FOR A CONGRESSIONAL wife to bewail the end of her husband's Washington career is scarcely news, but for one to be dancing in the streets comes as a surprise -- at least to me, since I am such a wife.
While many of my colleagues, like Lot's wife, are turning to salt (tears) and standing immobilized in a backward-looking position, I am reminded of the Charles Addams cartoon of a weeping audience in which is imbedded one ebullient ghoul.
Why the unexpected elation? Especially since my husband, Jonathan Bingham, so enjoyed his 18 years in the House and his chairmanship of a subcommittee of the Foreign Affairs Committee?
One way our situation is better than that of some colleagues is that Jonathan, with an assist from New York's redistricters, retired voluntarily and therefore does not need to belabor himself or anyone else for defeat at the polls. (For both member and spouse, the feelings elicited by electoral defeat resemble coming to after an operation and finding that an important part of you has been amputated).
But the major cause of my elation is not at all unique. It is simply freedom from having to share my spouse with his Washington office staff, his subcommittee staff, his home district staff and his half-million constituents.
For a loving congressional couple, the term coitus interruptus refers to the ringing of the telephone rather than the planning of a family. Of course, many of the interrupters have a genuine claim on their representative. Between his staff and spouse, for example, rivalry for his attention and energy is almost bound to arise. While they want to make him president, she wants to keep him alive; while they remind him how wonderful he is, she reminds him to stop at the supermarket.
Jonathan and I were lucky because our marriage had had time to jell before we reached the congressional scene, but I well remember a few wives, with the give-away stigmata of haunted eyes and exorbitant makeup, whose husbands had taken up with some beauteous and knowledgeable staff member or lobbyist or media person.
Another way we were lucky was that our four children were no longer small when their father was first elected. Although, in terms of family life, the congressional calendar is far better organized than under Speaker Sam Rayburn (who had no wife) or Speaker John McCormack (who had no children), there is still conflict between the school year and the congressional year. As a result, frequent separation occurs between husband and wife, between congressional parent and children, regardless of whether they go to school in the home district or in Washington.
Another element in my elation is the prospect, at long last, of being settled. For what reasons is congressional life so aggravating and unsettling? My list runneth over. But, like Gaul, it divides into three parts: Washington, The Home District and, typically for most congressional wives, Between the Two. Sometimes when asked where I live, I used to answer, "Eastern Airlines Shuttle." Antoinette Hatfield, wife of the senator from Oregon, put it better: "I have one foot on the dock and the other on a moving boat." In Washington
This past December, for the first time, I did not feel I had to put in a command appearance at a White House party given by a president with whom I passionately disagree. While we were thrilled to attend Christmas parties for the Congress given by Presidents Johnson, Ford and Carter, we had to force ourselves to turn up at the Nixons' and, 13 months ago, at the Reagans'.
At the latter, we and perhaps 100 members of both houses and both parties arrived fairly promptly at 8. By 9:15, when members of the House had to leave for a vote, neither Reagan had deigned to make an appearance.
Last month, Jonathan, in deference to the office, was willing to go, even though, as a lame duck, he did not have to. But when I warned that my greeting to our host might be, "What a beautiful buffet; how much of it is going for the school lunch program?" he decided we had better stay home and pack.
In December, also for the first time, I did not feel it a duty to show up at a diplomatic reception for a dictator. Although that country's ambassador is a fine person whom we would like to oblige, I could not face shaking the hand of his president, who makes a practice of jailing, if not executing, the women and men of his political opposition.
In part because the Congress is so dilatory during the early part of the session, considerable night voting is necessary later on. If a company ran its inventory the way the Congress runs the timing of its legislation, it would be bankrupt before the second year. No longer need I put a hot dinner on hold because my husband has just phoned to report on upcoming votes.
Hungry, exasperated wife: "When will you vote?"
Hungry, exasperated husband, "Who knows?"
Sometimes he would take a chance and dash home for a quick bite between votes. Sometimes I put the food away and went up to the Hill to eat with him (had our children still been small, I would not even have had this option). I would meet him at one of the supposedly glamorous restaurants adjacent to the Capitol. Just as our main course was being served, his pocket beeper would go off. People at nearby tables would glare in alarm. He would dart off, drive to the House, cast his vote for something that, more often than not, was of no importance, have trouble finding a parking place near the restaurant, and finally return to a chilled dinner and chilling wife. I soon learned to bring a book along, but reading by dinky table candle is not good for the disposition. In the Home District
I no longer need to pretend approval when I do not feel it. I also rejoice that the word "friend" can now be returned to its original -- and precious -- meaning of "person with whom one is intimate," rather than what it comes to mean in public life, "person with whom one happens to be sharing a political platform."
I am also liberated from those endless, smoky, political dinners where self-important speakers try to add to their own and their colleagues' self-importance.
