Politics

Washington Relationships: Capitol Life Puts Pressure on Capital Love

  • PoliticalMavens.com
  • |
  • May 08, 2018

by Karen Feld

Donald Trump and Bill Clinton are certainly not alone among married politicians when we talk about affairs of the heart. In 1958, only one Democrat in Congress lost a seat, and the loser was a woman. There were no steamy revelations about former Rep. Coya Knutson of Oklee, Minn. But there was a conflict of interest even in those innocent days before the Monkey Business and the “Hart” went out of Congressional romance.

Coya’s husband, Andy Knutson, appealed in public for her to leave Congress and return to him in Oklee. “Come home, Coya.” Voters agreed. Coya was booted out of the House. But since you can’t go home again, even to Oklee, Coya left Andy’s house too. His poignant plea became a footnote to the times.

Life in the capital is still as hard on marriages as the old West was said to have been on women and horses. Some of them are most famous for having come unglued under the pressures of life at the end of the HOV-3 lane: John Warner and Elizabeth Taylor, Ted Kennedy and Joan, Health and Human Services Secretary Peggy Heckler and husband John, Senator Gene and Abigail McCarthy, and Senator John and Elizabeth Edwards. Other Congressional wives left the scene so quietly that only the names of their husbands are familiar: Newt Gingrich, Max Baucus, Chris Dodd, Lowell Weicker, Ed Brooke, John Tunney, Joe Tydings, Bill Cohen, George Mitchell, Russell Long, Harrison Williams, Don Riegle, John Tower and Fritz Hollings.

Now politicians divorce more freely and their marital relationships — and their “other” relationships — have become fair game for persistent reporters, who might know a thing or two themselves about how to put a marriage in peril.

If absence were an aphrodisiac, Washingtonians would have little time for anything but romance. Which is not the way things are in Washington. Early in the 1984 Presidential campaign, Ira Lowe, a Washington lawyer and boulevardier, suggested to his friend Joan Mondale that she tell Fritz he should have a woman as his running mate. Replied Joan: “I’ll tell him when I see him. We have a dinner date in three days.”Washington wives learn early that they’re always on public inspection, but that they can’t ever be top banana, nor even expect much attention from the men who brought them to town.

A Washington politician, with swarms of aides to cater to his whims, has been compared to a surgeon surrounded by compliant nurses and submissive patients. He goes home at night and expects his wife to be the same way. Unlike her politician-husband, she doesn’t always have a clear role and her own identity. She bas been uprooted. She must get involved with new school, a new church, a new circle of friends. While she’s busy doing this, he’s surrounded by women lured by the trappings of power.

“Back home the wife may have been comfortable in the role of the secondary person, in Washington the pressures not to continue in that role are strong,” says a Washington psychiatrist who knows many politicians’ wives professionally. The Washington political wife is often torn between how assertive she should be and how to act at, say, a White House reception. “There’s no doubt that power is the ultimate aphrodisiac,” adds the psychiatrist. “Most of us are victims of the stimuli imposed on us. If someone is catered to all day by staffers and is constantly in the press, he gets the feeling he can do no wrong. This breeds disaster in the marital situation where emphasis is on give and take.”

“Being In Congress is like being on a fast treadmill. You’re somebody everybody is always making a fuss over, taking care of every little whim,” Bill Stuckey, a former representative from Georgia once told me. Capitol police stop traffic for congressmen, Washington restauranteurs offer prime tables when they barge in without reservations during the dinner rush. A congressman even gets a parking place in the secure Capitol garage. But the pressures take a toll — sometimes alcohol or drug abuse, often In conjunction with affairs of the heart, or flesh.

You never know when you’ll be photographed. Elizabeth Taylor was always aware of cameras and her husband’s image. When John Warner and his staff threw a birthday party for la Liz in the Senate Dining Room in 1980, she was about to cut her cake for the photographer for the Virginia Military Institute Yearbook when she realized she was wearing the Richard Burton diamond. She quickly pulled it off and handed it to the senator, who tossed it across the room to an aide with the cry: “Here, Sport.”

More is required of a political wife than just well-coiffed hairdos and a fashionable wardrobe. “Years ago Senate wives were more decorative,” explained Nancy Thurmond, wife of the longtime South Carolina senator, “We were more the tea and petit four type.”

