Smooth Debut

Paul Ryan’s Wife Janna’s Resume, Life Before Politics & Family History

Eleanor Clift on the potential second lady’s first career, family politics, and down-home image.

For a newcomer to the national stage, Janna Christine Little Ryan comes across as remarkably poised and confident, with a winning smile and a fashionably windswept look—in short, what’s known in the business as a natural.

And no wonder; politics were in her DNA long before she met and married Rep. Paul Ryan, at the time in his first term in Congress and considered one of the Capitol’s most eligible bachelors.

They dated for a year until they were wed in 2000. Janna Little had been comfortably settled into a career track as a high-powered attorney and lobbyist for Price Waterhouse Coopers in Arlington, Va. A graduate of the prestigious women’s college Wellesley, she had a résumé reflecting the leadership skills instilled by her education and in her upbringing as the eldest of three daughters whose mother had blazed the path both to Wellesley and law school.

The couple married in Janna’s hometown in Oklahoma, and without missing a beat, or so it seems, she adopted as home her new husband’s congressional district in Janesville, Wisc. Three children followed in quick succession, a girl and two boys, and the family lives in what is described as a Civil War-era home with six bedrooms and eight bathrooms. A stay-at-home mother who, a neighbor told USA Today, attended a recent “porch party” showing off the cute sandals she’d gotten at Goodwill for $2, Janna appears as down-home and unpretentious as her husband, who sleeps in his office weekdays when he’s in Washington.

News reports describe Janna as quiet, gracious, and comfortable with being in the background, but her smooth debut as a potential second lady suggests someone who understands and is at ease with public life. Her first cousin is Oklahoma Rep. David Boren, a Democrat, who said in a statement Saturday that he and Janna “grew up together and I couldn’t be more proud of my cousin. Like my late mother after whom she is named, Janna is a wonderful parent to their children and will be Paul’s strongest supporter on the campaign trail.”

Janna’s grandfather, Reuel W. Little, a lawyer and rancher, was the American Party’s candidate for governor in 1970. The Oklahoman reported on its political blog that the American Party was organized as a third party to support the presidential candidacy of Alabama’s then-segregationist governor George Wallace, and that Little was instrumental in the party’s founding in Oklahoma in the 1960s. He died in 1993 at age 92.

Third-party politics are not unusual in fiercely independent Western states like Oklahoma, and Janna, 43, would have no firsthand memory of her grandfather’s foray into elective politics.

A more likely and powerful role model is her late mother, Prudence Little, who graduated from Wellesley with honors and was first in her class at the University of Oklahoma law school. Janna was the eldest of three daughters, and soon after the birth of the youngest, Little was diagnosed with melanoma, the first of what would turn out to be four cancer diagnoses over 35 years. She died in 2010 at age 68, amid tributes to the grace and courage she showed in living her life, practicing law, raising her daughters, and serving on numerous boards and charitable causes despite the health challenges she faced.

A devout Catholic, Janna Little Ryan will have her faith to help her withstand the scrutiny and the criticism that is inevitable over the next four months, and perhaps the next four years. Her husband has been in Congress for almost 14 years, but it’s only been the last two years, since he introduced what’s been dubbed the Ryan budget, that he’s become a lightning rod. If her role is to help him weather the storm, she’s clearly up to the task.