2008 may be for couple candidacies

This presidential campaign season is in search of a memorable theme. The potential story lines are many, including all those potential “firsts” themes: first woman, first African-American, first Mormon, etc. But these are, by definition, limiting, and they narrow the scope of our interest to one or two candidates. A better, more inclusive theme is “Year of the Couple Candidacy.” What could be more fascinating that the Clintons’ weird machinations? And recent developments with the Edwards and Giuliani couples have whetted our appetites for more. It should be a good year for Barbara Walters interviews.

Polls suggest that the public may have mixed views about couple candidacies. One of the most recent national polls on the topic, conducted by Opinion Dynamics in late February for Fox News, got it wrong, I think. Normally I like the Fox polls, but this one was oddly worded. The pollsters asked, “Do you think the spouses of presidential candidates are fair game in the campaign or should the spouses of the candidates be off limits?” Only 39 percent of the 900 registered voters Opinion Dynamics questioned thought spouses should be fair game. This hardly surprises. There is something about the “fair game” language that suggests the ugliness of predatory stalking. No one wants a candidate’s spouse to be hunted down, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t want to know more.

A February 2004 poll conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates for Newsweek came closer to revealing the legitimate interest in candidate spouses. Almost three in four adult Americans polled said a candidate’s relationship with his or her spouse provides insight on what kind of president he or she would be. Forty percent said it tells them “a lot” about a candidate’s probable performance in the White House. Another 32 percent said it tells them “something.” Only 25 percent felt that the relationship reveals “not much” or “nothing.” Not surprisingly, then, in the same poll, two-thirds of Americans said that learning about the candidates’ spouses is very or somewhat important to then.

While there are still a few holdouts who believe couple relationships should be protected, their days are numbered. Even the Europeans are throwing in the towel. The French press that once kept candidates’ spouses and mistresses out of the headlines is catching the American spirit and exploring marital relations of those running for office. UMP party candidate Nicolas Sarkozy even wrote a memoir, Testimony, in which he detailed the “ups-and-downs” of his relationship with wife. Perhaps Rudy Giuliani or Hillary Clinton would benefit from a similar self-confessing autobiography.

The notion that potential chief executives’ spouses are worthy of interviewing is a familiar concept in the world of big business. There are placement and recruitment firms that interview not only the executives’ spouses, but even their children. Moreover, when a business is considering posting an executive to some important post in an overseas location, it’s not unusual for spouse and children interviews to be required. Businesses have learned that, like it or not, you hire a candidate’s family as well as his executive training, skills and experience. The family can be an asset or a liability. Furthermore, a family interview can provide the kind of indirect insight into an executive’s mind-set and values that is hard to explore directly with the candidate.

Consider this haunting 1999 quote from Laura Bush about her husband, then the governor of Texas: “I really don’t try to give him a whole lot of advice, just like I wouldn’t like it if he gave me a whole lot of advice.” In retrospect, it hinted strongly at a stubborn quality that some Americans have discovered only lately in the Bushes. Let’s see what this year’s crop of wives say about their men. And what will Bill say about Hillary? Go, Barbara, go.