Frank Fiorina, future first gentleman?
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This is the third in a semi-regular series on the spouses of presidential candidates. Other installments profiled Jane O'Meara Sanders, Candy Carson and Jeanette Rubio.

It doesn't look good for Republican presidential hopeful Carly Fiorina after she failed to make a ripple in last week's GOP debate. But perhaps she can make a Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonPompeo: 'We've not been successful' in changing US-Russia relations Michael Moore ties Obama to Trump's win in Michigan in 2016 The Memo: Could Kavanaugh furor spark another ‘year of the woman’? MORE-style comeback, and give hope to those of us who relish a general election contest between Fiorina, 61, and Clinton, 68.

And should that happen, we'd be assured of two historic firsts: a female president and a male first gentleman.

We all know President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonSexual assault is not a game — stop using women to score political points Trump, GOP regain edge in Kavanaugh battle Presidential approval: It's the economy; except when it's not MORE, 69, down to the most intimate detail.

Frank Fiorina? Not so much.

In 1980, Cara Carleton "Carly" Sneed, then 25 and a 1976 graduate of Stanford University, started her career at AT&T in Washington, D.C., first as a management trainee and then as a sales rep. In 1981, she met AT&T executive Frank Fiorina, who was, in his own words, "a poor boy from Pittsburgh" who had started as a $99-a-week circuit tester.

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Then married to her first husband, Carly was drawn to Frank, who, unlike some of the other men at the company — one of her bosses routinely introduced her as "our token bimbo" — took her ambitions seriously. He was happy to help her climb the corporate ladder — not that she needed much help. She was intense, unusually hardworking, and impervious to intimidation. When her male colleagues entertained clients at a strip club, Carly insisted on coming along.

Frank's first marriage was failing — his wife filed for divorce in 1981 — and soon so was Carly's marriage to a Stanford classmate, Todd Bartlem, whom she would later describe as not supportive of her career. (He later described her as a soulless, ruthless corporate climber, "calculating" and "pathologically narcissistic.") Frank asked her out, and, on their third date, he told her she'd soon be running the company.

They married in 1985. Frank recalls proposing to Carly in his car, parked in the driveway of his mother's house, while his young daughters jumped up and down in the backseat.

Carly moved up fast at AT&T: from account executive to senior vice president for global marketing (the first female at AT&T to reach the senior VP rank), to president of AT&T network systems. By 1997, she was group president at Lucent Technologies, an AT&T spin-off, and credited with its success. She made the cover of Fortune magazine, which named her, that year and for five years running, the most powerful female executive in the U.S. In 1999, she moved on to Hewlett-Packard and quickly jumped from president to CEO and in 2000, chairman of the board, the first woman to lead a Fortune 20 company. She collected a $65 million signing bonus.

A year earlier, in 1998, Frank, then 48, recognizing that Carly was the family's star, took early retirement from AT&T in order to run their house and support Carly. He accompanied her on business trips and served as her armed bodyguard. On his application for a concealed carry permit, he noted that his wife had received threats and contended with stalkers.

 

Last May, just after she announced her run for the White House, the couple appeared on the "Today" show. Frank told co-hosts Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb that, in 1997, when Carly left AT&T for Lucent, "[I] told her she was going to be president some day."

She does have a suitable family background: born in Austin, Texas to a father, Joseph Tyree Sneed III, who taught tax law at the University of Texas and later at Stanford, Cornell University and Duke University, where he became dean. In 1973, President Nixon appointed Sneed deputy attorney general, and, six months later, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in San Francisco. (He was part of the three-judge panel that assigned Kenneth Starr as independent counsel to investigate Bill Clinton, an investigation that later led to Clinton's impeachment.)

Carly and her sister and brother grew up around the country and the world in a highly cultured home as their father also taught at the London School of Economics and the University of Ghana. Their mother, Madelon Juergens, was an abstract painter who had been a WAC (Women's Army Corps) during World War II. Frank’s upbringing was less lofty. His father owned an appliance repair business and an auto body shop. Carly often mentions while campaigning that Frank drove a tow truck for the family business.

During the last decade in particular, it's Carly's life that has been marked by difficulty and disappointment. And it's Frank who has helped her navigate the rough patches and move on to the next challenge. And, for Carly, there is always a next challenge.

Her time at Hewlett-Packard ended in public humiliation. Her name became synonymous with failure, selfishness and greed. Thirty-thousand people lost their jobs during her tenure. She was portrayed as an incompetent who cared more about her comfort and perks — private jets, chauffeured limousines, two yachts (one for each coast) — than her employees. The board fired her in February 2005 as the company's stock fell by more than 50 percent, linked directly to Fiorina's decision in 2001 to acquire Compaq and merge it with Hewlett-Packard. She pocketed a $21 million golden parachute, though, and her net worth was estimated to be as high as $121 million.

