Callista Gingrich, Judith Nathan, and other political mistresses who became political wives.

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March 4 2011 12:53 PM

Advice for Callista Gingrich

Navigating the tricky path from mistress to political wife, with help from Judi Nathan and Anne Boleyn.

Click to view a slide show.

Callista Gingrich, wife of a certain presidential hopeful named Newt, is part of a very small coterie of women—mistresses who turned into the wives of powerful men. The list of political men who've had affairs is long, of course, as is the list of those who married their mistresses (or alleged mistresses) before they were well-known politicians. But very few politicians have committed the ballsy act of trading in their wives for their lovers once they were already in the public eye.

Libby Copeland Libby Copeland

Libby Copeland is a writer in New York and a regular Slate contributor. She was previously a Washington Post reporter and editor for 11 years. She can be reached at libbycopeland@gmail.com.

Being a successful political wife is hard enough, but the mistress who becomes the wife in full view of voters will never be as good as the one she replaced, if only because popular culture tends to elevate wronged women to sainthood. Pundits and press accounts will inevitably deride the newest wife as a liability, reminding readers exactly how she got there ("adultery," notes a piece in today's Washington Post on Gingrich's announcement yesterday that he is considering a run; "an extramarital affair," explained Sunday's New York Times). But she still has to show up and clap and smile. It must be excruciating. Is it also a hopeless task? Not necessarily. Here, five tips for navigating the tricky path from political mistress to political wife.

Rule 1: Time is on your side.
Eventually, when enough years have passed, a woman can become known for something other than the circumstances under which she and her husband met. Or so the Gingriches are hoping.

Recall that Callista Bisek first came to the nation's attention in 1999, shortly after Newt Gingrich had stepped down from his position as speaker of the House and resigned from Congress. She was 33 years old (to Newt's 56), a "sylphlike Agriculture Committee clerk," as the Post described her. They'd been carrying on for six years, all through the Republicans' impeachment of Bill Clinton for l'affaire Lewinsky. Gingrich told his second wife, to whom he'd been married for 18 years, that he was seeing someone else over the phone. (It could have been worse: According to his first wife, to whom he was married when he met the second Mrs. Gingrich, he brought up divorce terms while she was in the hospital recovering from cancer surgery.)

The past decade has been good to Newt and Callista, who married in 2000. The newest Mrs. Gingrich, a choir member and French-horn player, has escaped some of the scrutiny she would have faced if Newt had remained in office and has enjoyed some semblance of a normal life. (Newt's mom even threw them a wedding shower. "She is a lovely girl," Mama Gingrich announced. "This is the first time I can ever remember seeing that Newty is in love.") Together, the Gingriches have created a number of films and books with names like Ronald Reagan: Rendezvous with Destiny, and Rediscovering God in America II: Our Heritage. They sometimes appear on Fox News together to promote their projects.

Time—in this case 12 years—can heal a lot of wounds (though not, perhaps, those of the second Mrs. Gingrich). Judging from Callista's prominence in Newt's Fox appearances and on his newly revealed Web site, the Gingriches seem to consider themselves redeemed. When Newt was asked about his extramarital past during a recent talk at the University of Pennsylvania, he replied easily that he was there to talk about the future, not the past. And if and when Callista hits the campaign trail, she will no doubt find her audiences far friendlier than they would have been a decade ago. (Which makes you wonder: Just how badly would John and Rielle Edwards fare in 2020?)

Rule 2: Do not wear a tiara to your wedding.
More generally, do not do anything Judith Giuliani has done, for she is the cautionary tale. When her husband, Rudy Giuliani, ran for the GOP nomination in 2008, her very existence offered family-values voters a constant reminder of Rudy's complicated family life. She helped make it impossible to imagine the Giulianis as a First Family.

From the moment we learned of Judith Nathan, her story has illustrated everything that can go wrong when a mistress tries to become a political wife. To recap: She and the then-New York mayor met at a cigar bar in 1999; Rudy surprised his wife the next year by announcing at a press conference that their marriage was over. He and Judi married three years later. And, yes, she wore a diamond tiara.

