F r ank Fiorina trudged through the aisles of Costco one day last week with a press handler, a photographer and a newspaper reporter. It wasn’t his idea, and the whole thing made him feel odd.
“This is really weird, you guys,” he told his entourage while picking up a 30-pack of double-ply Kirkland-brand toilet paper. He was a regular at the store, but this was the first time he had gone shopping in service to political journalism. “I don’t know how long you want this to go on, but usually I can do my shopping pretty quick.”
As the husband of Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard executive now running for president, Fiorina plays an important role for the campaign. Political spouses typically find themselves referred to as a candidate’s “secret weapon,” trusted with “humanizing” their otherwise remote/robotic/pompous partners. Is it sexist to reduce women to little more than props for their politically ambitious husbands? Is it silly to call someone who has a public role on a campaign a “secret”? Can the new crop of political husbands escape the burdens of playing campaign humanizer? Yes, yes and no.
“I think that’s evident by me walking around Costco talking to a reporter,” Fiorina said, looking for a replacement electric toothbrush for his wife.
Carly Fiorina — who hardly registers in national polls — is an executive who fired more than 30,000 employees during her time at HP. She could stand a little humanizing. Frank Fiorina understands this, and he’s ready to play the part. He knows the shopping habits of his cohort are highly scrutinized. (What is this millionaire doing buying discount toilet paper?)
He’s read the stories about Columba Bush and her expensive taste in jewelry.
Fiorina, 65, is a sturdily built man, with graying hair combed back on a block-like head and a somewhat taciturn manner. He has been known to carry a gun for his wife’s protection. They live in a $6.1 million house in Virginia. “I told my neighbor I was doing an interview at Costco,” he said. “At first he thought I was applying for a job, and then he couldn’t stop laughing at me when I told him it was with you.”
Of course, Fiorina isn’t the only potential first dude in the race. There’s that other guy, Bill Clinton, one of the most dynamic politicians of a generation and one of the only people Fiorina says he’s ever been intimidated by.
“He’s one of the smartest people in the world,” Fiorina said. Clinton can hold audiences in the palm of his hand; he jokes that if he becomes the “first man,” he’d like to go by Adam — get it? Fiorina is a much more quiet presence. He doesn’t have a preferred variation on first gentleman.
“I’ll go by Frank,” he said.
Fiorina grew up “a poor boy from Pittsburgh” working for his dad’s auto body shop. He played guitar in a rock band called the Aristocrats, lost his hearing in his left ear, drove a tow truck and landed a job as a technician for AT&T at $99 a week.
You don’t have to imagine this story becoming part of the 2016 narrative. Carly Fiorina has already used it. “My husband, Frank, has lived the American story,” she said during a New Hampshire appearance earlier this year.
The job at AT&T got its claws into him, and “they dragged me along all the way to executive level,” Fiorina said, pausing in front of a towering pile of bottled water. He was a manager when he met Carly Sneed, an ambitious young employee in the government communications department who wanted his help on a project involving conference call technology. After the project, Fiorina asked her out.
“By the third date I knew she was going to be running the company,” he said. The third date also involved a lot of making out, he volunteered. Well, there’s some humanizing for you. Fiorina has been cast by the campaign as the regular Joe you’d want to have a beer with, the guy who might just tell a reporter a charming story about a long-ago game of tonsil hockey. (Still, Fiorina knows not to say anything that hasn’t been vetted. “I remember looking out of the car windows and not being able to see anything,” Carly Fiorina recently told “Today” about that third date. Okay, you two, that’s enough.)
They wed in 1985, and together the two raised his daughters from a previous marriage, Lori Ann and Tracy. Frank Fiorina’s third-date assessment was only a little wrong: She rose to the top of Hewlett-Packard instead, the first female head of a Fortune 20 company. Frank, who, like Carly, saw an earlier marriage end in divorce, worried he would never see his wife again. He decided he couldn’t have it all and retired at the age of 48.
“I caught a lot of flak from friends,” Fiorina said, stopping in the toothpaste and mouthwash aisle. “As far as family, the only person who expressed an opinion was my father-in-law. He could not understand how I could give up my career. He was really upset about it, and it took him years before he got over it.”
The move was “incredibly tough,” but he filled the time by volunteering as an emergency medical technician and later driving a bus for a children’s hospital.
Then everything changed.
After a stock plummet and devastating layoffs, the HP board fired Carly and gave her a $21 million severance package to leave.
Then, in 2009, Carly was diagnosed with breast cancer, and Lori Ann died after a long struggle with drug addiction.
“Honestly, it was a bad time in my life,” Fiorina says, pausing in front of bulk snack foods. He waited as a shopper walked past and tried to ignore the clicking of the camera. It was 10:30 in the morning, and he was leaning on a shopping cart at his local Costco, having to talk about the most difficult thing that had ever happened to him. He continued: “I went through a period where I was struggling with what life is all about.” What snapped him out of it, he said, was going through old boxes in the garage and finding long-lost cards his daughter had written to him. On his right wrist, he wears a golden bracelet made from the necklace Lori Ann wore the day she died.
“Carly bought it for her,” he said, his throat catching on the emotion that wasn’t supposed to show up on this fake shopping trip. The photographer stepped in to get a close-up. “I never used to wear stuff like this.”
“What’s next on the list?” said campaign spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores. A nudge to keep things moving. “The kids like Goldfish!”
The kids are the grandkids — Tracy’s children, whom he was headed to visit after this shopping trip. Then he was due home to take care of his and Carly’s two Yorkies, Max and Snickers.
Fiorina looked down in his cart. Bottled water, toilet paper, paper towels, cashews, Goldfish and a toothbrush. It took 45 minutes. He worried aloud that this shopping trip would seem so obviously like a bit of political stagecraft that people would think it was a fake. So he pulled out his Costco card — there, proof of his membership since 2003. He paid, and he left.
“I’m glad that’s over,” he said to Flores as they walked to their car. But really, it’s only just begun.