The Other Halves

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By Emily Yoffe
Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Could this be the first presidential election in which the public's feeling about a candidate's spouse is a deciding factor? This isn't the gender breakthrough we anticipated when Hillary Clinton entered the race -- it feels more like a gender throwback. And Bill is not the only spouse who is an issue, a prism through which these candidates are judged.

For a while it looked as though the French had a better way of separating the personal from the political. No one cared that C¿cilia Sarkozy was absent from her husband's campaign, and after Nicolas Sarkozy was elected, he took a couple of hours off from work one day to get divorced. It seemed so modern, so civilized. Then Nicolas took a former model to Disneyland Paris (is he suave or what?) and headlines erupted worldwide. Now even the French are doing political love American-style.

It's certainly not American-style for a candidate to have had as passionate a love life as Rudy Giuliani has had. According to the Wall Street Journal, "negative publicity about his personal and business activities" is making Giuliani's poll numbers sink. The personal activities would be the courtship of his third wife, Judith. At a news conference while mayor, he announced to the public that his second marriage was over (it was news also to his second wife) because of Judith's importance to his life. This history has become an issue because of revelations that when the now-Mrs. G (the third Mrs. Giuliani likes to refer to herself in the third person) was just his girlfriend, Mr. G had New York's finest give her 24-hour police protection. On a government salary he couldn't afford expensive baubles, but he could order up bodyguards.

The New York Daily News, surveying women nationwide, just asked which potential first spouse behaved more despicably: Judith Giuliani or Bill Clinton. The results aren't necessarily good news for Hillary, just worse news for Rudy: Women were more forgiving of Bill's wanderings than of Judith's marriage busting.

As John Edwards tries on different personalities, morphing from cheerful optimist about better things to come to angry scourge of big, bad business, his wife, Elizabeth, becomes a more important presence. She is so essential to his effort that an ABC News political blog concluded of the campaign's spin through Iowa that "this bus tour is being headlined by Elizabeth," and it covered her remarks, not his. But there is a bleak subtext to their joint appearances: Given the recurrence of her cancer, should he even have continued his campaign?

With his big family, good looks, money and glamour, Mitt Romney should be Kennedy without the pathology. Instead, he remains the Ken doll, too ideal to be real. Mitt and Ann started dating when she was not quite 16, and he has been romance-novel mad for her ever since. On his Web site, he says it's "painful" to have to spend time away from her. There's no doubt this is for real, but some voters might chafe at the perfection of their union.

A group of second-tier candidates -- Fred Thompson, Chris Dodd and Dennis Kucinich-- may not get anywhere with the electorate, but they have offered conclusive proof of a truth once known only to women of a certain age (and disbelieved by men of the same age). That is, when an older man, one who has wattles, or snowy hair, or the face of a desiccated elf, marries a woman a generation younger, it doesn't make the man look more vigorous and vital but much, much older.

Thompson dealt with this head-on recently when the Associated Press presented slam-book-style questions to the candidates. This included asking what was their most prized possession. Thompson's cheeky response: "Trophy wife." But when your trophy wife produces a couple of offspring -- call it the Thompson-Dodd syndrome -- the sight of the toddlers sitting on the candidate's grampa-age lap means trouble with female voters.

The customary job of the spouse is to humanize the candidate without becoming an issue. In that sense, Bill presents huge dangers for Hillary. Sure, he brings an ebullience and warmth that she lacks. At one joint appearance, she told reporters that she understands that people feel they don't really know her (it would be hard for her to acknowledge that they feel they know her all too well). This is because, she explained, "It's not easy for me to talk about myself." Her husband famously does not suffer from this affliction. One of Bill's jobs now is to convince the public she's not so steely after all, which runs the risk both of making her look as if she needs his rescue, and of undercutting a selling point -- her toughness. A recent New York Times-CBS News poll found that among Hillary supporters, a large percentage say she's their candidate because they like him. But seeing so much of them together could remind people of that troubled couple in their social circle -- whether you love him, hate her, or vice versa, you're just not sure anymore how much of them together you can take.

Emily Yoffe is a contributing writer to Slate.com. Her e-mail address isemilyyoffe@hotmail.com.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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