Claws Are out for Candidates' 'First Ladies'

It is a brutal battle of whispering campaigns, gossip-laced leaks and highly disciplined PR machines. It is a world where image outweighs reality and where any sign of weakness or an unscripted gaffe could derail a bid for the White House.

The presidential nomination process? Not exactly. Instead it is the battle royal being waged between the candidates' spouses. As the Republican and Democratic parties are both choosing presidential candidates for 2008, never before have so many potential First Ladies -- and one First Gentleman -- battled it out so publicly.

In a mirror image of the candidates' presidential race, the fight has spawned an industry of advisers, lobbyists, hangers-on, focus groups and spin doctors. It has also provided acres of column inches for an American media that seems every bit as obsessed with the future President's other half as it is with the next occupant of the Oval Office.

'What's new is that we are seeing so much coverage of the spouses so early. It is incredible," said Dr Myra Gutin, a professor of communication at Rider University, New Jersey, and author of several books on American First Ladies. "We are seeing the sort of coverage now that we would not normally see until the start of next year."

That coverage has been colorful, to say the least. It has also shown a willingness to delve into the private lives of the spouses to a remarkable degree, turning over past husbands, ancient scandals and childhood secrets. Though, it must be said, some of the spouses on the campaign trail have certainly provided a lot of ammunition.

Judith Giuliani has been the focus of most of the negative attention so far. The third wife of the Republican frontrunner and former New York Mayor, Rudy Giuliani, she was the subject of a lengthy profile in the celebrity bible Vanity Fair. The magazine, and several other articles, portrayed her as a scheming woman with extravagant shopping tastes who -- allegedly -- demanded an extra seat on the campaign plane for her Louis Vuitton shopping bag. That piece has prompted a fight back from her husband's campaign who wheeled her out to meet several carefully chosen newspapers in order to beat off some adverse coverage.

But if anyone sympathizes with Judith Giuliani it must be Jeri Thompson, the second wife of likely Republican candidate Fred Thompson. Although her husband has not yet officially joined the race, she has already found herself labeled as a blonde 'trophy wife' married to a man 24 years her senior. When a photograph emerged of Jeri wearing a low-cut dress, it prompted TV talk-show host Joe Scarborough to remark, "Do you think she works the pole?" in a reference to an exercise craze based on pole-dancing.

The tone of the coverage so far has shocked some, including the respected political columnist Kathleen Parker. "Forget asking who would want to be President. Who in her right mind would ever want to be the First Lady?" Parker said.

That is a fair question, although sometimes photo shoots in the style of gossip magazines have been encouraged by the campaigns. The Giulianis posed for Harper's Bazaar kissing like movie stars. Elsewhere Cindy McCain, the wife of Arizona Senator John McCain, treated Fox television to a tour of the McCain house while wearing a blouse with a plunging neckline that attracted many comments .

Certainly the role of being a candidate's spouse has now become a highly active and vital part of any campaign. They have to be as willing to work as hard as the candidates themselves. They also have to endure a similar intense level of public scrutiny.

Many campaigns have embraced this change and have put the candidate's spouse at the forefront of their appeal. That is the case with Mitt Romney's wife, Ann. The spouse of the Republican former governor of Massachusetts looks like the picture-perfect American mum with classic good looks and a large family. However, she has multiple sclerosis, which was diagnosed in 1998. While campaigning for her husband, her chats often turn to her own battle with the disease, wowing crowds in Middle America with her undoubted courage.

The Democrats, too, have several superstar spouses whose grueling travel schedules easily match those of their partners. First among them is Elizabeth Edwards, who is campaigning for her husband, Senator John Edwards, even though she suffers from cancer. Like Ann Romney, Elizabeth Edwards' struggle with such a serious condition has impressed both the press and ordinary voters. She even personally confronted conservative critic Ann Coulter, ringing in to the talk show on which Coulter was appearing and upbraiding her live on national television.

That is hardly the demure and quiet traditional image of the First Lady, of which Laura Bush is often upheld as a prime example. But while some voters and pundits undoubtedly yearn for a dutiful partner role, others welcome the activist spouse. Michelle Obama, wife of Senator Barack Obama, has been a huge hit with the Democratic faithful. The accomplished lawyer has won plaudits for her public speaking and impassioned advocacy.

And then there is Bill Clinton. Few would expect the former President to take a backseat in Hillary Clinton's campaign. Indeed, Bill has a huge political operation of his own and a large staff. "Bill Clinton is Bill Clinton. He's a rock star. He's huge on the campaign trail and he brings in large amounts of money," said Gutin.

Clinton would have once been the exception, but now every major candidate's spouse has their own campaign operation with press handlers, schedulers and image consultants. They have their own press interviews and build up a national profile. But they have little choice, says Gutin. "It is just the system that has evolved here, even going back to Martha Washington (wife of George Washington). Americans have looked to the spouse as a way of offering some sort of insight into the candidate themselves."

Yet for every story about a heroic battle against a disease, there seems to be a marital dispute or an ex-husband lurking in the shadows. For every public picture of an adoring spouse, there is a whispered rumor about a backstairs argument or a controlling ego. Judith Giuliani has even faced the headline "Judi's Job With Pup-Killer Firm" in regard to a past job at a medical firm.

Few previous First Ladies would have dreamed such personal attacks would have been possible. And it is only going to get worse with more than a year of coverage to go. The battle between the candidates' spouses has barely begun.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

alternet logo

Tough Times

Demand honest news. Help support AlterNet and our mission to keep you informed during this crisis.