The Clout of Political Wives

Tensions between Callista Gingrich and Newt’s staff contributed to mass campaign resignations, Nancy Reagan engineered the firing of her husband’s campaign manager, and Cheri Daniels helped drive Mitch Daniels from the 2012 presidential race. Jack W. Germond on how influential political wives can be.

06.22.11 5:43 AM ET

John Deardourff, an astute campaign strategist of another day, used to say that the ideal wife for a political candidate “would be on a raft drifting slowly down the Amazon.”

Many campaign managers of both parties would share that daydream. Wives of candidates—and perhaps a few husbands these days—can be a continuing nuisance to a campaign, sometimes trying to dictate both tactics and strategy, at others playing the diva and demanding too much care and feeding.

The spouse-staff tension doesn’t often evolve to the point it reached in the Newt Gingrich operation this year that ended with the mass resignations of almost the entire senior staff.

It is probably a fatal blow to the candidacy of the former speaker of the House. He will find it difficult to raise money or to hire anyone with strong credentials. The betting now is that, having seen the Greek Isles, Callista and Newt Gingrich will soon be free to tour Provence, or perhaps Tuscany. The early opinion polls suggest he will not be widely missed by the voters.

In some cases, political wives play a critical role in preventing a candidacy. That is what happened this year with Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana, who candidly admitted he was foregoing a campaign because his wife, Cheri, and daughters were against it. That happens in many cases, although it is rarely acknowledged. But this is a case in which the shape of the campaign may have been markedly altered. There was an obvious market for Daniels in the Republican Party.

The same thing happened to the Democrats in 1992 when Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV decided against seeking the presidency after testing the waters and eliciting a significant interest among party activists. Although the West Virginia Democrat offered other explanations when he stepped aside, it was no secret that his wife, Sharon, opposed a campaign for the presidency.

The campaign spouses who cause headaches go largely undetected by the public because staff members are reluctant to talk to reporters about the boss’ wife and what a pain in the neck she can be. This reluctance breeds false images. Staff members have told me many stories about the sainted Barbara Bush, the white-haired national grandma, abusing defenseless serfs. But they were always told with a plea to “please don’t use this, she’ll know it came from me.“

Nancy Reagan evoked uneasiness bordering on panic when things went wrong in Ronnie’s operation. Although she projected the image of adoring wife listening with rapture to the same speech over and over again, she was a tough cookie when needed. After Reagan was upset in the 1980 Iowa caucuses, she engineered the firing of campaign manager John Sears before the votes could be counted in New Hampshire.

Eight years later, seeing the threat to her husband in the Iran-Contra affair, she conspired with Michael Deaver in replacing White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan with Howard H. Baker Jr. She even smuggled a leading Democrat, Robert Strauss, into the White House one night because she thought her husband might listen to his advice.

Long before Hillary Clinton arrived, Rosalyn Carter was a first lady who never disguised her influence. When President Carter invited a dozen columnists to Camp David for a luncheon briefing on a controversy of the moment, we were startled to find Rosalyn Carter sitting next to him at the head of the table, taking notes and interjecting her own answers to questions directed at him. Riding the helicopter back to Washington, even the most senior of our group could not recall a precedent.

There are, of course, candidates’ wives who are both funny and independent. When Sen. Ernest F. Hollings ran for the Democratic nomination for president, his wife, Peatsy, was a favorite. During the New Hampshire primary, she found she just could not sit there with a Nancy Reagan-like look of adoration as her husband gave the same speech over and over again. So sometimes we would find her waiting outside in the car and reading a novel.

And one morning, when a campaign aide called their hotel room, she answered and asked in clear tones: “Your name Hollings, honey?”