’s the next First Lady.
Carolyn Paul – Ron Paul’s wife grew up in an era where girls generally didn’t ask boys out on dates. But she did. The Pauls met in high school and she’s the one who asked him on their first date at a time in America where that was pretty unusual. I think that episode tells us a little bit about what kind of First Lady Carolyn (who likes to go by ‘Carol’) Paul would be. Even though Ron Paul has been in the political spotlight for decades, there’s not a lot of information we know about Carol Paul or what kind of influence she might have if he lands in the White House. But bold actions can speak volumes, and based on the few things we do know about Carol Paul, she’s no shrinking violet.
A version of this was originally posted at iVillage, where I’m hanging out as the iVote Editor/Chief Contributor for the 2012 campaign season!