Sizing Up the Candidate's Spouse

RICHARD REEVES

April 30, 1992|By RICHARD REEVES

LOS ANGELES. — Los Angeles -- The country is falling apart and its greatest news organizations are out taking polls -- and endlessly analyzing them -- on what people think of Hillary Clinton. Am I the only person in America who thinks about her as little as possible?

I am dubious about the importance of the ''character'' of our leaders or candidates for leadership to begin with -- Was Napoleon nice to his dog? Was Churchill a drunk? -- so I have no patience at all for character studies of their spouses. And I am frightened by loose talk of White House partnerships and Cabinet positions.

My own checkered experience convinces me that what is important about politicians is that they are politicians. Their behavior, public behavior, is as predictable as reporters' rising to the bait of novelty. They will do what they have always done: promote themselves by defining public problems, trying to project a sympathetic attitude that some call caring, but put off decision-making for as long as possible because decisions and solutions inevitably create adversaries.

Politicians are opportunistic by definition, ever alert to the chance that events big and small can be turned to their own advantage. This year, Bill Clinton showed just how skilled a professional he is by exploiting the fact, or novelty, that his wife seems to be smarter than he is and to have forgiven his trespasses. He was almost literally standing up to questions about when he stopped beating his wife. Now, according to the New York Times, CBS News and U.S. News & World Report, four Americans like that wife for every three who do not.

I would not know Mrs. Clinton if she walked into this room, but friends of good judgment tell me she is terrific. Great, she should think of running for president herself one day. It was Aristotle who said: ''At the Olympic Games, it is not the finest and strongest men who are crowned, but they who enter the lists -- for out of these the prize-men are elected.''

So it is Bill Clinton we have to think about. Mario Cuomo, Al Gore and Bill Bradley did not enter the list; neither did Hillary Clinton. When we think of women, it is not Mrs. Clinton who deserves attention; it is the women in the lists this year -- Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, running for the Senate in California, Carol Moseley Braun in Illinois and Lynn Yeakel in Pennsylvania. Or Betty Boothroyd, the new speaker of the British Parliament.

Who cares about the husbands of women in the race? Is there going to be a poll about what Californians think of Stewart Boxer?

Being the spouse of the candidate is no big deal. Take my word for it; I'm one of them. My wife, Catherine O'Neill, is running for the state Senate in California. It is 7 o'clock in the morning as I write this, and she is already gone, on her way to speak at a breakfast somewhere. Maybe I will see her again at 10 o'clock tonight. I will ask her how it went and she will say, ''Fine'' -- before the phone starts ringing with reports and gossip of the day's doings.

In these times that try men's souls, it is the staff and not the spouse at the candidate's side. The husband is occasionally asked to write a few words for a brochure or a television commercial. Then somebody at ''headquarters'' re-writes my stuff. I think the O'Neill campaign needs more nepotism, but nobody over there much cares what I think. They are all too busy and too tired to worry over the guy doing the dishes at home.

Why should they? I have very little to do with this, except for occasionally calming down the candidate, who has been known to get excited -- say, when opponents lie about her -- and do what I can to keep up her morale. I don't know how she or anybody else can get up in the morning and keep marching out there to meet the 800,000 people of the 23rd Senate district.

I don't know who really started this business of projecting a loving and lovely spouse and family standing by at home -- Eleanor Roosevelt? Dolley Madison? -- but they should be forced to do it forever in the hereafter. There is pain or at least a lot of grief in being totally invested but forced to stand aside, smiling through the combat all the while, essentially helpless to do anything about it.

So I have a tiny sense of what it must be like to be Hillary Clinton, but I don't care what she thinks about the governing of America. We elect one president at a time -- and that's enough for me to

think about.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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