By Carl Sferrazza Anthony, Historian of the National First Ladies Library
This article is adapted from the response to a multi-part media inquiry received at the National First Ladies Library posed during the 2012 campaign. This is the second installment of a two-part series.
Once presidential candidates began regularly appearing at the national political conventions which nominated them, their wives and families were almost always present to witness the event. Initially, many did not come to the podium with their husband but rather remained in the rafters watching.
In 1952, Mamie Eisenhower set a new precedent by appearing with her husband and waving to acknowledge the cheers of the delegates.
In an effort to gain a greater margin of support from women voters, the Republican Party that year built an entire publicity campaign around the popular Mrs. Eisenhower. Although not intended to replace the serious aspect of the issues being addressed in that year’s election, this publicity campaign was an adjunct to it, intended to appeal to sentiment. Since then, the media departments of the two political parties have given special focus to “packaging” a candidate’s spouse in carefully-crafted biographies and arranging for well-chosen print and broadcast interviews.
Not only through media interviews candidates’ spouses have also come to serve the role of emphasizing the candidate’s personal accomplishments and attributes in a way that would be perceived as egotistical if the candidates themselves did so. Beginning with the 1992 National Republican Convention speech by Barbara Bush, many spouses have also done so in full-length speeches.
While the audiences hearing these addresses live are often supporters at the convention or rallies, the nation at large listens to them on television or the Internet. (There is a separate article here on the history of candidates’ spouses addressing national conventions.)
An extension of this public speaking role has evolved to include spouses who deliver important policy-related speeches as substitutes for the candidate who is unable to do so because of scheduling conflicts or appearance delays. This has been especially true in the last twenty years with women who have their own professional experience in public policy such as Rosalynn Carter, Elizabeth Dole, Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama.
Another venue for such public appearances and speeches is borne by the constant fundraising necessity of sustaining the cost of national campaigns. With a tremendous public appeal which often crossed party lines, Barbara Bush repeatedly assumed this role to the point where it established a precedent for all successive candidates’ spouses of both parties.
Beyond serving the purpose of reflecting the candidate’s character through his marital life, candidates’ spouses have also come to serve as excellent surrogates who speak with authority on the issues of the campaign but can often do so in a manner which, traditionally, translates into a more readily-understandable explanation of complex policy issues for the general voting public.
This article focuses on the public role of candidates’ spouses. In conjunction with but apart from such a role, they can exercise enormous influence in a variety of substantive ways. A few examples include: editing or reviewing the candidate’s speeches, or advising them on rewording the text to best present complex issues in simple language (Mamie Eisenhower); cultivating key support within the party leadership (Ellen Wilson) or members of Congress (Dolley Madison); recommending scheduling changes that best serve the personal or political inclinations of the candidate (Louisa Adams, Jacqueline Kennedy); offering strategy advice on how to best appeal directly to women on issues of concern to that demographic (Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter).
Despite the strong tradition and public expectation of spousal support of presidential candidates, there was a notable exception to this in 2004. During the state primary races, the wife of Vermont governor and Democratic candidate Howard Dean refused to relinquish her own professional responsibilities as a physician in order to campaign.
Although Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination is the only example of a woman candidate, there was an equal degree of public and media expectation of her spousal support during that process. In light of the unusual fact that this spouse happened to be a former President of the United States, it was unsurprising that it was a role he assumed with eager vigor.