She refused to retreat into obscurity, instead immersing herself in another cutthroat business: politics. She chaired the CIA's External Advisory Board, and, in 2008, she served as economic adviser to Republican presidential nominee John McCainJohn Sidney McCainTrump hits McCain on ObamaCare vote GOP, White House start playing midterm blame game Arizona race becomes Senate GOP’s ‘firewall’ MORE and as his surrogate on the campaign trail and television news shows.

In February 2009, age 54, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and endured a double mastectomy, radiation and chemotherapy. 

That same year, two weeks after she finished a brutal chemotherapy regimen, Frank's younger daughter, Lori Ann, 35, died from what Carly has called the "demons of addiction."

Carly was close to Frank’s daughters and speaks about them publicly as "my daughters." She also speaks of the heartbreak of trying unsuccessfully over many years to conceive a child — "a reminder that life is a precious gift and not everyone is given that gift" — lately in the context of arguing for repeal of Roe v. Wade. To bolster her point, she describes Frank's mother, pregnant with him, suffering from severe health problems, and being advised to abort him. She refused, and Frank, Carly says, turned out to be the joy of his mother's life.

Their daughter's death and Carly's bout with cancer did not curb her ambitions. In November 2009, sporting a post-chemo gray buzzcut, Frank at her side, she launched a tough campaign for a U.S. Senate seat from California. Kicking in $6.5 million of her own money, she bested two men in the Republican primary but lost the general election to incumbent Sen. Barbara BoxerBarbara Levy BoxerKamala Harris on 2020 presidential bid: ‘I’m not ruling it out’ The ‘bang for the buck’ theory fueling Trump’s infrastructure plan Kamala Harris endorses Gavin Newsom for California governor MORE (D) by 1 million votes. Boxer wouldn’t let up on those 30,000 jobs losts and Carly's enthusiasm for outsourcing: "There is no job that is America's God-given right anymore," Fiorina had once said.

Frank had admitted to The New York Times' Frank Bruni during the Senate campaign that he had mixed emotions about the Senate race; they could have been enjoying leisure time together. Then, like now, they could also be free of having to offer up details of their personal lives for public consumption; something Carly seems to enjoy but Frank, while willing to do so to advance his wife, would rather not. During that appearance on the "Today" show, Carly confirmed to Gifford that on that third date, they "made out." "I remember looking out of the car windows and not being able to see anything," she said.

Later that month, during a staged trip to a Costco store, with a reporter, photographer, and flack in tow — Frank, walking the aisles with The Washington Post's Ben Terris, repeated the same story in the service of humanizing his wife. In Terris's description, Frank is slightly uncomfortable with the entourage watching him buy toilet paper and a toothbrush, and relieved when he can cut free and head to the next stops on his schedule: a visit with his granddaughters and then home to take care of his and Carly's Yorkies, Max and Snickers.

 

Carly Fiorina exceeded expectations in the first GOP debate in August. She won the second in September, thanks to her response to Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpSunday shows preview: Trump sells U.N. reorganizing and Kavanaugh allegations dominate Ex-Trump staffer out at CNN amid “false and defamatory accusations” Democrats opposed to Pelosi lack challenger to topple her MORE's insult in Rolling Stone ("Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?”) and his lame claim that he was talking about her "persona. "I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said," Fiorina pointed out. Her poll numbers jumped by 12 points.

But those numbers have since tanked, and she did nothing in the third debate to change that. She had the most talking time of any candidate — 10 minutes, 26 seconds — but left little impression. When The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza posted his debate winners and losers, he actually left out Carly (and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee).

Carly has cast herself as the best choice to run against Hillary Clinton: Women who feel compelled to vote to change history could vote for the better woman. A man attacking Clinton might be seen as misogynistic; not a problem when it's women beating up on each other. Clinton is making her gender her "platform," Carly charges, but Carly's nomination would make Clinton focus on the issues. "In your heart of hearts," she said in her closing statement of the third GOP debate, "you cannot wait to see a debate between Carly Fiorina and Hillary Clinton."

Frank surely knows that losing the nomination doesn't mean Carly switching gears to romp with the dogs and the grandkids. When she conceded to Boxer in 2010, in a race punctuated by hospital stays for breast infections, she told her supporters, "The fight is not over; the fight has just begun."

Pundits have wondered if, in 2016, Carly Fiorina is really running for vice president. She has dismissed that notion as sexist. Frank Fiorina surely knows better than anyone that even if she were to become vice president, in four years, or eight, he'd be back with her on the trail as she, once again, ran for the top.

Felsenthal is a political blogger and contributing editor for Chicago magazine. She has written biographies of Katharine Graham and President Clinton and profiles on former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, former White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley and Roger Ebert, among others. Contact her at carolfelsenthal@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter @cfelsenthal.