The other Gingrich and Santorum: The personal lives of political wives

January 23, 2012

This piece is part of an On Leadership round table exploring the role of first lady.

Of the many applause-generating moments in Thursday night’s GOP debate in South Carolina, none was more surprising than when the topic of open marriage came up. On the same day that Newt Gingrich’s second wife, Marianne Gingrich, accused the former House Speaker of wanting a marriage that allowed him to see other women, Gingrich managed to turn the expected weakness into an applause line. He called host John King’s move to open the debate with a question about his personal life appalling and vicious, and said the accusation was false. The crowd in South Carolina went wild.

How much a candidate’s personal life should be subject to the harsh spotlight of the presidential campaign has long been up for debate. But even as voters in South Carolina seemed to give Gingrich a pass, there’s little question that the measure of a leader’s character does not stop at the end of his desk. Sure, the media’s obsession with personal foibles can distract from the much more pressing questions our country faces. But if voters care about what religion presidential candidates practice, or how much money they made in past jobs, I think it’s completely fair for them to know how candidates have treated the people they supposedly love the most, especially if it stands in contrast to what they say publicly.

The past personal life of a candidate’s spouse, however, is a much more complicated issue.

Already in the race, several current or would-be GOP hopefuls’ wives have been subject to questions about their lives that some might find intrusive—while others might see them as part of the process. Newsweek recently reported that Karen Santorum, the wife of perhaps the most staunchly pro-life candidate in the race, had a six-year relationship in the 1980s with a much older abortion clinic doctor. And as I write this, the most popular story on The New Yorker’s Web site is a profile of Callista Gingrich in which her mother says she was shocked about her daughter’s affair with Newt. Politico also reported Tuesday that influential evangelical leader James Dobson recently called Callista Gingrich a “mistress” at a meeting of conservatives.

Even as early as last year, the marital history of Cheri Daniels and her husband, Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, became the subject of many news stories when the governor apparently opted out of running for president due to his wife’s concerns. In the 1990s, she filed for divorce from him, moved to California and married a man there, before later returning and remarrying Daniels. In persuading her husband not to run, the Indiana first lady seemed to know this would become a painful topic on the campaign trail.

But should it be? All three of the episodes occurred years ago in these women’s lives. People can and do change their minds, fall in love, and make mistakes. Most important of all, none of these three women is running for president herself.

And yet, in an age when political wives are on the campaign trail advocating for their husbands’ policies and answering questions from voters, there’s understandable interest in how those beliefs conflict with episodes from their past. The president may be the one we vote for, but everyone knows how influential political spouses can be on matters large and small. Ann Romney was instrumental in getting her husband to run for president this year, despite his being “the one who was reluctant, much more reluctant, this time.” Anita Perry may have influenced her husband’s thinking on the HPV vaccine requirement that landed him in the conservative hot seat. And Callista Gingrich apparently “wields a great deal of decision-making power” in the Gingrich campaign. “The woman is always the grownup” in the relationship, Newt Gingrich has said.

As a result, the contours of these women’s pasts are of interest, even if the episodes in question aren’t always relevant. I for one couldn’t care less about whom Karen Santorum did or didn’t date in her 20s, though I could see how abortion opponents thinking about voting for her husband might be curious to know more. I think the Daniels’ decision to remarry could show some voters that their relationship is strong enough to survive something traumatic; though I also can’t help but wonder how differently the whole story would be painted if it were instead the husband who returned to remarry his wife. And if indeed Dobson did call Callista Gingrich a “mistress,” I hope he holds the offenses of her husband, who actually had the extramarital affair, to the same standard.

Fair or not, potential presidential wives (as all the candidates are now men) are expected to fade into the background, add a warm and personal touch to their husbands’ campaigns, and promise to work on motherhood-and-apple-pie causes such as literacy or education. Unlike the flaws in their husband’s personal lives, which can be dealt with openly and sometimes even flipped in their favor in an act of political jujitsu, the foibles in future first ladies’ backgrounds tend to be seen as a distraction, an inconvenience. But until these women decide to run for president themselves, questions about decades-old episodes from personal lives should be focused on their husbands instead.

Jena McGregor writes the Post Leadership blog for the Washington Post.

More on this topic:

The psychological effect of a good spouse

The quietest power player in Washington

The problematic role of first lady

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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