Candidates'wives run for office as traditional, pre-Hillary first ladies

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The Independent Online
AS THE race hots up for the two main party nominations for next year's United States presidential election, not only the candidates and their politics come under scrutiny, but increasingly their wives and families. And wives - as Hillary Clinton has repeatedly demonstrated - can make a big difference to how the voters perceive their husbands, and so to their electoral chances.

What is remarkable about the latest crop of would-be first ladies is how intent they, and their advisers, seem on preserving the traditional image of the candidate's wife as loyal helpmate whose political existence is predicated entirely on the ambitions of her husband. Despite Mrs Clinton's best efforts, illustrated recently by her attempts to combine the roles of first lady with aspiring senator, the conventional mould is far from broken.

All four of the leading candidates to succeed her errant husband present themselves as staunch family men, and all four wives are playing the role of supportive, even submissive, spouse. Lady bountifuls to a woman, they have years of charity work and - with the exception of Mrs Bill Bradley - child-rearing behind them.

The candidates and their image-makers clearly believe that the US is unlikely yet to countenance another Hillary: the "two for one" presidency advertised by Mr Clinton is a non-starter now. So is the political wife as politician herself. It is hard, too, to imagine any of the women going on television to stand by her man as aggressively as Mrs Clinton did.

If they share a highly conventional image, however, the second most remarkable aspect of these women is how very different they are. Tipper Gore, Al Gore's wife of 29 years, has taken to the campaign trail with an enthusiasm and flair that threatened to eclipse her more diffident husband. She warms up audiences - or did, until it became a standard laugh-line for late-night television comedians - by wriggling seductively on stage and presenting her husband improbably as: "He's warm, he's intelligent, he's sexy: he's my husband, Al Gore."

Tipper Gore thinks nothing of playing the drums with a pop group, dancing on stage and indulging in the sort of exhibitionism that is beyond her husband. Since Mr Gore's remake as a fast-talking superman type, however, she has taken a lower profile.

Mrs Gore, of course, has been in training for the role of first lady for at least seven years. She has done years of work for children's and mental-health charities, and sits on a presidential commission on mental health, an interest that she has revealed stemmed from a period of post- natal depression.

The wife of Mr Gore's challenger, Bill Bradley, could hardly be more different. Dark and petite, Ernestine Bradley has been a university lecturer in German literature for almost 30 years and is a professional scholar, with several fellowships and books - including a monograph on postwar German literature's treatment of the Holocaust - to her name. Although she campaigned for her husband in his three (successful) Senate races, she eschewed the political limelight and never evinced the slightest hint of political ambition herself.

She has kept her professional life, where she uses the name Ernestine Schlant, and that of Mrs Bill Bradley quite separate. When her husband was in the Senate, she remained in New Jersey for her job, and their daughter went to school in Washington. Mrs Bradley also has a daughter by an earlier marriage. While shy and private, she is an accomplished speaker who is confident when appearing on her husband's behalf.

Eight years older than her husband, born in Germany - she took a job as air hostess to see America - a professional woman, and operated on for breast cancer seven years ago, she has had a varied life that could unite many constituencies.

The wives of the two leading Republican candidates have taken a lower profile. Laura Bush, wife of George W for 22 years, receives lavish accolades from her husband wherever he campaigns. A native Texan, she is credited with taming the wild side that led him to indulge in drink, and perhaps drugs. A teacher until her marriage, she has concentrated since on charity work, mainly in literacy and helping abused children. She is at ease when she appears with the Bush family, dresses casually and, as first lady of Texas for five years, has experience in the public eye.

She does not yet seem comfortable at solo appearances, however, and has not played a big public role in her husband's campaign. The defence of George W - against drugs accusations, for instance - has been led by his parents, the former president and first lady, not by his wife.

Cindy McCain, married to the senator John McCain for 19 years, is the only "second" wife of the four. Completely upfront about his misspent youth and his divorce, however, Mr McCain has not been subject to the scrutiny of his private life that Mr Clinton experienced as presidential candidate.

Mrs McCain recently admitted to an addiction to prescription drugs, which she stole from a children's health charity she worked for. That revelation was met with equanimity by the media, although it could be an issue if Mr McCain's campaign advanced. She deputises regularly for her husband at functions, but appears very nervous on the campaign trail. She dresses formally, and seems wary of doing or saying anything to jeopardise her husband's chances.

One of these four women is likely to be America's next first lady. Whichever of them it is, though, the country can breathe easy. The Bill and Hillary soap opera will not be repeated.

THE WOMEN IN THE WHITE HOUSE RACE

Tipper Gore

Married to Al Gore for 29 years, she has taken to the campaign trail with flair. She warms up audiences - or did, until mimicked by television comedians - by wriggling seductively and presenting her husband as: "He's warm, he's intelligent, he's sexy: he's my husband, Al Gore." Has years of work for children's and mental health charities.

Laura Bush

The wife of George W Bush for 22 years is credited with taming the wild side that led him to indulge in drink (and maybe drugs). A teacher from Texas until her marriage, she has concentrated since on charity work. She has not played a big public role so far. The defence of George W, against drugs accusations, has been led by his parents, not by her.

Ernestine Bradley

Ernestine Bradley has been a university lecturer in German literature for almost 30 years and is a professional scholar, keeping that side of her life separate from her role as Mrs Bill Bradley. She campaigned for her husband in his three Senate races, but eschewed the political limelight. Her varied life could unite many different constituencies.

Cindy McCain

Senator John McCain's wife for the past 19 years. They have four children (and he has three with his first wife). She has admitted to an addiction to prescription drugs stolen from a charity. Deputises regularly for her husband at functions, but still appears nervous and wary of doing anything to jeopardise her husband's chances.

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