A man at a recent Democratic fund-raiser in Virginia was asked whom he planned to vote for for governor in next Tuesday's Democratic primary. "I'll tell you," he said, "I'm going to vote for Doris Miller. She's been over here a lot. I think she is just great."
Of course, Doris Miller is not a candidate in the primary. Her husband Andrew is, against Henry E. Howell. But the man's unsolicited endorsement of Mrs. Miller points up an aspect of the current campaign that might be called the Rosalyn Carter phenomenon - the impact of the wives.
It used to be that the wife in Virginia politics essentially made appearances for her husband-candidate, but she didn't actually campaign. No getting up at the crack of dawn to hand out leaflets at a plant gate, no speeches to large audiences. Although both Mrs. Miller and Howell's wife Betty have campaigned in their husbands' previous races, this time they appear to be takin an even more active role, although both say they aren't doing anything they haven't done before.
Today it's Doris Miller going on the tradition hand-shaking tour of the local courthouse or standing on a picnic bench to make a speech at a backyard barbecue, or Betty Howell speaking to a black church congregation on a Sunday morning. Lynda Johnson Robb has been a major resource in her husband's lieutenant gubernatorial campaign, attracting crowds of the curious because she is the late President Johnson's daughter, or contributions from the scores of people loyal to her family.
The candidate's wife is often thought of as having the worst deal in the political game. Expected to be have and dress with propriety at all times, she is often used as a vote-getting tool without having any say in the strategy or issues on which the candidate bases his campaign. She is thought of as an extension of the candidate, someone hose main purpose is to run around touting her husband as the greatest man since Alexander the Great.
It isn't quite as simple as that. Most of the wives who are participating in the Virginia primary campaign are istrinct individuals, none of whom considers herself to be merely an extension of her husband. They are, for the most part, examples of the type of middle-class housewife who takes full advantage of neither wanting nor needing to have a separate career. They enjoy traveling around the stae or being on citizen boards of various type or active volunteers in public service groups.They enjoy campaigning.
lynda Robb today has taken to handing out leaflets at plant gates - including the Reynolds Metals Co., which is run by the family of the man her husband's campaign staff considers to be his most serious opponent, Richard S. (Major) Reynolds III.
Susan Lechner, who is married to the third candidate in the race for the lieutenant governor's nomination, Ira M. Lechner, is spending much of her time on the campaign, but mostly in the nonpublic capacity.She participates in weekly staff meetings, helps to coordinate the campaign in Northern Virginia, and works the phones.
In another family-related development, Lechner this week announced the formation of the "Mothers-in-law for Lechner" committee, a dig at Robb's famous mother-in-law, Lady Bird Johnson, who has campaigned for Robb around the state.
Mrs. Robb is clearly the star of the wives in this campaign; Mrs. Miller is the professional. In her first campaign appearances, Mrs. Robb would say she was not a good speaker, and appeared to be nervous and somewhat uncomfortable. Nonetheless she has hit the road with enthusiasm, attired in a seemingly endless series of attractive ultrasuede outfits, and now appears confident and at ease in front of audiences.
Betty Howell is often introduced as a "councilwoman in her own right," a reference to the fact that after years of experience as gubernatorial candidate Henry E. Howel's wife she decided to run for office herself and was elected to the Norfolk City Council, without Howell's campaign assistance.
Mrs. Howell is a short, middle-aged woman who exudes maternal concern and shares her husband's feisty independence.
Campagining in Goochland County recently, she said she encountered an attempt to keep her from appearing in a parde. "I showed them," she recalled. "We took a lot of bumper sticker and posters and plastered them all over the car and then drove around the back way and got right into the front of the parade. This is Betty Howell; they aren't going to keep me out of a parade."
She also has the habit of being late, a failing that seems to be treated by Howell supporters with a mixture of impatience and affectionate resignation. "We have to be there at 11:30 so we told her to meet us at 10:30," said P. J. Thomas as he and two other campaign workers waited for her at a hotel in Hampton last Sunday.
"Oh dear, I'm in the doghouse. P.J.'s mad," she said after arriving according to the schedule she had been given, only 25 minutes late. "Elizabeth, I'm not mad at you, but i do believe you've never been on time in your life, Thomas said. "I guess you're right, Mrs. Howell replied, "I think I was born late."
She went on to speak briefly at two black churches, asking to congregations to vote "one more time for Henry." Then she spoke at a crab Young Democrats, where, sensing that the crowd was largely pro-Miller, she wisely chose to talk about party unity after the primary.
The daughter of a railroad employee from the small town of Crewe, Mrs. Howell went to college for a year and later studied art, an avocation she hopes to eventually have time to pursue again.
"Being on (the) Council has really made me more of a person in my own right," she said; after disclaiming any interest in being a liberated woman. "Each woman has within her sense of independence if it's brough out. . . . I never thought I could do the things I have, but if you have to do something by yourself you do it."
At a coffee party to meet Doris Miller near Staunton on Monday, Nancy Nolen recalled the first time she met Mrs. Miller, who was then the wife of the attorney general. "My husband had just been elected to the legislature and I was in Richmond to meet some of the wives. I was really terrified. Doris came by to pick me up and when I saw that her car was as full of children's bats and balls and junk as mine was, I felt right at home."
And that, in many ways, is the essence of Doris Miller's appeal. When she talks about "the mess of trunks and laundry" she left at home to go campaigning, listeners seem to believe her. When she notes tht "All Democrats don't always agree with Andrew - nor do I," they smile in recogniation and nod in agreement.
Mrs. Miller has her own scheduler during this election, who programs her into six to seven days a week of campaigning. She also has a driver to share the campaign work on the road as the candidates do.
Miller's staff even prepared a set of sappy press releases complete with fill-in-the-blank notes that say "Doris Miller expected to visit on."
" . . . her warm, friendly smike and interest in people have a naturalk outlet in his political life," reads one. " . . . Her chief family goal has been to create a pleasant home where her busy husband can relax and enjoy his three children."
She is a graduate of Vassar College with a degree in English and religion, the daughter of the dean of faculty at Princeton University. A member of numerous boards and associations, she also wrote book reviews for the Roadnoke Times and read scripts for the Barter Theater while Miller was practicing law in Abingdon before running for attorney general in 1969. She keeps a journal and jokes about writing a book someday.
"I'm not a woman's club type of person," she said, "I've had to learn to make myself go into large groups of people. It's been good for me . . . I'm not that good looking, I don't look like something out of Vogue magazine, that's for sure, but I've realized that I'm much more critical of myself that other people are."
She won't discuss issues unless asked, but accepts the notion that a candidate's wife is often used to show the human side of a politician. "There is a definite role for the candidate's wife, but it's something she has to evolve on her own. You have to do what you're doing within your own capabilities and style."