Health & Lifestyle

WASHINGTON WIVES: Capitol life puts pressure on capital love

  • The Washington Times
  • |
  • May 27, 1987

by Karen Feld

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 Hart went out of Congressional romance.

Her husband, Andy Knutson, appealed in public for her to leave the Congress and return to him in Oklee.

“Come home, Coya,” he cried.

Voters in MInnesota 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. Andy’s poignant plea became a footnote to his 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, Gene and Abigail McCarthy.

Other Congressional wives left the scene so quietly that only the names of their husbands are familiar: Max Baucus, Chris Dodd, Bob Kasten, Lowell Weicker, Alan Cranston, Ed Brooke, John Tunney, Joe Tidings, 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 her 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 attracted to the trappings of power.

“While back home the wife was 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.

For instance, the congressional wife often is torn between how assertive she should be and how to act at, say, a White Houle 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 has all these things written about him, 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,” says Bill Stuckey, a former representative from Georgia.

Capitol police stop traffic for congressmen, Washington restauranteurs offer prime tables when they come in without reservations during the dinner rush. A congressman even gets a parking place at National Airport.

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 ia required of a political wife than just well-coiffed hairdos and a fashionable wardrobe. “Years ago Senate wives were more decorative, “says Nancy Thurmond, wife of South Carolina’s Republican senator, “We were more of the tea and petit four type. We are no longer ‘just the wife of.’

“Now we’re involved in at least being educated and aware of all the issues.”

Congressional 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.

“The wife often is an equal partner in the campaign, and then she gets to Washington and realizes she’s pushed aside,” says Rep, Beryl Anthony, an Arkansas Democrat. “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. Arlene Crane became a private detective, Alta Leath, wife of Rep. Marvin Leath, Texas Democrat, opened a jewelry boutique, and Sue Huckaby, wife of Rep. Jerry Huckaby, Louisiana Democrat, is a successful real estate broker.

If the wife has a career, there’s a different conflict. “The wife of” Rep. Dave McCurdy had a successful pediatrics practice in Oklahoma. He ran for Congress, then moved her and the kids to Washington. She was confined to raising her children instead of getting paid for treating somebody else’s child.

Sen, Paul Trible’s wife started a business, importing goods such as porcelain antiques and rugs from China. Emily Malino, wife of Rep. Jim Scheuer of New York, is an interior designer. Other wives chose other methods of hooking into the congressional system. “It’s their relief, their own outlet,” says a Southern congressman.

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 when they wake up, “We talk about it,” says Mr. Anthony. “But how do you go about alleviating it? Try to do surprise things such as involve the wife in a committee trip, take some time off, anything that will elevate the awareness level that you’re conscious of the problem.”

Inviting your wife on a committee trip isn’t always the answer. Beryl Anthony’s Arkansas colleague, Bill Alexander, did that. When he was detained at the last minute for business as the chief deputy Democratic whip, he told her to go ahead to Europe with the House party.

One colleague was Rep. Bob Mathias of California, the Olympics decathlon champion and a Republican yet. One thing led to another, and Paris was considerably more fun for some than for others. Eventually the Alexanders and the Mathiases divorced, and Gwen Alexander became Gwen Mathias.

Bob Mathias is no longer in Congress, and Bill Alexander is, but Bob is still married to his former colleague’s ex-wife. And in 1979, one senator, Jake Garn of Utah, married Kathleen Brewerton, the ex-wife of his administrative assistant.

Having a mother or father who is in Congress may be hard on the children when they’re tugged from one school to the next and torn from childhood friends. But they do get perks such as invitations to White House Christmas parties, and they’re exposed to history in the making.

Many grow up to work within the system. Jim Symington, Al Gore, and Barry Goldwater Jr. followed in their fathers’ footsteps. Other become aides or powerful lobbyists, such as Tommy Boggs, son of Hale Boggs of Louisiana, the late House majority leader who died in an Alaskan plane crash. The widow Boggs, Lindy, has his seat now.

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,” says Geraldine Ferraro, who learned quickly about the attention members of Congress don’t want their spouses to attract.

Many new political wives want to preserve their identities, too. ” I feel I came here with a strong identity, but it gets eroded,” says Gayle Wilson, wife of Sen. Pete Wilson of California. “You’re inevitably the ‘wife of.'”

She doesn’t let it bother her anymore. “I’m a person in my own right, but if you came to Washington without a good self-image, it would be difficult.”

She finds it helps to participate in the process. She works closely with the senator’s staff, writes thank-you notes, and meets with constituents. She also sits in on scheduling meetings. “My goal is to schedule two nights a week at home,” Mrs. Wilson says. But Washington’s tempo is so erratic she usually can’t — “so much for scheduling.”

Women in Congress feel they must consider the timing and logistics of their families more than their male counterparts. Rep. Pat Schroeder of Colorado came to Congress with young children.

“There are many days I wish I had a wife,” she says. “I don’t have anyone to do the things that a lot of political wives do.” But she wouldn’t want the role of political spouse for her husband, Jim.

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 will be on the ticket in ’88 — Sen. Robert Dole, or his wife, Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole.

But if wives think they have it hard, so do mistresses. Until everybody thought they caught Gary Hart with his pants down, nobody talked about this very much. Everyone agreed with the assessment of Ron Reagan, Jr.

“Ideally,” he once said, “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 particular 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. And since a congressman can charge long-distance calls to his congressional or campaign offices, he usually says sweet nothing from a safe distance. Usually he’s 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 David Kennerly, who was President Ford’s photographer at the White House, 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 Ms. X,'” says one such favored woman. “But it wasn’t so much fun once the call from land never came, once he was back on the ground with the rest of us.”