Why First Ladies Should Pop Pills

Half of the potential first ladies in this year’s presidential election have experienced depression or drug abuse. The usually upbeat Tipper Gore was treated for depression in 1989, after her son was hit by a car and nearly killed. Cindy McCain got hooked on Percoset and Vicodin, both prescription painkillers, while being treated for back and knee pain. She began filching the pills from a medical charity she ran, until, under investigation by the Drug Enforcement Administration, she ‘fessed up in 1994.

Why do so many actual or potential first ladies seem to need chemical assistance for emotional uplift? Think of Joan Kennedy with her alcohol, Betty Ford with her pills, and Kitty Dukakis with her rubbing alcohol. Even women usually thought of as thoroughly functional have flirted with dysfunction. Jackie Kennedy relied on a Dr. Feelgood to inject her (and her husband) with vitamins and amphetamines. Barbara Bush sank into despair after her last child left home and her husband went to work for the CIA, which requires a man to be even vaguer than usual about what happened today at the office, dear.

The typical explanation is that it’s tough to be the wife of a politician. You drop everything to help your husband get elected, and if you’re successful, your reward is to be trapped on the wrong end of the public microscope. Culturebox has a few questions about this premise. Fortunately, she also has a few answers:

How hard is it to be a candidate’s or president’s wife?This is really two questions. First, do politicians’ wives have a difficult job, and second, are the emotional demands on them unusually intense? Being a candidate’s wife can be a physical strain, particularly during a campaign. Campaigning involves an exhausting amount of travel, speaking publicly over and over again, sitting straight and looking interested while others drone on, shaking an uncountable number of hands, and eating disgusting quantities of inedible food. But all this is no more, and probably less, than the candidate himself has to put up with.

By contrast, a candidate’s wife’s emotional life does require a special kind of fortitude. First, she has to be alone a lot. Few politicians make it home for dinner, since they do most of their fund raising after-hours, either at dinners or speaking engagements. Second, whatever her actual personality, she has to create the illusion that she’s the wife in the representative couple that voters and pundits appear to want her and her husband to be. To avoid the fate of Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosalynn Carter, Betty Ford, Hillary Clinton, and even, at times, Nancy Reagan, the wife must present herself as a helpmeet. But a pleasant and attractive and supportive helpmeet, not a pushy one. She must neither compete for his time nor be too involved in his activities. If she has a career, she should make sure it is as distinct from his as possible, to avoid charges of nepotism or log-rolling. If she has political opinions, she should appear to keep them to herself. Above all, she must do all this with no power of her own and no remuneration. This is a pretty big sacrifice for little reward–the royal road to marital frustration.

So why do women do it?One could speculate that there are types of women (and men) drawn to politicians–let’s call them masochists–just as there are types of men and women drawn to politics, most of whom were or wanted to be their class president. Masochism is linked to a tendency to succumb to depression, and depression is linked to abuse of prescription drugs and alcohol, and so on and so forth.

Like all psychosocial generalizations, though, this explanation is inadequate in two ways: It doesn’t explain the exceptions, and it may reverse cause and effect. It could be that politicians’ wives develop a taste for masochism–or drugs–as a response to their situation. What if they married before he entered politics and before she understood what being a politician’s wife would entail? Calling her a masochist amounts to asking why she doesn’t leave, which displays a limited grasp of the complexity of human motivations. (This is why demanding that Hillary leave Bill has always seemed so silly.) What if she loves him and doesn’t want to destroy his career? What if she doesn’t believe in divorce? What if she’s afraid of losing the custody battle?

So she should drink or pop pills instead?This is not as crazy as it sounds. Look at it this way. Your options are 1) leave your husband and ruin his career; 2) stay with your husband but demonstrate your frustration in a way that hurts him politically; or 3) stay with your husband and drug yourself to make it bearable. Guess what! No. 3 is the option that requires the least sacrifice by all parties. But there’s another twist: If it came out that the wife was drinking or taking drugs, that would hurt her husband and turn No. 3 into a variant of No. 2. So No. 3 works only if secrecy is assured. Since that’s impossible in today’s media climate, No. 3 is a difficult course to pursue. But if it’s successful, it’s still the best one.

Are presidential couples really required to purvey a soul-destroying fiction to the American public?If you believe Gil Troy, a historian of presidential couples and the author of Affairs of State: The Rise and Rejection of the Presidential Couple Since World War II, the answer is yes. Troy is astute about the impossibility of the first lady’s position: “First Ladies have become prime political targets, attacked, ridiculed, and grilled about their childhoods, their child rearing, their marriages, their fashions, and their philosophies. It is a thankless task.” However, unlike other commentators on the modern presidential marriage, Troy argues that the “co-presidency,” as he calls it, is less the product of feminism and the belief that “the personal is political” than of the mass media, with its emphasis on the personalities of celebrities. As he sees it, the real job of the political spouse isn’t to provide a foil for the endless conversation about sex roles. It is to do for her husband what the party used to do for candidates, “helping to define the country’s leader in an accessible and standard shorthand.”

And yet, he notes, no matter how much Americans have come to expect a first lady by the side of the president, we are equally insistent that we don’t want anyone to wield power whom we haven’t elected. Any woman seen to usurp her husband’s presidential prerogatives will immediately witness a drop in her–and her husband’s–popularity. Troy’s solution to this is not to fight it: “Don’t be yourselves; be who they want you to be.” “The less power you seem to want, the more you’ll get and the more popular you shall be.” “When in doubt, go retro.” Being something of a tragic realist, Troy goes so far as to conclude that the lies required to create an idealized political marriage are a social necessity. They are, he says, “useful fictions,” in that they provide the American public with the role models needed to fight the cynicism he says prevails about both marriage and democracy today.

Not surprisingly, others are less pessimistic. Andrew Sullivan thinks that first ladies such as Bill Bradley’s wife, literature professor Ernestine Schlant, are the way to go–that is that first ladies should have their own careers. Margaret Talbot and Germaine Greer want to get rid of first ladies altogether, at least as currently conceived–which is, as Talbot puts it, “as so much glorified arm candy.”

The problem with both these suggestions is that they’re implausible. We won’t know how the public would react to Schlant as first lady, since Bradley seems doomed. But the first lady today does have several specific and time-consuming tasks, mostly involving entertaining, which would make it nearly impossible for Schlant to maintain a full course load or to publish monographs while her husband was in the White House. It’s even harder to imagine how we could force media outlets to stop treating first ladies as “arm candy” or demanding intimate revelations of them. The media’s appetite for what Troy calls “shorthand” only grows. Given the fierce competition, no presidential candidate is likely to unilaterally disarm by campaigning without his wife.

Troy may be overestimating the social utility of illusions–they seem as likely to produce cynicism as to quell it–but he’s right about the media’s insistence on them. Rather than demand the unthinkable, Culturebox suggests we federally finance tranquillizers instead.