During Rudy's presidential run, a series of stories involving Judi dragged down the campaign. (There was the news that she'd been married not once before, but twice; that she'd gotten police protection while she was Rudy's mistress; that Rudy's adult son had, in his words, "a little problem" with her.) But equally harmful was the way the would-be First Lady conducted herself: Critics complained about her free-spending ways and her tendency to meddle with staff. One staffer reportedly nicknamed her "Princess"; another said the campaign needed "an entire plane seat for Judith's 'Baby Louis'—a reference to her Louis Vuitton handbag."

It all added up. After what it termed Rudy Giuliani's "presidential flameout," the New York Daily News ran a story capturing the public dislike for his third wife. Headline: "How Judi Killed Off Rudy."

Rule 3: Be dignified and ordinary even when angry women hurl bread rolls at you.
Maybe Charles and the late Princess Diana would never have been soul mates, but there were plenty who blamed Camilla Parker Bowles—with whom Charles conducted an on-and-off love affair for three decades—for the dissolution of the royal marriage. She was a frumpy home-wrecker who could never compete with the princess. In the supermarket, according to one story, a mob of angry women threw bread rolls at her.

If Judi Nathan is the cautionary tale, Camilla is proof that perseverance can pay off. Over the years, thanks to a low profile and a careful PR campaign, she gradually came to be seen as more likable. In public appearances, she revealed warmth, an occasional nervousness, and what one British fan called an appealing "ordinariness." As one writer put it in the Guardian, "the middle-aged mum with the hips and the laughter lines" also happens to be "the only woman anyone can imagine with the Prince of Wales." When Camilla and Charles married in 2005, she eschewed the lofty title of princess, opting for Duchess of Cornwall instead. Time and Charles' evident happiness in the marriage have legitimized her, earning her the greatest honor a former mistress can hope for: to be unremarkable.

Rule 4: Keep your eye on the competition.
Anne Boleyn's story is also a tale of royal lust and love, but it's much shorter. Anne, of course, had the bad luck to be the second of Henry VIII's six wives. She'd been appointed to the royal court as a maid of honor to his first wife, Queen Catherine, when the king took notice of her. He lusted after her; she kept him at a distance, refusing to be just another mistress; eventually, the king decided to swap his old queen for a new one.

Anne was not, to put it mildly, a crowd favorite. The people's sympathies were with Catherine, whom they considered a "saint," as the historian Carolly Erickson has written. Anne, already pregnant at the wedding, was pronounced a "strong harlot" and a "great whore." As for the king, one vicar remarked, his life was "more stinking than a sow," given over to "foul pleasure of the flesh and other voluptuousness."

Henry was indeed a man of some appetite; he'd already carried on an affair with Anne's sister when he took up with Anne. This is the precariousness of being the mistress-turned-wife: There's a chance you, too, might be traded in. When, three years into their marriage, Anne had failed to produce the male heir he wanted, Henry had his wife arrested and killed so a new mistress, Jane Seymour, could take her place.

Rule 5: If all else fails, move to Maryland.
During his second term as Maryland governor, Parris Glendening divorced his second wife and, in early 2002, married his deputy chief of staff, Jennifer Crawford, who was almost 25 years younger. Their relationship had been the subject of gossip and speculation around the state capitol for some time, with the governor's political enemies painting Crawford, a key member of his staff, as manipulative and scheming (a recurring theme in mistress-turned-wife stories).

Their story attracted little attention beyond Annapolis, however, in part because Glendening wasn't running for re-election and also because he and his second wife were already separated when his relationship with Crawford became public. Crawford also kept a staunchly low profile after the wedding, resigning her post and giving birth to a baby girl later that year.

But if Glendening and Crawford got off easy, it may also be because Marylanders are inured to this sort of thing. Almost 30 years earlier, another Maryland governor took a mistress who became his wife. After Marvin Mandel issued a statement confessing his love for the tall, blond Jeanne Dorsey, his wife refused to leave the mansion for half a year. The governor had to stay in a hotel. Mandel's divorce was finalized in 1974; that very same day he married Dorsey, and they lived happily ever after. (Well, first Mandel was convicted of mail fraud and racketeering, and he went to jail. Then he got out and they lived happily ever after.)

Click to view a slide-show essay  on political mistresses turned wives.