When First Ladies Played Offense
In 1992, Hillary Clinton helped plant rumors of an alleged affair between George H.W. Bush and an aide. In the 1960s, Jackie Kennedy attacked Pat Nixon’s spending habits. In 1976 during the Republican Convention, Betty Ford publicly upstaged Nancy Reagan, whose husband was challenging sitting President Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination. In an interview at the end of the convention Betty said that Nancy “just fell apart at the seams” when she married Ronald.
Most people tend to think of American first ladies of the past as decorous and devoted—gentle, constant presences at their husband’s sides. In fact, they also weren’t afraid to jump into the political fray—whether shooting barbs at an opponent, bearing insults themselves, or slogging it out on the campaign trail. It’s pretty ironic then that this year’s group of candidate spouses—arguably the most modern of any group, including a former president, an investment manager at Goldman Sachs and a onetime supermodel—have for the most part watched the mudslinging from the sidelines, and have been dragged into the news cycle as pawns in a proxy war rather than crucial players themselves. When Melania Trump was dispatched to Wisconsin last week to help her husband win over female voters her rare campaign appearance made headlines. Even Bill Clinton is treading carefully and is less of a dominant force on the campaign trail now than he was eight years ago, seemingly aware that his overzealous campaigning in 2008 hurt his wife’s chances at the presidency. When the former president actively engaged protestors from the Black Lives Matter movement at a rally for his wife last week in Philadelphia, there was a massive backlash. The message is clear to the candidate’s spouses: avoid the spotlight if you can.
Researching my book on the women, from Jackie Kennedy to Michelle Obama, who have shaped the role of the first lady, I was often amazed by how powerful they have been both on the campaign trail and behind the scenes—and how invisible today’s candidate’s spouses seem in comparison. While the 10 first ladies in my book—five from Democratic administrations and five from Republican administrations—have had vastly different personalities, they have had one thing in common: They were mostly visible and tough campaigners. In 1964, Lady Bird Johnson traveled across eight southern states on her “Lady Bird Special” whistle-stop train tour and helped her embattled husband win the election. In 1984, Barbara Bush was on the campaign trail 27 days in one month alone, visiting 37 cities in 16 states—and that was just when her husband was running for vice president.
Of course, there’s no job description for a first lady; the very title is anachronistic in the 21st century, when most women would balk at the notion of giving up their jobs simply because of their husbands’. And there is certainly no blueprint for being the male spouse of a candidate. But one thing is for sure: This presidential election cycle, the candidates’ spouses have stayed more firmly in the background than their modern predecessors.
As far back as Pat Nixon, candidate spouses often took to the road for months at a time. General Don Hughes had been assigned to protect Pat Nixon during her husband’s 1960 presidential campaign against John F. Kennedy, and though he had served in three wars, “nothing was as draining” as that campaign, he says. In interviews Pat often said she was never tired, and on the campaign trail she would sometimes make do with only a banana until dinner and never complained about being hungry. She had taken charge of her family’s household after her mother died when she was a young girl and could not afford to be tired or hungry. “I don’t get ill,” she told one reporter. “The girls [her daughters, Tricia and Julie] say that there’s no point in telling me if they don’t feel well. They’ll get no encouragement from me.” She once went so far as to say, “Even if I were dying, I wouldn’t let anyone know.” ...