The Real Running Mates

Photo Illustration by Michael Elins for Newsweek; source photo: Christian Heeb / Laif-Redux (White House)

On May 12, some 1,000 Republicans and a truckload of local and national journalists descended on the JW Marriott in downtown Indianapolis for the state GOP spring dinner. The draw? Keynote speaker Cheri Daniels, wife of governor—and possible presidential candidate—Mitch Daniels.

It didn't matter what Cheri had to say so much as that she had agreed to speak at all. Up to now, Indiana's first lady has declined to take part in her husband's political quest. In fact, the final hurdle to Mitch's joining the White House race is said to be Cheri's anxiety about their personal life getting shredded like a chunk of ripe Parmesan.

It is not an unreasonable fear. In 1993, Cheri left Mitch and their four young children to move to California and wed another man—only to return, reconcile, and remarry Mitch four years later. Suffice it to say this is not the sort of personal narrative common among aspiring first couples. (One can only imagine the chitchat when Laura Bush recently phoned Cheri to recommend the joys of White House life.) In his remarks to the dinner crowd, Mitch reassuringly recounted a vow he made to Cheri when he first ran for governor in 2003: "I will never ask you to be any different or go anywhere you don't want to go."

Hmmmm. If the governor is really looking to run this cycle, now might be the time to revisit that promise. Because these 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.

We were supposed to have figured this out by now. The whole political-wife thing. After all, didn't Hillary (Rodham) Clinton get thoroughly bloodied—and traumatize half the electorate—wrestling the institution toward modernity two decades ago? Screw the cookie baking. Save the world. Change your name and hairstyle if you must, but don't let the boys put you in the corner.

Yet here we are, with combatants suiting up for the third White House cage match of the no-longer-quite-so-shiny 21st century, and the role of the political wife—not just what Americans expect of her but what she demands of the experience—grows ever more confused, confusing, and downright unpleasant. "Everything you do is criticized—your clothes are ugly; you're not doing enough; your politics are questioned. It gets mean," says Jenny Sanford, who endured 15 years of political wifedom while wed to South Carolina Republican congressman turned governor Mark "Appalachian Trail" Sanford. "I could not wait to get out of the job," she says."The demands are significant and they are endless."

Let's blame it on feminism! With women empowered to do more than nurture their husbands, political wives—in whom women often seek a more polished version of themselves—are increasingly expected to be more than just the perfect helpmeet. (Though, make no mistake, that is still required.) Standing beside your man with an adoring gaze remains a part of the job, only now you need to exhibit goals and interests of your own—a passion if not exactly a portfolio.

Richard Nixon, with his wife Pat, as he concedes to Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Lawrence Schiller / Polaris Communications, inc.

Unsurprisingly, the top rung of the political ladder remains the trickiest. While senators' and governors' wives can lead relatively normal lives, aspiring first ladies face a level of scrutiny so brutal it would reduce Simon Cowell to sobs. Small wonder that Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour's wife, Marsha, put the kibosh on his White House plans this month. Who needs that kind of grief?

Parts of the role remain as they ever were: A political spouse should be poised and gracious and able to smile benignly for 16 hours straight while wearing pumps and panty hose 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. Says Republican strategist Mark Corallo, "They have to be really well dressed to avoid the criticism of the elite, but they have to have a very, very down-to-earth sense of style that will not offend the average American." (Memo to Callista Gingrich: lose the platinum helmet hair.)

In other ways, the job has grown more punishing as wives grapple not only with a relentless media but also a raft of competing, if not outright conflicting, imperatives. Projecting spousal support is key, but one cannot afford to come across as too Stepford. Even Laura Bush, the most traditional mate of any president (or even nominee) since her mother-in-law, didn't simply give White House tours and host luncheons. She traveled abroad to promote causes; she gave interviews and speeches (despite having long before made "Bushie" promise she wouldn't have to); and she was among her party's most sought-after campaigners. Although Laura hadn't held an outside job in years, people constantly referenced her days as a librarian and second-grade teacher.

That said, the wife cannot be so attached to her own dreams that she isn't willing to shelve them for a few years in deference to her husband's. In the 2004 cycle, Judith Steinberg Dean raised eyebrows even among liberals when she announced she had no intention of abandoning her medical practice to help Howard scratch his presidential itch. Seven years on, the climate hasn't much changed: pre-White House, Michelle Obama was a hard-charging lawyer, hospital administrator, and corporate board member; as first lady, she has turned her energies toward coaxing kids to put down the Cheesy Poofs, grab a fistful of organic rhubarb, and get their tubby butts moving. A worthy endeavor, but hardly trailblazing. "She's basically chosen the safest course possible: the First Mom, the First Gardener, First Nutritionist," says Kati Marton, author of Hidden Power: Presidential Marriages That Shaped Our Recent History.

Republican consultant Fred Davis has worked every presidential race since 1996. What Americans seek from political wives remains fairly constant, he says. "The immediate function they serve is to be a window on the soul of their mate. They help voters see what kind of father they are, what kind of husband, how they live their lives." The parameters of the role, however, are evolving with society, he says. "Paths have widened."

