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Undue demands on spouses

By DI / August 5, 1987



WE can think of arguments in favor of public forums for spouses of presidential candidates, like the one recently held in Iowa. But we can think of even more arguments against them. First the pro side: First ladies have had great influence on the affairs of the nation - Eleanor Roosevelt carried on public campaigns of her own, Rosalynn Carter worked in close partnership with President Jimmy, and Nancy Reagan's views reportedly played a role in the hiring and firing of top Reagan White House aides. Wives of candidates now often have substantial careers of their own and should not be relegated to the role of white-gloved, adoring onlooker. Having the spouses debate may make up for some of the neglect they must feel while their political other halves are campaigning.

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Against: Candidates, not spouses, are elected. If it is feared that a spouse might later intrude in official matters, how is it consistent to invite her - or him - to participate in a formal campaign event?

The privacy of candidate family relationships needs protection, not further exploitation. If the spouse wants to join the fray - and the mother and cousins choose to join in as well - let them do so on their own. Not all politicians' wives - or husbands - may want to be lined up in political cattle shows and compared the way their candidate spouses are; if the spouse forum were to become institutionalized, it would become more difficult for the reluctant partner - or the one who prefers to focus on her or his own career - to say no. Bess Truman was a private person: Should her own wish for privacy have been held against her husband's career?

The spouse forum is essentially a media event. Another format exists for telling the public about the candidates' home and family life - the interview, which can offer the subject some protection.

Much of the interest in spouses does not rise above the level of gossip. Politics in a television age, with 15 months to go before the election, is starving for material. Serious foreign and domestic issues on TV can be dull stuff. The recent probing into candidates' marital fidelity - and here it is newspapers and newsmagazines that have been the most offensive - is not fairly followed by putting the spouses on display as character witnesses.

Where does the character reference test stop - a forum for the candidates' children? Their neighbors? Dogs? College classmates? Former dates? Their favorite elementary school teachers?

Society has long made unfair demands on the wives and children of ministers and executives, as well as politicians, to measure up to some unstated standard. If society is advancing to occupational independence for marriage partners outside the home, it should not become a busybody about the inside of the home.

Are the candidates not up to running for office on their own? And if candidates do not safeguard their family's privacy during the campaign, what would be their demands on the spouses if elected?