The juiciest detail to emerge from yesterday’s Newt Gingrich campaign implosion is the report from the Weekly Standard’s Fred Barnes that staffers left because they were annoyed with a “takeover” from his wife, Callista, which included Newt taking two weeks off to hang out in the Mediterranean at her insistence. While Gingrich probably didn’t need any spousal assistance to shoot himself in the foot, blaming the wife is a classic response when a campaign falls apart.
Slate’s Dave Weigel name-checked one recent example in Fred Thompson’s wife, Jeri, who was initially celebrated and then ridiculed for helping mastermind her husband’s ill-fated 2008 campaign. That same year, third wife Judith Giuliani was blamed for being overly involved in her (third) husband’s campaign, not to mention reminding voters that he wasn’t exactly a traditional family-values guy.
There’s also an alternate scenario in which the wife’s unwillingness to participate in a campaign is the problem: This year, of course, Cheri Daniels asked husband Mitch not to run, and he complied. Marsha Barbour said she was “horrified” at the idea of her husband running (she maybe wasn’t the only one), though she said she’d support him if he ran. When he dropped out, her comments were widely cited. Colin Powell, the GOP’s great non-white hope, was supposedly thwarted in his presidential ambitions by his unsupportive wife, who told him, “If you run, I’m gone. You will have to do it alone.” Powell seems to be done with politics, but at least in the other two cases, it’s entirely possibly they might re-weigh family priorities against a different political landscape in four years. In any case, disparaging a reluctant spouse seems unfair, given how little fun it is to be a political wife these days.
It’s somewhat striking that the aforementioned men in these most recent examples happen to be Republicans.That’s not to say that Democrats never blame the wife for campaign difficulties. Howard Dean’s wife, a practicing doctor, was snarked at for not campaigning and instead maintaining her own busy professional schedule, until Dean’s famous scream drowned out any other possible chorus of blame. Hillary Clinton, an alpha-blame magnet for many, came under fire for saying she didn’t want to stay home and bake cookies, but in the end it didn’t do lasting damage. There was even an early story line on Barack Obama that Michelle didn’t want him to run for president.
But in those instances, Clinton and Obama knew from the start that their wives wouldn’t mute their personal ambitions, or be a traditional, full-time Über-helpmate. Most political marriages end up with the non-office-holding spouse playing a very traditional role, sure, but the simple act of considering a politician’s wife as something other than a necessary appendage — even one to whom a lot of meaningful influence is ascribed, as in the Gingrich and Thompson cases — makes it a lot harder to scapegoat her when things go wrong.