I’ve often wondered why Democrats who run for president are more often burned at the stake of supermarket tabloids for having affairs than Republican candidates. Maybe because Republicans tend to sleep with their own kind, while Democrats sleep beneath themselves. And those women can be counted on to sell their stories.
Not to make a federal case out of this flip observation, but think about Bill Clinton and John Edwards’ paramours. Like Monica Lewinsky and Gennifer Flowers before her, Rielle Hunter was not a discreet choice. Interns, lounge singers, and independent contractors like Rielle, the videographer paid by Edwards to travel with the campaign, are not easily silenced once they’re dumped. As usually happens, Edwards’ wife, Elizabeth, is now gunning for the mistress, while continuing to cohabit with her malpracticing husband. But this time, the other woman may hold up the disgraced politician with a ransom baby.
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Republicans tend to be more cautious in choosing their liaisons and more generous in keeping them in a well-paid position. In 1992, when Hillary Clinton called attention to “Bush’s Jennifer,” a discreet middle-aged staffer for President George H.W. Bush, he moved the woman up to her own private office in his Senate suite. She continued to travel with him. She never talked.
It is a cliché by now that powerful politicians slip into indiscretions because of their heightened narcissism. This was John Edwards’ transparent mea culpa—“You believe you’re invincible, and there will be no consequences”—but only after he was exposed by the National Enquirer as an adulterer and photographed with a possible love child.
All the politicians who run for president are narcissists—how else can a mere mortal believe him or herself the most worthy to lead the free world? And in my experience of writing about campaigns, that power trip does exaggerate their narcissism. They come to believe they can walk on the wild side and not get caught. And for some, who are deliberately indiscreet, there is an extra thrill in the possibility of being caught, usually with a younger woman—what a display of virility!
Recall how Gary Hart defeated himself in 1988. Hart grew up in an especially rigid fundamentalist church that inflicted punishment for any natural pleasure. But in political life his delinquent side was sprung loose. He dared reporters to chase him when he was rumored to be frolicking with a paid party girl, Donna Rice.
After he was caught, Hart excoriated the media at the annual publisher’s convention at the New York Hilton for running “a false story that hurt my family and reflected badly on my character.” Then he drove off with a New York Times executive who was planning to travel through Europe with Hart that summer—and asked him, according to what this executive told me for Vanity Fair, “Where are we going to find girls?”
The wives of Democratic presidential aspirants must have thicker skin or take a longer view than most of us. Lee Hart stayed with Gary. Hillary stuck with Bill. And Elizabeth Edwards invited Oprah into her home to spill the sorry details of the seduction of the man she tells us still “looks at me…circles under my eyes, my sparse hair sticking in too many directions…as if I am the most beautiful woman he has ever seen.”
Republicans tend to sleep with their own kind, while Democrats sleep beneath themselves. And those women can be counted on to sell their stories.
One daring exception to this lineup of standees-by-their men was the second wife of Newt Gingrich. When I interviewed the Republican Speaker of the House in 1995 for a psychological profile, he told me, “I found a way to immerse my insecurities in a cause large enough to justify whatever I wanted to do.”
Gingrich’s childhood was shaped by rejection from not one but two fathers. His mother was a manic-depressive. He had a narcissistic vision of the global glory that would be his if he were elected president. He behaved as if other people’s rules didn’t apply to him, running around with other women through both his marriages while campaigning as a moral crusader and wielding a hammer as the tough new Speaker.
In this case, the wife did the country and his party a favor: Marianne Ginther Gingrich told me: “I don’t want Newt to be president, and I don’t think he should be.” She wanted it on the record that she had warned her husband, “If I don’t agree, it’s easy, I just go on the air the next day, and I undermine everything.” She didn’t have to—Gingrich was caught having an affair with a staffer and dropped out. The staffer kept her job.
Gail Sheehy is an American writer and lecturer, most notable for her books on life and the life cycle. She is also a contributor to the magazine Vanity Fair.