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Jewish World Review Feb. 9, 2004/ 17 Shevat, 5764

Suzanne Fields

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Is there a doctor in the (White) House | Maria Shriver did the right thing, and she did it gracefully. She quit NBC News in order to make news and influence policy as the first lady of California.

But we might soon have to change the marriage oath for women (and men) who marry officeholders. Such spouses must love, honor, obey, campaign and consider giving up their day jobs. That's especially true of spouses of presidential candidates. "Running mate" takes on new meaning.

The "role" and "image" of the first lady has always held peculiar political implications and never more than today, when many "wives of" are likely to have careers. Hillary Clinton is the first first lady to be cited by the Great Mentioner as a potential presidential candidate, but she might not be the first president.

Edith Wilson was said to be "the president" after Woodrow Wilson suffered a massive stroke in office. She was accused of running a "petticoat government," and critics called her "presidentress" and Woodrow the "First Man." She handled the nation's business behind the scenes for a full seven months.

Today wives of candidates are used as campaign props to help their husbands get elected, no matter who they are. It was refreshing when Howard Dean's wife, a doctor, stayed in the background for as long as she did, preferring to tend her patients instead of his politics. When she made her television debut it was painful to watch. Her husband was exposed as desperate and unable to protect his wife from a spotlight she clearly didn't want.

Once I suggested that a first lady ought to be able to hire an official hostess if she wants to continue her career elsewhere. Dr. Judith Steinberg Dean suggested that she wanted to continue to be a doctor if her husband made it to the White House. We can only imagine the hassle her patients would suffer getting by the Secret Service.

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In retrospect, Hillary Clinton was the perfect first lady for Bill Clinton. Despite her enormous mistakes of judgment - her healthcare reform and her denunciation of the mysterious "right wing conspiracy" - she shared her husband's ambition, misguided though it was, and played the politics game better than he did. She saved him from himself by exploiting her own humiliation as a steppingstone to power.

Dick Morris, who helped Bill Clinton win his second term, advises the next Democratic presidential nominee to take Hillary as his running mate. This would make an odd threesome - or foursome - in the crossfire of a campaign. Any presidential candidate who dares to seek Hillary as his veep would get not only an aggressive Hillary but a husband with a lot of ideas, too. "Buy one, get one free" is an idea whose time has gone, to say nothing of buy one, get three.

Women have evolved into public roles in the last half century, but the role of First Spouse will always be determined by the character of the president at the top. The press, being the press, will continue to scrutinize every mood and fashion of a first spouse.

Public life, like life itself, must endure the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Rachel Jackson, wife of Andrew, was viciously attacked in her husband's campaign of 1828. There were some irregularities in her divorce from her first husband and she was denounced as an adulterer by the opposition. "I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of God than to live in that palace at Washington," she said. Andrew was elected and Rachel got her wish. She died before his inauguration.

Nancy Reagan wasn't the first first lady to consult an astrologer. Florence Harding as a senator's wife visited Madam Marcia, a celebrated astrologer in Washington of the 1920s. She told her that her husband would become president of the United States one day and that he would have many illicit affairs. The fortuneteller was right on both counts. Florence was less the jealous wife than a worried first lady, fearing that her husband's compulsive philandering would destroy his power and hers. (Hmmm. Sound familiar?)

Wives as campaigners can help or hurt their husbands. They enjoy pillow talk power, but there's only so much a spouse can change. Howard Dean thought his wife enhanced his image in the interview with Diane Sawyer and he distributed thousands of videos of the show, but it seemed to have no impact on his dying campaign. So there's not likely to be a doctor as first lady or as president in the next White House. Marriage, it turns out, is not an affair of state.

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© 2001, Suzanne Fields. TMS