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.''

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.

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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