They know their stuff, these people on the Republican presidential campaign trail. How to respond to disasters. How to regulate financial markets. How to steer federal money to public television.
And they may never get to use this know-how.
They are not the candidates for president. They are the candidates’ wives.
More than ever before, the field of potential first ladies in the Republican Party includes women who have their own careers, their own professional identities.
Elizabeth Dole, for example, has served in two White House cabinets and now is president of the American Red Cross. Wendy Gramm has been the director of the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, overseeing that financial market. Leslee “Honey” Alexander is on the board of directors of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Their resumes are a testament to how much women have advanced in careers once dominated by men. But they also renew the quandary that faced Bill and Hillary Clinton when they arrived in the White House - what to do with such an accomplished, but unelected, spouse?
“In the days ahead, a lot of Republicans are going to regret the things they said and malice with which they attacked Hillary Clinton,” said Carl Anthony, an author and student of first ladies.
“Elizabeth Dole, Wendy Gramm and Honey Alexander all are going to find themselves in the same situation. There will be speculation about how involved they are in policy, in choosing advisers.”
The other would-be first ladies include women whose independent career accomplishments would make their potential influence obvious - like Philadelphia City Council member Joan Specter. And they include women like Gayle Wilson and Charlene Lugar, who have maintained more traditional roles working for charities and whose influence is known but to their husbands.
So far, only one of the major candidates, Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, candidly predicts that his wife would have a powerful voice in his administration, including appointments. Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas says only that his wife would play a role, but he does not elaborate. And former Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee will acknowledge only that he listens to his wife.
As late as Barbara Bush, tradition held that first ladies championed safe, non-government causes, such as Barbara Bush’s campaign for children’s literacy or Nancy Reagan’s crusade against drugs. When he ran for president in 1988, Dole joked that if elected, “I get to make the big decisions, and she gets to make the bed.”
With the arrival of Bill and Hillary Clinton, the White House started to more resemble millions of American households, where both husband and wife have had careers outside the home. While Bill served as governor of Arkansas, Hillary was a partner in one of the state’s biggest law firms.
But in the White House, even in the 1990s, it is politically difficult for the first lady to strike the right balance of power and influence. Hillary Clinton drew criticism when she said during the 1992 campaign that she was not a “stand-by-your-man kind of woman.” She retreated temporarily to the safety of boasting about her cookie recipes. But then she headed the president’s campaign for health reform, and her role again sparked controversy.
“The problem the first lady fell into is that she was given a very high profile, very important task, and the public looked at her and said, wait a minute, we didn’t elect you to anything, you haven’t been appointed to anything that required any kind of public scrutiny,” said New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman.
But that problem will not end with Hillary Clinton.
“It’s all being thrown up in the air because you have people who have earned their living, they have a history, they did things, they have contacts that they made before,” said Whitman, a Republican who empathizes with the challenges of dual career political couples.
While many conservatives criticize Hillary Clinton’s influence in her husband’s administration, you won’t hear that from the top Republicans running for president. The issue is too close to home.
Take Dole. His wife, who worked
for Presidents Johnson and Nixon as a consumer affairs adviser, also worked as a member of the Federal Trade Commission and served as secretary of transportation for President Reagan and secretary of labor for President Bush.
When Bob Dole ran for president in 1980 and 1988, she quit her job each time to give full support to her husband. This time, she said in an interview, she is not certain when, or if, she will leave her job as president of the American Red Cross.
If she becomes first lady, she said, she would work to help some non-government cause such as the Red Cross.
But she obviously would advise her husband. After all, she already has advised other presidents.
“Elizabeth has her own career,” said Dole, “and she’d play a very important role. I don’t know precisely what that role would be, but I know she’s very concerned about at-risk youth. In fact, I think she could still play a critical role with the Red Cross even as first lady.”
And there’s Wendy Gramm.
A former economics professor like her husband, Gramm has worked for the Federal Trade Commission and the Office of Management and Budget, and she was chairwoman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission under Presidents Reagan and Bush. She also serves as a director of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, State Farm Insurance and the New York Stock Exchange.
“In many ways,” said Sen. Gramm, “she knows more about the functioning of government, especially independent agencies, the executive branch of government, than I do.
“She knows everybody who has served in Republican administrations since Ronald Reagan was elected. So there’s no doubt about the fact that I would seek her advice out and would take a lot of it.”