The Constant, Constantly Changing Demands of Political Wives
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The Constant, Constantly Changing Demands of Political Wives

One of the big moments of this season’s The Good Wife was when betrayed political spouse Alicia Florrick decided to do a TV interview in which she said she forgave her politician husband for straying. Her interview was considered to have sealed her husband’s bid to recapture the state’s attorney’s office.

This week, real political “good wives” and what good (or harm) they can do for their husband’s political campaigns seem to be plastered all over TV news stations, web sites and magazines, specifically on the cover of Newsweek which featured a blond woman wearing a red power suit decorated by an American flag pin, a strand of pearls and red lipstick. (Pointedly, you cannot see her eyes.) The headline reads: “The Good Wife 2012: Smile. Wave. Solve Libya. Just what is a candidate’s wife supposed to do these days?”

It was serendipitous timing for the Newsweek’s editors to run with that cover story as news was breaking that former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger admitted that he’d fathered a child with his family’s housekeeper (yes she worked in the house!) a short while before he embarked on his campaign for governor. Notably, his wife Maria Shriver had come to his assistance — a la Alicia Florrick — and gave a public speech just before that 2003 election urging voters to trust her that her husband was a good man, even though the media were going nuts over allegations that Schwarzenegger had sexually harassed dozens of women.

We were supposed to take Shriver’s word for it even though at the same time, we’ve now learned, her husband was hiding his in-the-house infidelity from her. It’s not too far from what happened to the fictional Good Wife Alicia Florrick whose husband withheld the fact that he’d slept with her close friend and colleague, something Alicia learned after she gave that “trust my husband” interview.

If you take marital infidelity off the table, even spouses in solid marriages routinely take a pummeling during modern American political campaigns, despite the fact that spouses aren’t the ones with their names on the ballot. A campaign strategist told Newsweek: “We have achieved this odd place in American politics where the wife is no longer there just to support her husband. She has to be a full-fledged part of the campaign.” And when you’re a part of the campaign, you’re considered fair game for attack ads and other unfortunate, negative campaign tactics. And we wonder why spouses, largely wives, of politicians are reluctant consent to their husbands running for public office?

Cindy McCain, wife of the 2008 GOP presidential candidate Senator John McCain, took a rhetorical beating during her husband’s high profile campaigns. “You would think there would be more understanding of the candidates and their spouses,” she wrote in a Newsweek essay. “What I found was that because it was such a fast pace, they understood me even less. I’ve seen things written about me that said ‘she’s cold,’ or ‘she is a Stepford wife.’ Really, I’m just very shy. No one bothered to ask that. I’m not sour-graping it here. I’m just trying to explain.”

Newsweek began its cover story by characterizing the reluctance of Cheri Daniels, the wife of Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels — whom the article points out left her husband with their four kids, married another man and divorced before she re-married Daniels — to see “their personal life [get] shredded like a chunk of ripe Parmesan.”

It also quoted Jenny Sanford, former wife of the former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford who famously left her and their four children for his newly discovered “soul mate,” as saying of being a political spouse: “Everything you do is criticized — your clothes are ugly; you’re not doing enough; your politics are questioned. It gets mean. I could not wait to get out of the job. The demands are significant and they are endless.”

It was ironic that on the heels of Daniels’ concerns and Sanford’s statements that Newsweek went on to then mock the physical appearance of Callista Gingrich, Republican Newt Gingrich’s third wife (who first hooked up with him while she worked on Capitol Hill and he was married to his second wife). “At first glance, the former speaker’s wife is a caricature of the Plasticine political accessory: the overcoiffed hair, the frozen smile, the giant pearls – not to mention the suspicion that she may be literally attached to Newt’s hip,” wrote Newsweek’s Michelle Cottle. (Adding the line, “Callista is hardly arm candy” and chronicling her political/business gravitas doesn’t detract from derisively describing Gingrich’s looks.)

Earlier in the article, Cottle said, “. . . [T]hese days, the life of a presidential wife is all about contorting herself to satisfy the constant, constantly shifting demands of a nation that still can’t decide what it wants from the role.” Apparently the nation wants a woman who is cheerfully willing to submit to the scrutiny of the media of her hair, her smile and, if her husband strays, how she handles it, whether she sticks by him a la Hillary Clinton or leaves like Jenny Sanford and Maria Shriver.

In discussing the political spouse conundrum on MSNBC, Newsweek’s editor-in-chief, Tina Brown said that “we” — the public, the media — “expect [political wives] to be everything,” to be brainy but not too aggressive, chic but “not too chic” and wifey but not in a mute Barbie doll kind of way. “A political spouse,” Newsweek said, “should be poised and gracious and able to smile benignly for 16 hours straight while wearing pumps and pantyhose in 100-degree heat. She should make frequent mention of how much she cherishes her role as wife and mother. And she should strive to look the part. Pretty is a plus. Sexy is a no-no. Packaging is key.”

This seems to me to be a no-win situation as no one can ever really be the “perfect” political spouse and still be a flesh and blood person. Real life is messy and we human beings have the unfortunate distinction of being distinctly imperfect. And “we,” the public and the media, will apparently make these spouses pay for their flawed humanity while their husbands try to get our votes.

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