THE QUESTION IS: Should it be left to a presidential candidate to choose the woman who may be elevated with him to the position of First Lady? His choice is clearly of some importance to the man and his party and the country. Read the proposed reforms of recent reforms of earlier reforms of the electoral process in America; All of them skirt the issue.
It seemed to have been decided that the choice of a presidential candidate was too serious to be left to the men who cough their lungs out in smoke filled rooms. But now that we have seen what the nonsmokers can do, the question seems to be wide open again to yet one more reform. Every four years it is debated whether the choice of a vice presidential candidate is not too serious to be left to the presidential nominee. After all, two of the last four presidents have been elevated without election from the position of vice president, so it matters.
But no one seems to be concerned that the person who is likely to have the most direct access to the president is chosen as the result of what may have been just his whim as a stripling. This seems to be the last place in our societies where it is assumed that marriages are made in heaven, with the aid, one presumes, of a divinity who can foresee the importance which the choice will eventually have the fate of nations.
It would really seem to be time that some procedure was devised by which the conventions can impose a morganatic marriage on their nominee for the duration of his presidency. Americans seem more and more to be calling for perfection in their presidents. They will even force a president almost to his knees on account of his brother. But for some reason the choice of the First Lady is entrusted to the judgement which he exercised at the moment when men's discrimination is generally acknowledged to be erratic.
These reflections have been prompted in part by considering the wives of the three men who still seem to be most likely to be the candidates this year. These women are, by all accounts, not mere flibbertigibbets. They are by no means just ornaments of their husbands' careers. There appears to be ample evidence that they do not just reign with their husbands but play a part in ruling.
No one would today accept the portrait of Rosalynn Carter which Norman Mailer gave four years ago in one of his more endearing passages of mismanaged if not misplaced enthusiasm: "With her heart-shaped face, her large eyes, her direct features, her absence of patrician hesitation to approve or to judge, she could even have been a hostess or a waitress . . . a movie staror a waitress in a good '30s film." Gail Sheehy was, at the time, more discerning, with an article, "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Second President."
By the time of the presidential communion at Camp David a year ago, the asssessment of Rosalynn Carter went almost too far the other way. It was hard to open the newspapers and not believe that she was Lady Macbeth. In every portgrait of her, she seemed to call to her husband, "Screw your courage to the sticking-place," and cry to him, "Infirm of purpose! Give me the daggers."
What no one doubts is that she is a woman with her own ambitions and methods of achieving them through her husband, and behind what Mary McGrory calls the Upward Adoring Gaze of Nancy Reagan the same may be found. It is surely of interest that, when John P. Sears III and two other members of Ronald Reagan's staff overheard that they might be fired, it was to his wife that they went and proposed a compromise, and that she was present with her husband and William J. Casey at the meeting at which they were finally told of their dismissal.
There seems hardly to be any question that she and her father, Loyal Davis, have been a strong influence in directing her husband's ambitions and, not only his ambitions, but even the conservatism which seemed to come with his marriage.
The persistent comment of those who know John Anderson that the key to him lies in the influence of his wife, Keke Anderson, has led even a political journal in Britain as demure as The Spectator to expostulate at her "ferocious ambition." Readers of The Washington Post in particular have reason to know" something of the degree and character of this ambition from the unnerving interview with the Andersons which was presented to them by Sally Quinn as early as Jan. 20 this year.
One of the ways of stirring up a dull dinner in this city is to mention the last interview by Sally Quinn, and she certainly requires no defense from a colleague who has none of her talents. But one is responsible for the authorities which one calls in evidence, and I must say that some of her interviews, as that with the Andersons, are as valuable and trustworthy as primary documents as any private journal quoted by a historian.
Her portrait of the relationship between the candidate and his wife neither attractive nor reassuring, and the other evidence of which I am aware confirms it, but even so it might not concern one so much if it were not for the pictures of the two other candidates and their wives. One does not wish to build too weighty a thesis on what may be only a coincidence, but I believe that the nature of these wives' ambitions and influence points to a flaw common to the three candidates, and one which is a public concern and so fit for comment.
All three candidates seem to me to be emptied men. None of them appears to have any very deep political convictions. Reagan the Democrat-turned-Republican, Anderson the Republican -turned -Independent, and Carter who still stands loose to his party: They are all men whom it is difficult to pin down, by the usual standards by which we measure politicians.
One is never sure if they will stand tomorrow wwhere they stood yesterday. Whether or not it matters that they all claim to be born-again Christians, it does matter that they all seem to have a facility for being born again politically. Each of them in his own way gives the hollow ring of an empty barrel when one strikes it, and they all seem then to be filled with the strong liquor of their wives' ambitions.
With the obvious exceptions of Abigail Adams and Eleanor Roosevelt, we have mostly very fuzzy pictures of the First Ladies of the past. They are presented to us with some flashes of strength and independence of character, and even now and then of an unhappiness endured in private and in silence, but for the most part we are given pictures of such willing helpmeets that taken together they must be a travesty. Americans appear not to like to face the fact that Borgia women were often worse and quicker with the phial of poison than Borgia men.
As I was also reading of the celebration of the 80th birthday of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen mother, and of yet another books about the Duchess of Windsor. Alastair Forbes is in a better position than most writers in Britain to talk about "the royals," and he has used this double occasion to give a double portrait which is strenuously unsentimental, and which is not irrelevant to the concerns which I am raising here.
He draws a relentless and telling contrast between George VI, "a man of whom it was correctly prophesied that he 'will be made or marred by his wife'," and his brother Edward VIII, whose destiny it was to "have lost his vocation and forgotten his duty from the moment he formed his attachment to a woman who fatally knew and understood nothing of their demands." Even within the defined roles of monarchy, the characters of the consort are an influence. How much more so in the undefined roles of the presidency.
In the relationships before us today, the evidence is not of the equal independence of character of John and Abigail Adams, or of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt; the evidence is of an unhealthy dependence and influence exerted in the wrong ways. This is not a matter of only private interest, any more than was the character of Eleanor of Aquitaine, and yet we are asked to tread warily in discussing it.
The influence of mothers is open to public debate -- Lillian Carter -- and the characters of brothers and sisters -- Ruth Stapleton Carter as well as Billy Carter -- but the central figure of the wives are given an immunity. Yet I have heard many people in private say that the characters and influence of the wives of the three candidates today are a matter of concern and even alarm to them. Discuss the candidates at almost any table or any bar, and it is barely minutes before their wives are mentioned. But publicly the subject is almost out of bounds.
There is in fact a considerably franker public discussion of queens in Britain than of First Ladies in America. And even when the roles are reversed, the Duke of Edinburgh does not go scot free. Yet the characters of Bess Truman and Mamie Eisenhower and Jacqueline Kennedy and Lady Bird Johnson and Pat Nixon and Betty Ford and Rosalynn Carter have all been telling evidence in estimating the men. We have now been given at least an adequate account of the wife of Theodore Roosevelt; no one questions the importance of the second wife of Woodrow Wilson. Yet we must not talk of such relationships in the present.
Every four years we have the speculation as to whom the candidates will choose as their running mates. Yet they themselves chose their real running mates years ago with no confirmation by the conventions. They are not vetted by the FBI; if they are unstable, they are not condemned like Thomas Eagleton; their names are not put in nomination. So fertile are the minds of the reformers, surely they have a remedy for this.