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.

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer. Click image to expand.

Rep. Tim Mahoney seems to have lost track of how many affairs he's had: "You're asking me over a lifetime?'' Trick question, I guess, for the Florida Democrat, who ran on "faith, family and personal responsibility'' two years ago, replacing underage House page hound Mark Foley. One mistress who does stick in Mahoney's mind is the county official whom he helped get FEMA money to remove hurricane debris from gated communities near Palm Beach. Another is the girlfriend he put on the government payroll then let go when she broke up with him. "The only person that matters is guess who? Me,'' he told the woman, who took the hush money but also hung on to an audio tape of him firing her in a rage.

"No marriage is perfect,'' Mahoney told reporters right before his wife filed for divorce. But is no political marriage even authentically imperfect? Has the woman whose husband is hoping to succeed Mahoney—oh yes, once again touting "traditional family values''—sure she's thought this thing through? And when is the public going to figure out what it expects from political marriages? How long are we going to keep insisting that political couples tell us lies and then punishing them for doing so?

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A year ago, as I set out to write about political marriages for Slate's First Mates series, I would have sworn that I was already fairly illusion-free; I covered Monica Lewinsky, for heaven's sake, and never met a potential first spouse who didn't need a hug. I also thought my goals not only attainable but rather modest, promising only that "in full knowledge of the fact that every marriage is its own exotic ecosystem—a planet only imperfectly understood even by its own two natives—this series will examine the marriages of the top-tier presidential candidates and explore what these partnerships suggest about what kind of president each would be.'' Since then, however, I've concluded that political marriages are even harder to keep real than I thought—to the point that for a lot of these spouses, denial is not so much a diagnosis as a job description.

 This was most obvious when I began looking at the marriage of John and Cindy McCain; these two lead such separate lives that in the end, I couldn't even bring myself to write about them, because there is barely a "them" to write about. Though their marriage launched his political career, I'm not convinced their current connection says much of anything about either his campaign or how he would govern. When he's asked about her, he can never think what to say. ("She's really blossomed,'' he told me in 2000, as if she were a post-adolescent who'd just gotten her braces off instead of a fully capable grown woman.) When she told me a couple of months ago, in an interview for Reader's Digest, that they never argued, ever, I thought that was either the silliest fib or the saddest thing I'd ever heard a wife who seemed to love her husband admit about their interaction. The entire picture she presented was like that—so airbrushed with industrial-strength shellac that I hoped she was lying to me instead of to herself. For a gorgeous heiress with a powerful husband who might be moving into the White House, she inspires more pity than you might expect, and less envy, even among her husband's harshest hometown critics. In that, too, she is uncomfortably like her role model, Princess Diana—tense, thin, happiest on a mission, all dressed up and no one to dance with. So many political marriages seem to wind up resembling old-fashioned royal alliances that I'm sure she's not alone in relating to the late "people's princess.''

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