Married to a Politician

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?"

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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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