Why American politicians have such rotten marriages.

Explaining political marriages.
Oct. 23 2008 6:15 PM

… or for Worse

Why American politicians have such rotten marriages.

(Continued from Page 1)

Maybe the stats on political marriages are no worse than for civilians: The Obamas and the Huckabees seem well-suited, after all. The Clintons can work it out on their own time at this point, or not—and it really is none of our business now, whee! But many political marriages seem to be a kind of fraud, perpetrated on both the public and on the couple themselves. It's hard not to feel that the commoditizing of John and Elizabeth Edwards' marriage contributed to its combustion. Though they're not divorcing, Elizabeth has suggested that if she were in better health, they might be: "I'm in a fairly unique set of circumstances,'' as a woman with incurable cancer, she told a health reporter recently, "where the decisions I make are based entirely on what is the best thing for my children." A year ago, polls showed the public felt it was the Edwardses who had the strongest marriage of any of the presidential candidate couples. (And did I listen to my appellate lawyer friend who argued against that rosy view from the get-go? "He's a plaintiff's lawyer; enough said!" is how my friend put it.) Noooo—though I had no problem quoting their friend who said they had "the storybook life and the storybook marriage,'' right up until the day their son Wade died. (And, oh God, did John Edwards really tell me that "there is not a lot of faking going on''? Did Elizabeth really say, even when she knew better, that "you could expect a high degree of candor from him'' in the White House? Incredibly, yes and yes.) Now, what she says is that she is involved in the "ongoing process of finding your feet again, retelling your story to yourself. You thought you were living in one novel, and it turns out you were living in another.''

While what I am left wondering is whether this sad chapter is going to change the way we write about political families. There's no reason to think candidates and their clans are any more dysfunctional now than in John F. Kennedy's day or Franklin Roosevelt's. But our connection to political couples changed the day they moved into our living rooms, via television. And it has only grown more intense in the decades since then, as a result of the permanent campaign, 24/7 cable, the blogosphere, and perhaps most of all, the personalization of politics—and our curious and narcissistic insistence that our candidates of choice at least seem to be able relate to us, seem to have families just like ours. When of course, they can't and don't.

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The sad fact is that no matter what a good guy or gal you are, running the country (oh, and raising money, raising money, and raising money) doesn't really leave a lot of time for hands-on parenting or partnerships, so we shouldn't expect political families to be like ours. What I propose is that we stop forcing them to present these phony tableaux, that they be allowed to stop selling themselves as Husbands and Wives, Dads and Moms of the Year. The Obamas, I believe, have made a step in the right direction by refusing to set themselves up as the perfect couple—he by writing very honestly about times in their marriage when they were barely speaking, and she by telling us over and over that putting people on pedestals is always dangerous, for all concerned.

Until we get over our destructive and even cruel insistence on judging politicians by their marriages, it's a shame we can't tweak the rules just a bit, so that it's gay people who can get married and politicians who can't. (And gay politicians? Only if they promise not to run on family values.)

Melinda Henneberger is a Slate contributor and the author of If They Only Listened to Us: What Women Voters Want Politicians To Hear.

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