First Mates

First Mates

Introducing a new Slate series about the marriages of the presidential candidates.

Sen. Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle

As high-stress, no-win jobs go, it’s hard to think of a more humbling one than political helpmate. On the way up, the candidate’s spouse is invisible unless she makes a mistake—or is obliged to stand by, smiling, as her husband announces that he’s coming out or going away. Even at the presidential level, it is far easier for an aspiring first lady to hurt than help. (See: Hillary Clinton’s crack about baking cookies, Kitty Dukakis’announcement about the decades she spent addicted to diet pills before her husband noticed, and—a couple of lifetimes ago—the not-at-all-jammin’ effect that Tipper Gore’s campaign against raunchy rock lyrics had on her husband’s 1988 presidential run.)

In other countries, the American interest in our president’s mate and marriage is thought touching but odd. After French first lady Cecilia Sarkozy announced that she’d really rather be running around Central Park, the French public was riveted but lacked the stamina for a long-haul scandale: “Je veux vivre ma vie sans mentir,” she explained, and only days later, 89 percent of those polled said the divorce was none of their business. Just as when Italians learned that then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was rarely in residence with his second wife, the general reaction, roughly translated, was whoop-dee-damn-do. But the president’s partner and partnership are such telling mirrors, reflecting both their values and our own, that it seems crazy not to look.

So, in full knowledge of the fact that every marriage is its own exotic ecosystem—a planet only imperfectly understood even by its own two natives—this series will examine the marriages of the top-tier presidential candidates and explore what these partnerships suggest about what kind of president each would be.

Do presidential unions matter? Voters think they do. A recent survey found that fully one-third of women voters not only take the happiness of a presidential candidate’s marriage into account, but cite it as a significant factor in their decision. In 2004, I argued against the notion that Teresa Heinz Kerry had hurt her husband’s chances, but I was wrong. In interviews across the country for my book about what women really want in a president, I heard her perceived snootiness cited more often than I would ever have believed possible as the deciding factor against John Kerry. What these women didn’t like about his wife reflected and intensified their reservations about the candidate himself. Just a few weeks after the election, a public health nurse in Illinois put it like this: “I’m a registered Democrat and I’m not for being in Iraq, but I’ll tell you what, I voted for Bush. I don’t know that Bush is totally truthful, and he’s not the smartest person in the world. But Kerry, I really didn’t like his wife, and that influenced me. She has a smart mouth and doesn’t control it.”

This time around, the questions raised by the would-be first spouses include: Are we going to have to live through four or more years of Clinton marital drama? Or, on the contrary, is presidential nookie as national scandal so 1998? Are we willing to confront our own mortality along with Elizabeth Edwards? Can we depend on the judgment of a president who not only takes phone calls from his wife during a speech, but may have done so to impress us? Does Jeri Thompson attest to the accuracy of my mother’s remark, decades ago, as we were having tea in the lobby of a hotel where an American Bar Association convention was in full swing: “See how all the second wives have better jewelry?” Will Mitt Romney’s health-care plan be informed by his wife Ann’s remark that her struggle with MS had at one point left her thinking, “Couldn’t I just have cancer and die?” And, the question that kicks off our first marital probe: Is America ready to elect a truly consensus-seeking—and arguably deferential—husband like Barack Obama as commander in chief? 

Click here  to read about the Obamas’ marriage.

Click here to read about the Edwards’ marriage.

Click here to read about the Huckabees’ marriage.

Click here to read about the Clintons’ marriage.