Pulitzer winner tries to stand by her man

Washington women, as seen on the printed page or the movie screen, tend to appear either uninteresting or inaccessible.
Think of the calculating Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) depicted by her biographers, or the line of bland first ladies who cower in the background in Hollywood’s political thrillers.

For anyone eager to watch a real woman navigate the shark-infested waters of congressional politics — a woman who could be your mother, sister or friend — listen to Connie Schultz. Or, as she grudgingly became known on the campaign trail, Mrs. Sherrod Brown.

Political junkies know last year’s Ohio Senate race as the one that Democrats locked down first, with Brown, the unabashed progressive House member, besting incumbent Sen. Mike DeWine (R) by more than 12 percentage points. But for Schultz, the campaign was a personal labyrinth of victories and insecurities, a journey that found her stumping almost as hard for her husband as the candidate himself.

Given the lickety-split turnover of Schultz’s memoir from the trail, which hit bookstores less than six months after Brown became a freshman senator, readers can expect a fair share of fresh wounds from his wife. Schultz’s columns for the Cleveland Plain Dealer won her the Pulitzer Prize, but the scribe’s departure from her newsroom turned her into a highly biased narrator. Indeed, sometimes her tone turns too adoring when she writes of Brown’s populism and dedication.

When the affable Brown gets knocked around, as most candidates do, Schultz feels his pain tenfold. When campaign aides discuss strategy to counter DeWine’s negative TV spots, Schultz agonizes enough for two, befitting her dual roles as dutiful wife and astute tactician. Whether Schultz’s idealistic voice appeals or grates can depend on the scenario she describes, making And His Lovely Wife a genuinely unpredictable experience.

Schultz’s encounters with other members of Congress are among her book’s high notes. Female readers in particular may involuntarily nod in agreement with her frank assessments.

After Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, tells Brown that his wife “had her chance at the brass ring” and should fall in line with the Senate race, Schultz quips: “I wanted to ask Schumer what exactly Sherrod had sacrificed for me to win a journalism prize, but I’d never met the man.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a close friend of Brown’s in the House who rose to the Senate alongside him, also makes a cameo, nudging Schultz along when she appears set to advise her husband against running a statewide race.

“He kept talking about this wife he loved,” Sanders tells Schultz, his Brooklyn accent palpable in print. “This marriage he had … Uhh, on and on.”

Schultz also relates Brown’s tense exchange with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) over Paul Hackett, who briefly flirted with the idea of taking on DeWine. Once Brown won Schumer’s blessing, Hackett lashed out at him in the press.

“It was short, and painful,” Schultz writes of a Reid-Brown meeting on the Hackett feud, providing a choice insight into the mild-mannered Nevadan’s style behind the scenes.

When Schultz’s prose drifts from the political to the personal, as it often does, her book becomes a test for Capitol Hill readers. True-blue Democrats, particularly women, will undeniably root for Schultz and Brown to survive the campaign ordeal with their relationship intact — and they will not be disappointed, as the late-blooming marriage of two divorced parents provides moments of transcendent romance.

But Schultz’s pithy lessons risk losing the attention of GOP-leaning or independent readers. She largely equates the national Democratic platform with Brown’s positions and passes up chances to point out his differences with some of the party’s orthodoxy.

Brown’s role as a defender of workers’ interests and critic of free trade is well known. But apart from her cogent social commentary on the cult of congressional spouse-hood, Schultz rarely goes beyond that campaign-platform perspective to raise her intelligent and audacious voice and start a discussion on what she sees lacking in her husband’s 534 voting colleagues.