As you're gearing up to decide which presidential candidate to trust with running the country, Barbara Kantrowitz, for Tango magazine, investigates their romantic relationships and the spouses who trusted them with their hearts:
One presidential election. Six frontrunners. You may know their stands on abortion, the Iraq war, and whether two men should be allowed to say “I do.” But what do you know about their romantic relationships? Barbara Kantrowitz investigates which couple is most likely to captivate American voters—and which union is best equipped to survive four years in the White House.
Not so long ago, what happened behind closed doors in the White House was nobody’s business. Some of most celebrated presidents in U.S. history—Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy—enjoyed a little action on the side without having to worry about paparazzi hiding in the bushes. But in the last few campaigns, every aspect of a candidate’s life has become fair game. “The line between public and private lives had gotten progressively blurred,” says family therapist Terrence Real, author of The New Rules of Marriage. “The flag that everybody waves is that it’s a character issue.” We’ve come to believe that a man who respects his marriage vows will treat the country well and provide a higher quality of moral leadership than a serial philanderer.
That’s the theory anyway. The most obvious flaw in this line of reasoning is how little we really know about even the most famous relationships. “Most of the information that we have about what a marriage looks like on the inside is just public relations,” says Frank Pittman, a psychiatrist and family therapist in private practice in Atlanta and the author of Private Lies: Infidelity and the Betrayal of Intimacy. Any couple can smile for the cameras, but that doesn’t tell us much about their internal dynamics. And even if a couple is indeed happy, there’s no guarantee of wise leadership.
By all accounts, George and Laura Bush have been loving, faithful partners for nearly 30 years. That hasn’t prevented his approval rating from sinking because of the disastrous Iraq war. On the other hand, Bill and Hillary Clinton certainly had a far more troubled relationship during their White House years. Yet, even after the 1998 impeachment vote, Clinton’s approval rating skyrocketed to 73 percent—not only his personal best, but also higher than Ronald Reagan’s peak. Voters evidently thought the Monica mess mattered far less than the fact that Clinton presided over the greatest period of economic prosperity in modern American history.
As the 2008 election begins to heat up, we’re once again being barraged with slick presentations of a new set of marital histories. From the Clintons’ purportedly repaired relationship to Mitt and Ann Romney’s fairy tale love story, they’re all carefully packaged to highlight the positive. But this time around, there are a few new twists. When Bill and Hillary first appeared on the campaign trail in 1991, their dual-career relationship was groundbreaking. She was as well-educated as he was, prompting the campaign slogan: “Buy One, Get One Free.” This year, the other major Democratic candidates could make that same two-for-one claim. Barack Obama’s wife, Michelle, is a hospital executive, who, like her husband, has a degree from Harvard Law School. John and Elizabeth Edwards met when both were students at the University of North Carolina Law School; she is also the author of a well-received autobiography, Saving Graces, about her battle with breast cancer and the emotional struggle to overcome the death of their 16-year-old son.
Here’s something else these three pairs of accomplished Democratic spouses share: no divorces. In contrast, two leading Republican candidates have more complicated marital histories. John McCain and his first wife, Carol, divorced in 1980; soon afterwards, he married Cindy Hensley, heiress to a major Anheuser-Busch distributor. And Rudy Giuliani’s marital history could inspire a soap opera. His marriage to his first wife (and second cousin), Regina Peruggi, was annulled by the Catholic Church after 14 years on the grounds that the couple had not received the church dispensation required when second cousins marry. His second marriage, to actress and journalist Donna Hanover, produced two children but ended in tabloid hell when Giuliani, then mayor of New York City, announced in a press conference that the couple was kaput. Reportedly, he neglected to tell Hanover first, who fired back with her own tearful press conference.
“Giuliani definitely has a screw loose when it comes to marriage,” says Pittman. “You’ve got to see this guy as defective.” In 2003, Giuliani married divorcee Judith Nathan (he maintains they became involved only 12 months before his divorce, but gossipmongers say they had been an item for years). His current campaign website gives no clue of any of this romantic complexity, presenting Wife No. 3 as his one and only.
Soap operas aside, spouses still play a major role in voters’ views of the candidates. Electing a First Lady (or First Husband) is not unlike electing a vice president. The spouse is a president’s most intimate advisor, and the public image of a relationship can make or break a campaign. In the last election, Teresa Heinz Kerry’s outspokenness was widely viewed as damaging. “I think she was a nut and an abrasive nut at that,” says Real. “What kind of guy would be married to this? Is he in it for the dough?” Teresa also tended to talk a lot about her first husband, ketchup heir John Heinz, who was killed in a plane crash. That made her current husband appear to be a poor substitute. “She was still in love with her first husband,” says Pat Love, a marriage therapist and coauthor of How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It. “She made it really clear that ‘this isn’t my real husband.’” What lesson should spouses take from her devastating performance? “Never miss an opportunity to shut up,” advises Love.
