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The Strange Lives of Political Wives

Political wives. Can you think of a worse job? Married to type A personalities with more than a little bit of a narcissistic streak, these women — often educated and accomplished in their own right — must present a subservient demeanor and a sunny picture of their spouses or risk their spouses’ success. In addition, they often play a big part in their husbands’ careers by campaigning or crafting strategy. It is a rare politician whose wife operates outside the inner political circle.

Hillary Clinton famously said, “I’m not going to have some reporters pawing through our papers. We are the president.” She was dubbed the “co-president.” While her husband presided, socialized medicine failed under her unelected but powerful watch. A formidable woman, Ms. Clinton became a New York senator and is now the secretary of state. She ran largely on the experience she gleaned as the president’s wife.

But Hillary Clinton is not the only notable political wife. Dolley Madison bravely rescued priceless artwork from the White House as the British troops advanced. Eleanor Roosevelt was a first lady activist for the poor and campaigned for equal rights. Betty Ford revealed her alcoholism and helped a whole generation deal with addiction. And now, Michelle Obama is known for her fashion sense, her toned biceps, and her White House garden.

Many political wives aren’t just known for their contributions to the political sphere. Many endured having their private lives made public. Hillary Clinton isn’t only known for her politics and ambition. She is also known as the woman who stood by her husband’s side despite his infidelity and abuse of power. A staunch feminist, she demonized the women who were victims of her husband’s advances and infamously decried “the vast right-wing conspiracy.”

Other political women continue to stand by their wayward men. Most recently and notably, Elizabeth Edwards, a lawyer like Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama, publicly faced her husband’s straying:

Elizabeth Edwards, wife of former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, writes in a new memoir that news of her husband’s affair made her vomit.

“I cried and screamed, I went to the bathroom and threw up,” Edwards, 59, who has terminal cancer, writes in Resilience.

She said she wanted her husband to drop out of the race to protect the family from media scrutiny, but stood by his side anyway.

Many political wives endure such shame. James “I’m gay” McGreevey’s wife was dragged into sexual allegations once her husband’s sexual orientation was made public. And there is poor Ms. Eliot Spitzer, who stood by while her husband admitted to hiring hookers:

Spitzer revealed that his wife stood by him at the crucial time, as she could understand what he was going through.

“When you’re in the foxhole with somebody, and there are incoming mortars, that breeds a certain closeness because nobody else can appreciate what you’re going through,” Spitzer added.

His statement and Hillary Clinton’s statement that she knew her husband was going to “always be interesting” lead one to believe that politics is a team effort and certain trade-offs and deals are made between spouses. It is such a commitment of time, energy, and resources — how can a political life not be a joint ambition?

I had the opportunity to be the first to interview Meg Wasinger, wife of Rob Wasinger, Republican primary contender for the open Kansas congressional seat. A mother of nine whose ages range from 8 months to 14 years, she finished her degree while nursing her babies and homeschooling the older children — and while her husband was Senator Sam Brownback’s chief of staff. The Wasingers recently moved back to Kansas where the whole family is helping her husband campaign.

Ms. Wasinger comes from a high-achieving family of women. Her sister, a dentist and mother of eight, would take breaks from seeing patients to nurse her babies. Another sister is a doctor and mother of four who teaches at Harvard Medical School. Their own mother was a nurse who stayed home to raise her daughters.

Meg met and married her husband while he was an undergrad student at Harvard, where he had a reputation for being an “arch right-winger.” This is what the Harvard Crimson said of Wasinger:

Wasinger himself would never be mistaken for a member of any Nixonian silent majority.

“Rob thrives on confrontation, on the thrill of the fight,” says his friend Brown. “Rob likes to get it out there in print.”

Another friend, Thomas E. Woods ’94, attests to Wasinger’s fame — or infamy — by saying, “I got my reputation as the guy who hangs around Rob Wasinger.”

The campus press has paid attention, as have the national media, drawn by his strident, eminently quotable rhetoric.

For example, Wasinger calls the pro-choice movement “a culture of death that seeks to destroy life at every conceivable opportunity.”

When I asked Meg if her husband still had that fire or if he’d mellowed, she said: “In a place like Harvard where it’s so ultra-liberal, the atmosphere at the time at college was very intense. He’s a little more tempered and more reserved in his old age.” It is clear, though, that her husband’s political activism started when they were both college students and she was aware of his ambitions.

We talked about women in politics and the mixed messages that are sent. Men, I noted, aren’t criticized for leaving their children behind as politicians, but women face a double standard. She said of Sarah Palin: “Some people are just called to do more. She clearly had a special calling. There are plenty of women who played important parts and that is where God wanted them to be. Sarah Palin had such a supportive husband. When you have older children, it is really a self-sustaining operation.”

Meg mentioned that she has always had something on the side to keep her active. While in Washington, D.C., she decided to get her real estate license. “I didn’t try to be something I wasn’t. Everyone knew I was a mother with a large family,” she said of showing homes with a baby on her hip.

When I asked her what would happen if her husband were to be knocked out of the primary race, she said: “It’s not even an option. We don’t have contingency plans. I just haven’t thought of it.”

We discussed how life would be should her husband win the congressional seat. She reflected on his schedule when he was Brownback’s chief of staff and said he would be “gone before the kids woke up and home after the kids got home” when the Senate was in session but they “haven’t really talked about the logistics” of how they’d handle daily life should he win the election. I noted that it’s a sacrifice and she said: “It’s no doubt service. There are definitely sacrifices that can be made.” She added: “It’s what Rob is really good at. It’s his gift so we’ll make it work.” And she wanted it to be known that her family is involved in politics and that they plan to campaign together as a family.

The Wasingers’ plan to campaign together reminded me of Sarah Palin’s 8-year-old daughter, all sweetness and innocence and sheltered from the venom being spewed about her family. Politics seems a little like being a Hollywood child actor — surreal, pressured, and scrutinized. It rarely seems to turn out well. And yet America needs the Sarah Palins of the world.

How will America survive if good people don’t run for office? When decent people forgo politics because they see how public servants are personally destroyed, there seems little incentive to jump into the shark-infested waters. Conservatives, especially, must worry about this. Over the last decade the press has shed any objective pretense and made it its mission to destroy conservative politicians, especially those who are most outspoken and idealistic. It gives rational people pause.

And so the political world may end up being inhabited by guys like Arlen Specter and Bill Clinton, self-serving miscreants who abuse their calling. They are bought and paid for by interests and are far removed from those who vote them into office. And behind these men stand women who facilitate their journey.

Jackie Kennedy could arguably be the most famous presidential wife. She had this to say: “Now, I think that I should have known that he was magic all along. I did know it — but I should have guessed that it would be too much to ask to grow old with and see our children grow up together. So now, he is a legend when he would have preferred to be a man.”

It seems that too many politicians would prefer to be legends rather than men. It is the rare person who can hold that power and hang on to his humanity. And behind that man — or legend as he may view himself — stands a woman. And that woman finds herself in the strange situation of building the legend while living with the man. It seems a most unenviable position.