Best of all, I no longer need to beg for money. As many people leaving politics have said, fund-raising is the worst part of the job. Toadying to the rich is even more painful than jollying the powerful -- and more corrosive than both is to have it even cross one's mind to try to "use" a true friend.
I no longer need to watch -- or later worry about -- what I have said to a media person. One of the unsolved problems of politics is how much to trust newspeople. If you are too cagey, it may arouse their hostility; if you are too trusting, you may injure your candidate. Says Abigail McCarthy, former wife of former Sen. Eugene McCarthy, "Having someone else's career so vulnerable to damage by what one says or does is terrifying to the politician's spouse and children."
I no longer need to worry about our own children being subjected to the privacy-invading and conceit-breeding aspects of politics. Constituent questions such as, "How do you really feel about your Dad?" can turn a teenager crimson. One time a 15-year-old daughter returned from the hustings in a fume because one too many voter had told her she looked like her father: "Who needs to look just like a 6-foot man with a big nose?"
Another time a 17-year-old son was quite impossible for a few days after a female voter had gushed, "Oh, Tim, you look so much more virile than last year!"
No matter what the comments, it is bad training to be surrounded by people whose attention is so focused on you and yours that you forget to care about them and theirs.
Among the many reasons I am grateful for no more campaigns needing to be fought is what we have learned to call "candidate-itis," the self-encapsulation that, like a temporary cataract, blinds an ordinarot hily open and sensitive person to what is going on with those around him.
High on the list of my reliefs is no longer having to be kissed and squeezed by people I scarcely know -- or do know and don't like. There is no doubt that a would-be kisser feels rejected when one puts out a paw rather than a cheek. If this person has a vote or can influence votes, one thinks twice about causing offense. For reasons that must reach deep into the human psyche, perhaps even the collective unconscious, to touch someome who wields power can be both a form of self-affirmation and a symbolic sharing of that power. But to carry these needs over to the powerful person's spouse is too much for this spouse.
I no longer need to change into runless stockings or apply lipstick before going to the market, lest I disillusion some voter. How to dress is not an easy decision: too elegant arouses envy and dislike; too dowdy arouses scorn and dislike. And if I should happen to own an appropriate outfit, its belt, for sure, got left in Washington.
I no longer need to be jarred awake after midnight by a phone call from a justifiably alarmed constituent or simply an alcoholic one, or before dawn by an eager media person who wants the congressman's opinion about something that occurred during the night, something that he knows nothing about.
No longer do I need to spend evening after evening alone while the congressman makes appearances at neighborhood functions. At first I tried to go with him. "Voters," another congressional wife explained, "want to be sure you're not deformed." But after a while my husband wisely sensed the limits of my courtesy and left me home. While an absent wife is no political plus, a restive one is a clear minus.
No longer at Christmas time will the number of cards from people I know and want to hear from be drawfed by the number from strangers.
At last I can throw out the stickers reading, "HELLO, My Name Is . . ." From now on the parties at our house will be small enough for host or hostess to handle introductions. Nor will we ever again have to witness at one of our annual giant lawn parties the sight of a guest who had arrived on a bicycle departing with his basket overflowing with our fried chicken. Between the Two
No longer do I need to commute between New York and Washington. Dearly as I love both cities, I do not love the road between them. And going by air has recently become prohibitively expensive (while trips home for the member are paid for by the government, no money is available for spouse or offspring).
Soon I shall know where I am in the morning when I first wake up. Up to now I have had to sense whether Jonathan was on my right (New York) or my left (Washington). As for having to commute, even in a car, with 300 pages of unfinished manuscript and a carton of research material, surely divorces must have been granted for less frustrating cause.
No longer do I need to hear the pain in the voice of one of our children who has been trying for days to reach us by phone: "I didn't even know which city you were in." Nor will children's plans to visit us any longer be knocked askew by sudden reversals of legislative scheduling, as almost happened this past Christmas.
No longer need I wait and wait and wait for mail from the other city to be forwarded. Some essential items have been forever lost; some have taken as long as a month to catch up with us.
No longer need I mourn because we had to miss some marvel of an occasion in one city by being stuck in the other. Although Washington is full of wonderful parties, sometimes giddy, sometimes serious -- with fascinating business being conducted -- I will not hear about them when living in New York; if we should be invited, we might very well come. Leaving our friends in Washington, unlike leaving the Congress as an institution, opens a hole in my heart.
In addition to these friends, three aspects of congressional life stand out in treasured memory (more valued even than parking free at rdinarot hthe airport). One was the easy opportunity to get to know people from every background and locality in the nation and to meet others from all over the world. A second was the chance to watch my husband doing legislative work on subjects, such as nuclear non-proliferation, that he cares so much about. For me vicariously to be part of history-in-the-making was infinitely worth the hassle.
The third was simply the opportunity, not to write to my congressman, but, while he is grapling with some momentous issue, to whisper in his ear.