RUNNING MATES

The Making of a First Lady

By Ann Grimes

Morrow. 336 pp. $21.95

HATTIE BABBITT said it best. After months of traipsing around the early primary states as the wife of 1988 Democratic presidential hopeful Bruce Babbitt, the Phoenix attorney told an interviewer, "I've heard one of the candidates' wives say she loves every minute of the race, and all I can say is, either she's lying or she's wacko."

If running for president is a punishing, in many cases dehumanizing marathon, it is all that and more for the women who are assigned by our culture to stand smilingly at the candidates' sides: to be smart, but not assertive; to be attractive, but not threatening; to be active, but not ambitious for power in the White House. To be, in other words, some impossible amalgam of interest and blandness.

Ann Grimes set out, in the 1988 presidential campaign, to cover the "race" between would-be first ladies, analyzing the signs and symbols of their contributions to their husband's images and campaigns. She started with the thesis that the role of first lady -- indeed, of all politicians' wives -- was in the midst of a profound shift; that Out There, she might find a reflection of how American women's lives had changed.

This seemed a sensible hunch at the time. Both parties, early on, produced first lady "candidates" with compelling professional credentials of their own: There were several lawyers (Hattie Babbitt, Jeane Simon) and past and present government officials (Elise Dupont, Elizabeth Dole); there were women who had established their own names as workers for a cause, such as Tipper Gore. And these women presented interesting new twists on the wife's traditional status as window dressing -- as well as interesting new headaches for the candidates' handlers. Was Tipper Gore's rock lyric-labeling campaign a detriment to her husband's campaign, especially among the liberal moneybags of Los Angeles? When Elizabeth Dole resigned her cabinet seat to campaign full-time for her husband, would she lose her husband as much ground, among dismayed women, as she gained him among the southern voters she was expected to charm?

But in the end, none of the New-Woman speculations of the pundits mattered. American voters picked a first lady who summed up her life's work, to that moment, in this way: "I'll tell you in one sentence how you train to be first lady. You marry well. That's all you need to know."

The bulk of the book stands as proof not of the changes in American life, but of the political culture's dreary traditionalism where the use and abuse (and self-abuse) of spouses is concerned. At times, Running Mates reads like a collection of martyr fables. There is the humiliation of Elizabeth Dole, who learned of her husband's decision to concede defeat in the primaries from a caller on a radio talk show in Wisconsin -- where she was appearing as a stand-in for the candidate. There is the frustration of Jane Gephardt, who learned that she had "no say and no influence whatsoever" over whether or not her husband could find time in his busy schedule for family events. "The staff just took his life over," she told Grimes. "I would call up and I'd say, 'This is something very important, Katie's dance recital or whatever, and it would be terrific if he could be home for this one thing.' It's, 'Well, sorry. But there's this, and this, and this. It's all much more important than Katie's recital.' " There are the histories of depression that stalked the wives of both parties' eventual nominees -- though Barbara Bush appears to have beaten hers back, while Kitty Dukakis still, apparently, battles it.

And there is, of course, the champion political wife-martyr of all time, Lee Hart. Who, after the seamy sight of her husband throwing away a life's career over Donna Rice, then followed him back into the race and through every shopping mall in the midwest, and could still say in an interview: "One of the things I appreciate about Gary is he doesn't use his family for political purposes."

As Grimes points out, the candidate's families -- supposed evidence of their reverence for The Family -- played a larger role than ever in the image-driven campaign of 1988. George Bush used his five children and ever-growing brood of grandchildren to burnish a look that favored him in a number of ways: by reaching out to women voters across what looked early on like a frightening gender gap in his opponent's favor; by pleasing conservative voters who doubted his zeal on the social issues that are often couched as "family" issues (abortion, school prayer, and so on); and also by setting the Bushes subtly apart from the Reagans, with their distant grandchildren and Bel Air mores.

Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis, on the other hand, used his emotional, mercurial wife to lend passion to his image as a heartless technocrat. The press happily swallowed the stories of the tender couple snatching a silent dance, alone, in a holding room -- just as they clicked voraciously away at photo opportunities featuring the Bush family at carefully scripted play.

Both wives, in some of the lower moments of the campaign, learned to weave into their standard stump speeches emotional accounts of how their husbands had helped them weather the death of a child.

UNFORTUNATELY, Running Mates is one of those books that ultimately chews more than it bites off. It has a loose structure that rambles from section to section, never solving the foreordained narrative problem: that because there is little likelihood -- certainly no proof -- that a single vote was cast for or against Barbara Bush or Kitty Dukakis, as opposed to their husbands, there is little drama to a "race" between them. And Grimes is not a skilled enough writer to have built a compelling narrative out of the themes these women suggest. At one point she comes tantalizingly close to suggesting that Kitty Dukakis was driven to her later acts of self-destruction (the alcoholism she acknowledged after the campaign, and an episode in which she drank rubbing alcohol) by the difficulty of her attempt "to create a new model for candidates wives." But she backs off of this theme, which seems a difficult one to prove in the face of Kitty Dukakis's long prior history of depression and substance abuse.

Grimes' prose can be heavy weather, too. Her style is catchy but cliche-ridden; her quotes run too long, much of the time; and many passages are repetitive or have the texture of filler, as if she had emptied all her reporting into the book. Curiously, she has what can only be called the sexist habit of introducing incidental women characters by such offhand phrases as "a wispy, attractive former social worker" and "an attractive, dark-haired woman," where these attributes are of no relevance. A young campaign worker for Gore is described, on later reference, as "the Gore gal."

At times Grimes shows a sharp eye for political hypocrisy, and she is at her best in describing and deconstructing particular performances in the wives' political theater -- especially several episodes in Barbara Bush's deliberate campaign to build her image through self-deflating humor. Her star turn came at a lunch with women's magazine editors only a month before the election, a day after the stock market experienced a scary drop merely on the strength of a rumor that George Bush had a mistress. Facing down a roomful of younger, chicly dressed, basically hostile Manhattanites at the Four Seasons, she camped it up as Mother Barbara, making it unthinkable to challenge her or her marriage.

On the whole, Grimes tellingly depicts a Barbara Bush who "publicly appears to be less savvy, less involved, and less ambitious than her friends, family and staff say she is." But late in the book she reverts, puzzlingly, to the gushing tone of a fanzine in describing "Bar's" daily lot in the White House. Her spontaneity. The way she keeps up with friends, and shelters her family. The comfort she draws from her dog.

Grimes seems not to have decided, in the end, whether this was to be a book about the ordeal of running for First Lady, as seen through the lives of the most recent candidates; or a book about what the images of political wives might suggest about American society. Most disappointingly, she seems not to want to draw a moral from the story she lays out. As she relates it, "in 1988 the political system still rewarded what it always had -- a conventional public wife: the antithesis of the notion that women can actively create an independent place for themselves."

This might have been a far more interesting book if Grimes had a powerful opinion about that outcome, or a powerful curiosity about what strains in American life it reflects. Beyond some fragmentary man (and woman)-on-the-street interviews and some cursory poll results, Grimes brings little independent intellectual effort to bear on explaining why Americans now give top popularity ratings to a woman like Barbara Bush. The "election" of Barbara Bush, and the image of marriage and family she represents, had some meaning, as the seniors of Wellesley College intuited; but Grimes is more interested in the details of how Bush got there than in the total picture she now presents and promotes.

Marjorie Williams is a writer for The Washington Post Magazine.