That’s the theory anyway. The most obvious flaw in this line of reasoning is how little we really know about even the most famous relationships. “Most of the information that we have about what a marriage looks like on the inside is just public relations,” says Frank Pittman, a psychiatrist and family therapist in private practice in Atlanta and the author of Private Lies: Infidelity and the Betrayal of Intimacy. Any couple can smile for the cameras, but that doesn’t tell us much about their internal dynamics. And even if a couple is indeed happy, there’s no guarantee of wise leadership.
By all accounts, George and Laura Bush have been loving, faithful partners for nearly 30 years. That hasn’t prevented his approval rating from sinking because of the disastrous Iraq war. On the other hand, Bill and Hillary Clinton certainly had a far more troubled relationship during their White House years. Yet, even after the 1998 impeachment vote, Clinton’s approval rating skyrocketed to 73 percent—not only his personal best, but also higher than Ronald Reagan’s peak. Voters evidently thought the Monica mess mattered far less than the fact that Clinton presided over the greatest period of economic prosperity in modern American history.
As the 2008 election begins to heat up, we’re once again being barraged with slick presentations of a new set of marital histories. From the Clintons’ purportedly repaired relationship to Mitt and Ann Romney’s fairy tale love story, they’re all carefully packaged to highlight the positive. But this time around, there are a few new twists. When Bill and Hillary first appeared on the campaign trail in 1991, their dual-career relationship was groundbreaking. She was as well-educated as he was, prompting the campaign slogan: “Buy One, Get One Free.” This year, the other major Democratic candidates could make that same two-for-one claim. Barack Obama’s wife, Michelle, is a hospital executive, who, like her husband, has a degree from Harvard Law School. John and Elizabeth Edwards met when both were students at the University of North Carolina Law School; she is also the author of a well-received autobiography, Saving Graces, about her battle with breast cancer and the emotional struggle to overcome the death of their 16-year-old son.
Here’s something else these three pairs of accomplished Democratic spouses share: no divorces. In contrast, two leading Republican candidates have more complicated marital histories. John McCain and his first wife, Carol, divorced in 1980; soon afterwards, he married Cindy Hensley, heiress to a major Anheuser-Busch distributor. And Rudy Giuliani’s marital history could inspire a soap opera. His marriage to his first wife (and second cousin), Regina Peruggi, was annulled by the Catholic Church after 14 years on the grounds that the couple had not received the church dispensation required when second cousins marry. His second marriage, to actress and journalist Donna Hanover, produced two children but ended in tabloid hell when Giuliani, then mayor of New York City, announced in a press conference that the couple was kaput. Reportedly, he neglected to tell Hanover first, who fired back with her own tearful press conference.
“Giuliani definitely has a screw loose when it comes to marriage,” says Pittman. “You’ve got to see this guy as defective.” In 2003, Giuliani married divorcee Judith Nathan (he maintains they became involved only 12 months before his divorce, but gossipmongers say they had been an item for years). His current campaign website gives no clue of any of this romantic complexity, presenting Wife No. 3 as his one and only.
Soap operas aside, spouses still play a major role in voters’ views of the candidates. Electing a First Lady (or First Husband) is not unlike electing a vice president. The spouse is a president’s most intimate advisor, and the public image of a relationship can make or break a campaign. In the last election, Teresa Heinz Kerry’s outspokenness was widely viewed as damaging. “I think she was a nut and an abrasive nut at that,” says Real. “What kind of guy would be married to this? Is he in it for the dough?” Teresa also tended to talk a lot about her first husband, ketchup heir John Heinz, who was killed in a plane crash. That made her current husband appear to be a poor substitute. “She was still in love with her first husband,” says Pat Love, a marriage therapist and coauthor of How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It. “She made it really clear that ‘this isn’t my real husband.’” What lesson should spouses take from her devastating performance? “Never miss an opportunity to shut up,” advises Love.
Each First Lady—from Martha Washington to Laura Bush—has interpreted the job through the prisms of her personality, life experience, and the tenor of the times. Eleanor Roosevelt was both a beloved and reviled figure as she traveled the world on behalf of her husband, who was disabled by polio. Just a few years later, the country embraced Mamie Eisenhower, known for her thriftiness (she clipped coupons for the White House staff), her recipe for “million dollar fudge,” and her love of ultra-feminine clothes. Jackie Kennedy personified an international glamour as the U.S. grew into the role of global superpower. And Betty Ford courageously decided to use her struggles against breast cancer and later, substance abuse, to educate the public; her openness about her own problems saved many thousands of lives.
In these media-intense days, the ideal political spouse does her (or his) most important work behind the scenes. “I think that the greatest source of happiness is a happy marriage, and I think a happy person will do a better job of governing,” says Cloe Madanes, coauthor of Love & Passion: The Ultimate Relationship Program. “Ronald and Nancy Reagan definitely had a good marriage. She put him in front of her as more important, always.” So who in the current crop fits that bill? And what can we expect from the spouses of the current frontrunners? Click on each couple below to learn more. ________________________________________________________________
Barbara Kantrowitz is a senior writer for Newsweek.
Click On Each Couple To Read More:
HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON AND BILL CLINTON
JOHN EDWARDS AND ELIZABTH ANANIA EDWARDS
RUDY GIULIANI AND JUDITH STICH GIULIANI
MIKE AND JANET HUCKABEE
JOHN MCCAIN AND CINDY HENSLEY MCCAIN
BARACK OBAMA AND MICHELLE ROBINSON OBAMA
RON AND CAROL WELLS PAUL
MITT AND ANN DAVIES ROMNEY