Married to a Politician

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Is any occupational fate worse than having a spouse seeking high office?

Seldom do I think about the husbands or wives of presidential candidates - I don't know the name of Mitt Romney's wife, for example, or whether Tim Pawlenty or Michelle Bachmann are married. (Both are, Google informs me.) But I've been thinking about Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour's wife after reading this CNN report:

The wife of Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour says she is "horrified" that her husband is seriously considering a bid for the presidency. In an interview with CNN affiliate WLOX in Biloxi, Marsha Barbour admitted the "overwhelming" task of a presidential run is something she may not quite be ready for.

"It's been a lot to be first lady of the state of Mississippi and this would be 50 times bigger," she said. "It's a huge sacrifice for a family to make." The governor is still testing the waters of a potential bid for the 2012 Republican nomination and has made no formal announcement regarding his intentions. But Marsha Barbour revealed she is wary of a 10-year commitment she believes would accompany a presidential run - and, presumably, two terms in office - during "the last part of our productive lives."

Her phrasing is so poignant.

Or so it seems to me, perhaps because I read all of Andrew Ferguson's wonderful profile of Gov. Barbour, not just the controversial bit. The piece recounts what happened when the Reagan White House hired Barbour in its political office:

When Barbour moved to Washington he left Marsha and the boys in Yazoo City. "We never regretted it," he said. "The boys graduated from Yazoo City schools. They got a good small-town experience growing up. The alternative would be growing up in Northern Virginia, McLean or someplace. And Marsha had a lot of great friends in Yazoo City."

But as Mr. Mott solemnly told me--as every friend of Barbour's in Mississippi will tell you--"he came home every weekend"; or "most weekends," as others say; or "every other weekend," as Barbour himself says. He was in any case a long-distance parent, as most politicians must be. Of his life in Washington, Marsha once told USA Today: "I haven't really been that much a part of it. He's so busy and so consumed. He hasn't been home for an anniversary in a long time, or a birthday." It's a one-way bargain that the wives and husbands of politicians often strike. "I could be alone in Yazoo City or alone in Washington," she was once quoted saying. "I prefer Yazoo City."

Recalling that passage, I found the conclusion of the CNN article quite affecting:

Despite her hesitation, Barbour said that the final decision is up to her husband. "That's a commitment that I am praying about," she said. "And if God and Haley decide to do it, I'm sure God will give me strength to be a good partner."

Political consultants will tell you that a married candidate is better positioned to win higher office than a single one. There are all sorts of reasons I hope that prejudice fades. Given the behavior of male politicians and the reality of what political life does to American families, however, its a wonder it endures even now. Perhaps a healthier attitude would be, "You're going to put your kids through what?"

It's difficult to feel sorry for some politicians. Has Sarah Palin endured unfair attacks? Undoubtedly. Do I think it's a good idea for anyone from the Real Housewives of Orange County to the former governor of Alaska to invite reality television cameras into her home and the lives of her children? I do not.

But I wish former Governor Palin, the Spitzers, Mark Sanford, Chelsea Clinton, the Bush twins, and every other politico or family member weren't treated like tabloid fodder, whether through their own foolishness or no fault of their own or some combination, because the likely effect is to dissuade marginally better people from running, and to give us marginally worse politicians in the long run.

Back in 2009, I wrote a short piece for Politics Daily about the idea of national legislators working remotely rather than reporting to Washington DC. "Skeptics of an e-Congress invoke the intentions of the Founding Fathers, the assertion that deliberative bodies require physical proximity, and the argument that technology isn't an adequate substitute for face-to-face interactions," I noted. "But it's worth considering whether our elected representatives would serve us better if they spent less time among lobbyists in the capital and more time among their constituents back home."

Another advantage of an e-Congress would be its ability to attract candidates and political staffers who aren't running now because they're uninclined to transplant their families to Northern Virginia or to leave the wife and kids for what amounts to most of every year. I'd like more of those kinds of people representing me. And as the dutifully sacrificing wife fades mercifully from the American cultural landscape, the dearth of good people willing to do things the traditional way is only going to shrink.

But not yet.

As 2012 approaches, we'll all learn all over again about Newt Gingrich's infidelities, Donald Trump's marital history, and other intimate details the people around politicians are never quite as inured to as the candidate him or herself. And ill-mannered commentators will continue to disparage the current First Lady as "Moo-chelle" Obama, as the most reprehensible of the lot calls her. We'll all look on in disgust, and think, "I am so glad my spouse doesn't want to be a politician." Is there an way to change things so that one day normal Americans no longer feel that way?   

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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