Now political spouses are involved in or at least briefed and aware of issues. Wives have careers ranging from lawyer — not nearly as fashionable as it used to be – to real estate agent — big commissions make this an ever-popular spousal calling. The new political spouse is finding her own constituency and her own career. If we went to war again, there might not be enough Senate wives to wrap bandages to make it worth the while of the Red Cross to organize them. Besides, there’s more important work to do. If a lawyer has two trials scheduled for the same day, his wife can’t argue the case for him; if a heart surgeon is detained in a meeting, his wife can’t wield his scalpel. But politics is one of the few professions in which a candidate’s wife is an acceptable surrogate, if she’s a good speaker, knows the issues, radiates charm and exudes warmth, she can enhance his image, just as our current First Lady is doing.

“The wife often is an equal partner in the campaign. Then she gets to Washington and realizes she’s pushed aside,” says former Rep, Beryl Anthony of Arkansas. “That’s the first shock. She’s worked hard and effectively, and then, whammo, it’s the member who’s wined and dined and courted. If the wife is brought along at all, it’s as an afterthought.” That’s why Sheila Anthony went to law school after his election to the House. Others have gone into business as well. If the wife has a career, there’s a different conflict. “The wife of” Rep. Dave McCurdy had a successful pediatrics practice in Oklahoma. When he was elected to Congress, the family moved to Washington. She was confined to raising her children instead of getting paid for treating somebody else’s child.

Some politicians are conscious of the stress Washington puts on marriages. Others are so consumed by egos and careers that it’s often too late if they wake up. Having a parent who is in Congress or The White House may be hard on both parents and children — Baron Trump, Sasha and Melia Obama— when they’re tugged from one school to the next and torn from childhood friends. But they’re exposed to history in the making. Sen. Tammy Duckworth brings her newborn to the Senate Floor.

It’s well-known what is expected of a male candidate’s spouse. What is expected of a woman candidate’s spouse hasn’t changed much since Andy Knutson made his plaintive plea in 1958.
“There’s no way you can anticipate what will be required of spouses,” said Geraldine Ferraro, who learned quickly about the attention female pols don’t want their spouses to attract as did Sarah Palin.

“You’re inevitably the ‘wife of,” said former California Senator Pete Wilson’s wife, Gayle. “If you came to Washington without a good self-image, it would be difficult. Washington’s tempo is so erratic that even an occasional dinner at home is difficult to schedule.” Perhaps that’s why former House members Mary Bono and Connie Mack met and married while serving together in Congress and divorced after losing their elections. Their dual careers worked while in Washington but then life changed.

The powerless spouses who are left behind by divorce or by the Washington treadmill survive once they find their own identity. In some cases, in which both are political, a new issue emerges: Which Dole would be on the ticket in ’88 — Sen. Robert Dole, or his wife, Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole. And which Clinton will leave the greatest mark on history.

But if wives think they have a rough time, so do mistresses. Until Gary Hart was caught with his pants down, nobody talked about this very much. Most agreed with the assessment of Ron Reagan, Jr. “Ideally, a candidate’s family should appear to the nation as accessible as Disneyland and just as harmless.”

But it’s rare that the Washington political man will simply invite a woman out for a quiet dinner by candlelight, just to enjoy the food, the wine and the pleasure of looking deeply into her eyes. Not unless she’s a reporter whom he can pump for information, or the confidante of an important senator whose support he needs on a piece of legislation. Almost no one in Washington hosts or attends a party without a purpose, and it’s a rare bachelor who demonstrates an interest in a woman for love and love alone.

Often a telephone call will do. He usually says sweet nothings from a safe distance— in a mobile van on the campaign trail, or in a Holiday Inn on the outskirts of Pocatello, having just delivered a speech to the Mountain States Septic Tank Cleaners Association, and he wants his ego massaged. Longtime bachelor and presidential photographer David Kennerly often impressed his lady friends with a telephone call from Air Force 1. “Chatting from all those miles up in the air was exciting, especially when the phone would ring, and the operator gets on and says, ‘Air Force 1 calling’ says one such favored woman. “But it wasn’t so much fun when the call from land never came, once he was back on the ground with the rest of us.”

To read the published article on PoliticalMavens.com, click here.

Back to Articles