Sizing up the 'wives of'

Posted: Sep 30, 2004 12:00 AM

A schoolboy once asked Nancy Reagan how she liked being married to the president. "Fine," she answered with a wry smile, "as long as the president is Ronald Reagan."

This put her politics, her marriage and her role as the first lady in the proper perspective. It's a clich?f historians that the spouse of the president accurately reflects the status of American women during a president's tenure in office. There may be something to that, but Nancy Reagan understood that it's mostly the other way around. The nature of the private marriage is reflected in the way a first lady conducts herself in the public role.

In the presidential campaign now coming down to the wire, Laura Bush is the asset, and mostly because the public likes what it sees of the chemistry between husband and wife. Just as George W. is seen as a man at home in his own skin, the two of them seem comfortable as a couple of old married folk.

John and Teresa Heinz Kerry display a different kind of relationship. She complains that she gets bad press because she's "opinionated," but Americans are accustomed to opinionated women in at least 57 different varieties. A lot of American men are married to such women.

The public image of the Kerry-Heinz marriage reflects something else, a certain stiffness verging on awkwardness. Although he grew up in a wealthy environment, there's a quality of the nouveau riche in the various Kerry houses, an excessiveness that we didn't see in that earlier wealthy presidential first couple of JFK and Jackie.

This second "Mrs. JFK" seems to rub it in by keeping the name of a late husband who doesn't seem all that dead. Naomi Wolf suggests in New York magazine that "Teresa is publicly, subliminally cuckolding Kerry with the power of a dead man."

That may be too harsh, but Teresa talks more about herself than about the man she's married to now. She's graceless as a "wife of," afflicted with a tin ear. Her coarse vulgarity in calling her husband's critics "scumbags" might work around a kitchen table of partisan feminists having a cup of coffee together, but in a presidential campaign it's a little (or a lot) over the top.

Nobody votes for first lady, or assesses the quality of a candidate by the quality of his marriage. FDR won in landslides and his marriage to Eleanor was a mess. Mamie Eisenhower never forgot the shock she felt when, as a bride of a month to a shavetail lieutenant, her husband told her: "My country comes first and always will. You come second."

But there's an authenticity of respect and affection between Laura and George W. and it shows. There's a gender gap this year, too, and this time it favors the Republican candidate. Even when she campaigns by herself, Laura doesn't call attention to herself. She doesn't suggest that she has something to prove. She came to speech-making reluctantly and proved herself a natural, drawing on her experiences as wife, mother and a librarian who loves books.

The conventional wisdom is that John Kerry lost female support when he didn't respond quickly to the attacks on the medals won in Vietnam. Women, it seems to me, were turned off more by the replays of his slurs against the soldiers he left behind in Vietnam. It was one thing to attack the war, but quite another to attack the men fighting it.

When he described the American soldiers he left behind as guilty of raping, beheading and burning villages, the tales of his own heroism became suspect. Would he similarly mock the service and sacrifice of soldiers fighting in Iraq in what he calls "the wrong war"? Ask any wife, mother or daughter of a fighting man if that influences the way she weighs the candidates this fall.

Trustworthiness is crucial. Women find no greater sign of weakness in a man than a propensity to constantly change his mind. Single or married, a woman wants to know exactly where the man in her life stands. Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, admonished the senator for weakness on women's issues and told him that he must apply more "muscle" to the pursuit of the women's vote. Women instinctively mistrust nuancy boys.

Laura Bush struck the right note when she characterized her husband with definite views about his responsibility as protector, and linked family values with the war against terror so that "all children can grow up in a more peaceful world."

A man marries a woman, not a prospective first lady, but how a first lady projects her husband's message tells us as much about him as it does about her.