Each First Lady—from Martha Washington to Laura Bush—has interpreted the job through the prisms of her personality, life experience, and the tenor of the times. Eleanor Roosevelt was both a beloved and reviled figure as she traveled the world on behalf of her husband, who was disabled by polio. Just a few years later, the country embraced Mamie Eisenhower, known for her thriftiness (she clipped coupons for the White House staff), her recipe for “million dollar fudge,” and her love of ultra-feminine clothes. Jackie Kennedy personified an international glamour as the U.S. grew into the role of global superpower. And Betty Ford courageously decided to use her struggles against breast cancer and later, substance abuse, to educate the public; her openness about her own problems saved many thousands of lives.
In these media-intense days, the ideal political spouse does her (or his) most important work behind the scenes. “I think that the greatest source of happiness is a happy marriage, and I think a happy person will do a better job of governing,” says Cloe Madanes, coauthor of Love & Passion: The Ultimate Relationship Program. “Ronald and Nancy Reagan definitely had a good marriage. She put him in front of her as more important, always.” So who in the current crop fits that bill? And what can we expect from the spouses of the current frontrunners? Here’s the rundown.
Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson Obama
Married Since: 1992
Family Album: Two daughters
They met in 1989,while he was still a student at Harvard Law School (where he was the first black president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review). Barack was interning for a Chicago law firm, and Michelle was his summer supervisor. She later told a reporter that she fell for him “for the same reason many other people respect him: his connection with people.” Throughout his political career, she has been an asset. A Princeton grad, she’s a Chicago native from the city’s South Side. That association helped him win seats both in the Illinois legislature and the Senate. Now an executive at the University of Chicago Hospitals, she’s savvy in dual roles as career woman and political wife. In an interview in The New Yorker, she was frank about the stress of the latter role: “It’s hard, and that’s why Barack is such a grateful man.”
The tidbits of their private life that the public does get to see indicates a normal family. She’s on his case to stop smoking and do more around the house. He recently told Ebony magazine that he sometimes leaves his socks on the floor. “As Michelle likes to say, ‘You are a good man, but you are still a man.’ She lets me know when I’m not acting right.” But there are barriers to the public’s right to know all about them. When it comes to fidelity in marriage, Michelle told Ebony that she doesn’t worry about it. “That is between Barack and me,” she said, “and if somebody can come between us, we didn’t have much to begin with.”
Michelle still isn’t widely known outside of Illinois, but the current campaign will change that. “She would be far and away the most beautiful First Lady we have ever had,” says Real. And the marriage is a plus. “It’s coming across as quite solid,” he adds. “There’s a real love there.” Although Michelle is every bit as accomplished as Hillary was when her husband first ran for president, Michelle’s résumé (at least so far) appears to be an asset. “I think she will get better treatment—not because we are more accepting of a First Lady with a career but because she’s nicer, more feminine, more traditional as a woman,” says Love. “Plus they obviously love and respect one another.”
Although she’s untested in a grueling national campaign, Michelle promises to be a 21st century Jackie Kennedy, sophisticated and stylish, with an Ivy League education and a high-powered career.
Hillary Rodham Clinton and Bill Clinton
Married Since: 1975
Family Album: One daughter
Bill’s philandering was humiliation on a global scale—but there was an unexpected benefit: Hillary got the chance to fire up her own political ambition. “The country was most favorable toward Hillary when she was being victimized,” says Real. “Her difficulty is the public perception of her as an ice maiden. When she opened up, it rebalanced her and made her someone that you could feel something for.” In 2000, Clinton rode that wave of sympathy to the Senate. But if she captures the White House, will Bill be able to keep his own ego in check and become the supportive spouse a president needs?
Despite endless commentary from fans and foes, the Clinton union remains a tantalizing mystery. It’s hard to tell whether this is a marriage of passion, or simply a partnership based on political convenience. Both Clintons have said they have benefited from marital counseling, and Hillary has admitted to extensive soul-searching about her marriage. In her 2003 memoir, Living History, she wrote: “The most difficult decisions I have made in my life were to stay married to Bill and to run for the Senate from New York.” She hasn’t said much about the subject since then. Even longtime Clinton advisor James Carville, not shy with his opinions, refuses to dish. “It’s uranium-242,” he told The Washington Post. “You pick that stuff up and it’ll blow up in your face.”
But the couple earns kudos from marriage experts for sticking it out. “We know more about the Clintons than anybody—and the more I know about each of them, the more enthusiastic I am about what they have been able to do,” says Pittman. “I admire their ability to hold a marriage together.” Even if it is now only a marriage of convenience, the bond is powerful. “They shared a mission, ideals, and common knowledge,” says Madanes. “That’s what made it possible for her to overcome all that stupidity. They were best friends.”
