Saturday 23 September 2017

Sex scandals, Tiffany jewels, and a husband who is kept hidden away

The race for the White House looks like it's going to be a lot of fun, says Caitriona Palmer in Washington

First lady in waiting?
Callista Gingrich's
expensive tastes have
jarred with voters
given her husband
Newt's conservatism
First lady in waiting? Callista Gingrich's expensive tastes have jarred with voters given her husband Newt's conservatism

Caitriona Palmer

They are candidates without portfolios: the eight women -- and one lonely man -- who have the power to make or break their spouses' bid for the White House.

This week the demure and unassuming wife of Herman Cain was once again reminded of the sheer brutality of American presidential politics when her husband told supporters that he was reassessing his presidential bid amid allegations that he had conducted a 13-year extramarital affair with an Atlanta businesswoman.

A political spouse can be an election winner, humanising a candidate who appears too stiff or robotic by telling personal stories about her man that will warm him to the electorate's heart. But a feisty or hot-tempered spouse can cause problems, distracting a candidate from his campaign message.

"Americans look to the spouse for some clue to the character of the candidate," Professor Myra G Gutin, an expert on American first ladies, told the Weekend Review this week.

"I don't believe that the spouse is the defining element in the decision whether to vote for the candidate or not, but still they give us a sense of who that person is.

"I think a spouse can really extend the reach of the candidate and can engender good feeling and really be very helpful."

Callista Gingrich, the glamorous third wife of candidate Newt Gingrich, caused ulcers in his camp earlier this year when it emerged that she carried a $500,000 (€370,000) line of credit at Tiffany, the exclusive jeweller. Gingrich angrily told reporters: "She has girlfriends with birthdays."

Some spouses choose to stay in the shadows, either by personal choice or a fear that they may hinder their partner's electability.

Michele Bachmann's husband, Marcus, a pastor who previously acted as his well dressed wife's secret stylist, has largely been a no-show on the campaign trail, partly due to his controversial position that homosexuality can be cured by "praying away the gay".

Gloria Cain, the wife of the embattled 'Herminator', has been the least visible candidate's spouse, steadfastly refusing to step out of the shadows and preferring to stay in her home in Georgia.

Gloria did give a rare interview this month in the wake of allegations that her husband had sexually harassed a number of women while he was head of the National Restaurant Association.

But other spouses are a constant presence in their partners' campaigns, like Anita Perry, wife of the embattled governor of Texas Rick Perry, whose lousy debating performances have made him the butt of late-night television jokes.

The former nurse has admitted that her husband is no Barack Obama when it comes to public speaking.

"He's never had a debate class nor debate coach in his life," Anita told an audience in Iowa in September. "He's going to be better prepared this time."

But Anita was also accused of going too far in her husband's defence when she gave a weepy and hot-tempered speech about the personal attacks that Perry had suffered in part, she believed, because of his evangelical Christian faith.

"It's been a tough month," she told voters in South Carolina. "We have been brutalised and beaten up and chewed up in the press. We are being brutalised by our opponents and our own party. So much of that is I think they look at him -- because of his faith."

"Welcome to the presidential campaign, Mrs Perry," said Prof Gutin.

First lady Michelle Obama potentially lost her husband a number of voters during the last campaign when she admitted that his candidacy had prompted her to be "proud of my country" for the first time in her life.

And the American public has still not forgotten Barbara Bush's famous utterance in 1984, when she lacerated her husband's democratic vice-presidential opponent, Geraldine Ferraro.

"I can't say it -- but it rhymes with 'rich'," she said.

Prof Gutin, author of The President's Partner: The First Lady in the Twentieth Century, said: "To be fair to the spouses, it puts you in a very difficult position. You don't want to hear things about your spouse. You don't want to read in the press that he or she is incompetent, but you have to retain a professional and stoic demeanour while you are out on the campaign trail."

Some spouses are old hands at campaigning, and in the case of Ann Romney, wife of GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney, it shows.

A cancer survivor and Multiple Sclerosis sufferer, Ann has been credited with rehabilitating her husband's stiff image, displaying a warmth and charm that he lacks and telling voters: "If they don't pick Mitt, that's their stupid mistake, not mine."

For now, Romney is neck-and-neck in the polls with former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich.

Gingrich, who helped impeach President Bill Clinton for his affair with Monica Lewinsky, has himself admitted to serial adultery and served divorce papers on his first wife while she was in the hospital recovering from cancer. Gingrich had an affair with his third wife, Callista, who is 23 years his junior, while she was working as a congressional aide and he was married to his second wife.

Since then, Callista has come under attack for her lavish tastes, including a luxury holiday to Greece with her husband just weeks after he began campaigning.

But should her husband win the nomination, there is a political precedent for rehabilitating Callista's image: former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy.

"Many thought Jacqueline Kennedy just as frivolous," Prof Gutin said. "She might have been considered a liability, too, but they turned her around into an asset.

"I would expect any good political strategist would work very hard with Mrs Gingrich if her husband became the nominee."

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