Well a little bit, anyway. Take Mrs. Gingrich. 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. But Callista is hardly arm candy. She's a savvy former Hill staffer intimately involved in running Gingrich Communications. And it bears remembering that the couple's aggressive advertisement of their super-traditional, super-committed marriage (every third sentence out of Newt's mouth begins "Callista and I") is rooted in the need to make voters forget (or at least forgive) the couple's not-so-traditional start (i.e., the fact that Callista was Newt's mistress back when he was pummeling President Clinton for his philandering). When asked why Callista has been so prominently in the picture, one Republican consultant quipped, "because the third wife wants to be out front. And if you don't give the third wife what she wants, you wind up with a fourth wife."

Janet Huckabee remained largely invisible during Huck's 2008 presidential adventure and continues to maintain a low profile. In the past, however, she showed a keen interest in leveraging her husband's political success to her advantage. In 2002 she ran for Arkansas secretary of state while Mike was seeking reelection as governor—a move that prompted more than a little grumbling.

Mary Pawlenty is best known as the punch line of her husband's favorite joke: he loves referring to her as his "red-hot smokin' wife," à la Will Ferrell in Talledega Nights. But Mary, like Michelle Obama, has a résumé to rival her husband's. The former Minnesota district judge now serves as "director of medical diplomacy" for a Twin Cities nonprofit.

Both Ann Romney and Mary Kaye Huntsman are considered Laura Bush traditionalists. But also, like Laura, the women understand that they must be involved. As first lady of Utah, Mary Kaye threw herself into youth initiatives. Her signature achievement was Power in You, a peer-counseling program created to help teens cope with everything from drugs to diversity, bullying to bulimia. More recently, during husband John's turn as Obama's ambassador to China, Mary Kaye published a broadside in the Chinese media against cigarette advertising. Obviously, she's unlikely to court such controversy here at home, but it's nice to know the woman has the gumption to poke the powerful in the eye when the spirit moves her.

Over in deep-blue Massachusetts, Ann Romney's achingly perfect, super-traditional momness was a turnoff for voters early in Mitt's political career. It wasn't until her 1998 MS diagnosis that she became a sympathetic and relatable figure. In 2008, she put this newfound popularity to work for Mitt, hitting the trail as one of his most effective surrogates.

Ron Paul's wife, Carol, taught baton twirling and tap dancing. But these days, she takes to Facebook to fend off attacks on her son, the freshman senator from Kentucky.

And at the far end of the first-lady-in-waiting spectrum: Melania Trump. We're talking here about a steaming Slovenian ex-swimsuit model with a honey-thick accent, who wed a filthy-rich playboy more than 20 years her senior and hawks her own line of jewelry on QVC.

Those lucky ladies whose husbands actually take the plunge will soon be making new friends with a rarified breed of political animal, the image consultant. Corallo, the Republican strategist, recalls being approached by a 2008 hopeful who wanted him to "deal with the wife." "The campaign wanted me to get her up to speed on how to deal with the media, how to sound policy smart, even how to dress the right way that would appeal to Middle America and not be off-putting to either women or men." He marvels, "We have achieved this odd place in American politics where the wife is no longer there just to support husband. She has to be a full-fledged part of the campaign."

"They have to be a force multiplier," agrees Republican campaign veteran Juleanna Glover. "People do indeed expect them to interact with the political environment in their own right."

With the personal cost of running so high, and fewer wives willing to simply lie back and accede to their husband's wishes, the question of what's in it for the women grows thornier as well. Obviously, Hillary had some thoughts about what she wanted in return for supporting Bill all those years. And Elizabeth Edwards clearly entertained her own visions of power sharing—visions so compelling she urged John to stay in the 2008 race even after she learned of his affair with Rielle Hunter, despite the devastation it could have brought Democrats if Edwards had wound up on the ticket and then been found out.

By contrast, Michelle Obama's negotiations with Barack were less about her professional goals than her domestic ones. Michelle had long resented her husband's political career for both hindering the family's financial security and rendering Barack an absentee dad. When the time came to discuss higher office, the promise of making history and healing the nation was all well and good, but Michelle wanted more practical questions addressed first: how to keep the girls' lives as normal as possible, how to keep her schedule manageable, how to keep Barack safe, how to provide for the future … Plus, Barack had to give up the cigarettes.

Will this year's crop of candidates' wives break any new barriers and reorder expectations? Probably not; it's a quirk of Republican political life that the party's female candidates tend to be trailblazers and hell-raisers (see Sarah Palin and her "mama grizzlies"), while their candidates' wives tend to play to type and hide from headlines (Nancy Reagan and Betty Ford being glaring exceptions). This batch of spouses contains "many gracious individuals," Glover observes, "but I don't know that any of them would be any different from previous [models]." She predicts, however, that "this will probably be the last cycle like that."

There are signs of progress a few rungs down the ladder. Even as Mrs. Obama does the dougie with schoolkids, California Gov. Jerry Brown's wife, Anne, occupies an office across the hall from her husband and is a key part of his administration (either a fantastic or a horrifying development, depending on your perspective).

But anyone looking for a game-changing first lady to emerge in 2012 is likely to be disappointed—a reality driven home at one point in Cheri Daniels's maiden political address. Gushing about her time in the governor's mansion, Cheri told the crowd: "The best thing about being first lady is you can do what you want."

Sadly, not in Washington, Mrs. Daniels. Not at the moment, anyway. But maybe someday.