Since leaving the White House, Bill, now 60, has survived major heart surgery—often a powerful incentive to rethink priorities. If Hillary wins the Clintons a do-over in the White House, he’ll be motivated to behave. “We have every reason to assume he has learned the function of a zipper,” says Pittman. “He’s a smart guy.”
On the plus side, Bill Clinton would be the most charismatic spouse since Jackie Kennedy, and could help soften his wife’s icy image. A poll last fall showed that his favorable rating was six points higher than hers. His political expertise will be invaluable, and he’ll certainly be uniquely sensitive to the demands of the job. Her campaign strategists insist he is an asset. And in her speeches, Hillary told The New York Times, she subtly invokes their relationship by saying things like “When Bill had his heart surgery,” or “Bill used to love Dunkin’ Donuts.” The message is clear: He may be offstage, but he’s waiting in the wings.
John McCain and Cindy Hensley McCain
Married Since: 1980
Family Album: John has a daughter and two sons from his first marriage. John and Cindy have two daughters and two sons together
He was a war hero, a former prisoner in North Vietnam; she was the daughter of a wealthy beer distributor and almost 20 years his junior. They met in 1979 at a reception in Honolulu. “We both lied about our ages,” Cindy told a reporter. “I made myself older and he made himself younger.” Before they could marry, he had to divorce his first wife (although they still remain on good terms).
Cindy has always supported her husband’s political ambitions; her father reportedly helped bankroll John’s first congressional race in 1982. But his first presidential campaign, in 1999, meant revisiting hard times in her life—particularly her addiction to the painkillers Percocet and Vicodin, which she started taking in 1989 after experiencing back pain. She hid her addiction, stealing the drugs from a charity she’d established to provide medical aid to developing countries. Her parents finally confronted her, and she quit “cold turkey” in 1992. No charges were filed, but she repaid the charity as part of a deal with prosecutors. These issues don’t seem to have affected most voters’ views of her—or him. In fact, Cindy was more often considered a political asset.
Cindy has made medical relief to impoverished countries a major focus of her energy. Her frequent missions produced an unexpected benefit. In 1991, on a visit to Bangladesh, she visited an orphanage where more than a hundred infants were living in poor conditions. At the request of the nuns who ran the orphanage, she brought home one of them, a 10-week-old girl who was severely disfigured by a cleft palate and needed medical care. The McCains gave her that care and eventually adopted her. Now 15, Bridget McCain is currently a high school student in Arizona.
If she became First Lady, Cindy has said that she would make adoption, foster care and health care her issues. She also hopes she could be a role model for people who want to fight drug addiction. “I’m in recovery,” she told Newsweek during the last campaign. “If I can do it, then maybe they can too.” As First Lady, she would be part Eleanor Roosevelt and part Betty Ford.
John Edwards and Elizabeth Anania Edwards
Married Since: 1977
Family Album: Two sons (one died in 1996) and two daughters
On the surface, Elizabeth Edwards would seem to be the exact opposite of the ideal political spouse. Hardly meek, she’s a smart and independent attorney who doesn’t spend too much time worrying about her appearance, and talks openly about her struggles with weight loss. Yet she’s often described as her husband’s “secret weapon.” “She’s presumably very bright, very competent, and she knows how to keep from upstaging him,” says Pittman. In the 2004 election, “Elizabeth was very much there as someone who had suffered and who had stood by her guy,” says Real. “It was kind of like the clean version of Hillary.” Women of all backgrounds seemed to identify with her, and her reputation soared as Teresa Heinz Kerry’s popularity sank.
During her 2006 book tour for Saving Graces, Elizabeth was embraced as a celebrity—a remarkable accomplishment for the spouse of a defeated vice presidential candidate. She’s appealing on her own and as a partner in what seems to be an exceptionally loving marriage. Surviving hard times—especially the death of their oldest son, Wade, in a car accident—appears to have strengthened the couple’s bond. When they talk about each other, even a casual viewer senses genuine passion. “You feel about them that this isn’t just phony baloney,” says Real.
In his run for the White House, John Edwards appears to be taking the slow and steady route, letting Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama fight it out at the top of the polls. His wife seems in tune with that more reflective approach. Not long after the diagnosis, Elizabeth talked to a People reporter about how her worldview had changed. “There is an odd place after losing a child, where you think somehow your life is worthless,” she said. The diagnosis “is a reminder that this is the life you’ve got and you’re not getting another one. Whatever has happened, you have to take this life and treasure and protect it.” When she and her husband announced in March that they would continue campaigning even though her cancer has returned, she was the role model for grace under pressure, and many cancer survivors have applauded her decision. “We’re going to look for the silver lining,” she said. “It’s who we are as people.”
Rudy Giuliani and Judith Stish Nathan Giuliani
Married Since: 2003
Family Album: Giuliani has a son and a daughter from his second marriage. Nathan has a daughter from her second marriage.
