Some congressional spouses are wallflowers. They linger behind their husbands, letting him have the life, the job and the importance. They are what former first lady, now senator, Hillary Rodham Clinton once described with disdain as a stand-by-your-man kind of wife.
Jackie Tancredo, wife of Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), is not that wife.
But she doesn’t want to go on all of her husband’s boring whirlwind cross-country trips, she doesn’t want to attend his every press conference and she doesn’t want to tell him how to vote or what to say — at least not always.
“My favorite line is usually, ‘Tom you can’t say that,’ but it’s usually after he said it,” she says.
Sometimes Tancredo is torn between wanting to send him away and wanting him around all the time. It’s a feast-or-famine kind of existence for the Tancredos. Sometimes they’re together a lot, and happily so, and sometimes they’re apart for weeks at a time, and mostly fine with that too, although she would have preferred that he not visit Iraq last year.
“I didn’t like that at all,” she says. “It’s a guy thing. I see no reason why [they] can’t watch it on TV. [He thinks] ‘I’ll be OK.’ Well, maybe you will be or maybe you won’t.” Dryly, she adds, “He has good life insurance. You laugh and you cry and you pray.”
For Mother’s Day last year, her gift came in a phone call telling her that her husband had made it safely out of Iraq. She notes the threats that have been made on his life, the bullet-proof vest he wears when delivering speeches and the “heart attack” moment during the GOP convention last summer when security banged on her door and said, “‘Are you Tom Tancredo’s wife?’” Her husband had received what they considered a suspicious package that turned out to be nothing dangerous.
Worry is just one part of how she views her role as a congressional spouse.
Tancredo supports her husband. She loves him. And for the most part — possibly to the dismay of some of his aides — she calls the shots when the workday is done.
Suggest that she could be the next first lady, with her husband threatening to run for president in 2008, and her response is hearty laughter, as if to put the matter to rest before it ever becomes reality.
“Are you kidding?” she asks. “You need to have better hair and be thinner to be first lady.” So, no, she says, “He’s in the presidential pool to further his [immigration] issue. Hopefully that will not mean that he’s running for president. That’s a bigger commitment than either of us are ready to make.”
She continues her anti-presidential speech by speaking of those who run for the White House as prisoners. “I just admire people who will even attempt it,” she says. “Those people in there are in a prison. They don’t get to go anywhere, do anything. It’s the rest of your life. I just think it’s amazing we get anyone to do it.”
Like her husband, Tancredo is candid and personable. She doesn’t hold back much, not even about lunch in the Members Dining Room.
“I might as well tell you most of the salads are bad,” she confides. “If you want a very mediocre salad, you’ve got that. I haven’t had the wedge salad.”
But she says the food has improved. “It was really a meat-and-potatoes kind of place for the guys,” she says. “Now there’s the vegetable lasagna. I always have the bean soup because it’s traditional.”
Tancredo typically tries to stay in Washington for 10 days at a time to “justify a plane ticket” because, she says, “we buy our own ticket, you know.”
Much of her life is spent in Littleton, Colo., a suburb of Denver. That’s how she likes it. “You have the Washington life, and then you have your district life. I jokingly say before Tom came to Congress I had three toilets to clean. Now I have six.”
The Tancredos have a town house in Alexandria. “We’ve had horrendous things happen at our home when we’re gone so much,” she says, recalling the leak that ruined the hardwood floors and the sprinkler system that froze, burst and flooded the basement.
“Crazy things happen all the time. You can either cry about it or laugh, so we try to laugh.”
Tancredo dislikes the fact that people back in Colorado think the congressional life involves being treated like royalty.
“People think we have drivers and limos,” she says. “They think we’re treated like princes and princesses. I had a lady call me and tell me that Tom had to call the president and tell him not to throw out the first baseball [at the start of the season].”
Tancredo replied, “I think the Secret Service is on top of it.”
Tancredo belongs to the International Club, which helps spouses of ambassadors, administration officials and Supreme Court judges adjust to Washington. She also belongs to the Congressional Spouses Club, and when she is here attends a weekly one-hour Bible Study.
“It’s the one place we can come and kind of commiserate and share the ups and downs of congressional spouses life,” she says. “Women have to start with ‘here are all of my problems,’ sort of thing.
“Most of us wish our husbands weren’t in Congress sometimes.” But whenever she and her husband argue about it, he simply says, “You knew.”
But there are realities that cannot be known in advance. “I was a teacher,” she says, “I was naive. I thought you ran for office and went to work. I didn’t understand that your life was everyone elses.”
There are also sad realities, such as that family pets do not get the attention they might otherwise receive. The Tancredos have had two dogs and two cats. “All have died,” she says. “This is not a life for pets.”
And the Washington parties? “They’re spectacular,” Tancredo says. “You really start feeling crummy when on the third night you’re going, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re having filet and salmon again?’”
Tancredo says that she feels they have been in Congress a thousand years — it’s only been four terms — but that she looks at her life and sees blessings, difficulties and a husband doing something he believes in.
“I respect him tremendously. If you said, ‘Well, would you change him?’ No, I wouldn’t. He loves the job, so that part’s good. I like him better when he’s happy.”