The tabloid ink expended on this union rivals headlines about the Clintons. Years before their divorce scandal, Rudy Giuliani’s second marriage to Donna Hanover was major gossip fodder in New York. There were persistent rumors—vehemently denied—that he was having an affair with his attractive female communications director, Christyne Lategano. The gossip took a toll. In 1997, Hanover refused to answer when asked if she had cast her vote for Rudy as mayor. She later hosted many women’s networking dinners at Gracie Mansion, New York’s mayoral home, without mentioning her husband. After their dueling press conferences, the Mansion became a battleground. His lawyer alleged that while Rudy was ill with the side effects of his chemotherapy treatment for prostate cancer, she relegated him to a small bedroom and kept the master suite. He also accused her of waking him up early in the morning by exercising in the room over his head. A year later, Rudy moved out and stayed with friends. She, in turn, accused him of “open and notorious adultery.” After the battle ended in 2002 with a $6.8 million settlement for Hanover, her lawyer called it a “spectacular win,” adding that the former mayor has admitted “cruel and inhuman treatment” based on his open relationship with the twice-married Judith Nathan.
None of this is, of course, mentioned on his campaign website. In fact, the only family cited is the third Mrs. Giuliani, described as “a registered nurse with an extensive medical and scientific background.” His son, Andrew, 21, recently told reporters that he is estranged from his father because of the divorce and remarriage.
The couple is openly affectionate. In an interview in Harper’s Bazaar, Judith described Rudy as the “Energizer Bunny with no rechargeable batteries.” Not bad for a 63-year-old cancer survivor. “I’ve always liked strong, macho men and Rudy—I’m not saying this because he’s my husband—is one of the smartest people on the planet,” she said. She also described him as surprisingly romantic. “We love watching Sleepless in Seattle,” she said. “Can you imagine my big testosterone-factor husband doing that?”
Will such lovey-dovey images counteract the bad divorce memories? Rudy’s already in trouble with the GOP’s evangelical base for his support of abortion rights. Recently, one Southern Baptist leader said Rudy’s messy personal life added to the doubts. “This is divorce on steroids,” said Richard Land, head of public policy for the Southern Baptist Convention. “To publicly humiliate your wife in that way, and your children? That’s rough. I think that’s going to be an awfully hard sell, even if he weren’t pro-choice and pro-gun control.” His heroic leadership during 9/11 won’t be enough to erase the scandal. “He’s great at running frantically through ruins, acting like he’s in charge of something,” says Pittman. “But he couldn’t go home, since his wife had kicked him out because he was having an affair with somebody else.”
Judith is still a novice on the campaign trail, but her style appears to be Mamie times 10. She’s feminine, flirty, and completely faithful to Rudy. No word on her fudge recipe—yet.
Mitt Romney and Ann Davies Romney
Married Since: 1969
Family Album: Five sons, 10 grandchildren
As Mitt tells it, the Romney marriage is a real love story. “We met in elementary school,” he said in a 2006 speech that is posted on his campaign website. “I was a Cub Scout, and she was riding a horse bareback over some railroad tracks. What do Cub Scouts do when they see a little girl on a horse? We picked up stones and threw them.” Years later, in 1965, he refined his style and asked her out to see The Sound of Music, which had recently opened. After that, Romney said, “I didn’t want to be anywhere else but with Ann.” He proposed at the senior prom, and she accepted. They were married in 1969, on the fourth anniversary of that first date. In the speech, he lists the reasons he loves her. First is her honesty. “There’s no shading, there’s no guile,” he says, adding that “she has an incomprehensible capacity to love, and because she’s honest, people recognize that she cares for them.” And after all these years, “her love for me, of course, is the greatest source of joy I could possibly have.”
Ann was raised Episcopalian, but converted to Mormonism after meeting Mitt, who comes from a prominent Mormon family. His faith is a problem for evangelicals, who are also mistrustful of his flip-flops. He supported abortion rights and gay rights in his 1994 Senate campaign, but changed these positions when he decided to run for president. Mitt sometimes battles skepticism about his religion with humor, and even jokes about polygamy, repudiated by the Mormon church more than a century ago. “I believe marriage should be between a man and a woman…and a woman…and a woman,” he cracked at the 2005 St. Patrick’s Day breakfast in Boston.
Ann has generally kept a low profile, devoting her time and energy to raising their sons. But in 1998, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Since then, she has been active in raising awareness of the disease as well as funds for advocacy and research. “Ann is an angel,” her husband says. “She’s a hot angel, but she’s an angel nonetheless.” If her husband wins, she could be the next Nancy Reagan—loyal to her man, but willing to wield her influence behind the scenes. Above all, she’ll keep Mitt happy. f
Barbara Kantrowitz is a senior writer for Newsweek. For more information and tips about relationships, visit Tango magazine online.