July 16, 2008

Candidates’ Spouses: The Other Running Mates

The Kansas City Star, June 18, 2008. (Courtesy The Kansas City Star)
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The Kansas City Star, June 18, 2008. (Courtesy The Kansas City Star)

Florence Harding votes for her husband in 1920. (Schermer collection)
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Florence Harding votes for her husband in 1920. (Schermer collection)

Eleanor Roosevelt in 1940. (Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum)
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Eleanor Roosevelt in 1940. (Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum)

President-elect John F. and Jacqueline Kennedy in 1960. (Courtesy AP)
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President-elect John F. and Jacqueline Kennedy in 1960. (Courtesy AP)

Elizabeth Dole at the GOP convention in 1996. (Ron Edmonds/Courtesy AP)
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Elizabeth Dole at the GOP convention in 1996. (Ron Edmonds/Courtesy AP)

Bill and Hillary Clinton in 2007. (Haraz N. Ghanbari/Courtesy AP)
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Bill and Hillary Clinton in 2007. (Haraz N. Ghanbari/Courtesy AP)

The selection of a running mate is considered one of the most important and strategic decisions a presidential nominee has to make. Much scrutiny is given to the other half of a ticket — the person who will be one step away from the presidency.

In modern campaigns, another kind of mate — the presidential candidate’s spouse — receives as much, if not more, scrutiny as the pick for vice president, and the spouse’s appeal to voters is often just as important.

Michelle Obama, wife of presumptive Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama, recently underwent a political "makeover" in response to opponents’ claims that she is angry and unpatriotic. The celebratory fist bump she and her husband shared on the campaign trail prompted praise and criticism and was in constant rotation on YouTube and news shows.

Critics of Cindy McCain, wife of presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain, have accused her of being everything from a prescription-drug addict to a cookie-recipe plagiarist. Her impeccable hairstyles and wardrobe are analyzed in style sections of newspapers. Both wives have co-hosted "The View" and have appeared on other talk shows.

A look through the Newseum’s archives shows that the first attempt to "sell" a candidate’s spouse began with Florence Harding, wife of Warren Harding, in 1920 — the year women won the right to vote.

The passage of the 19th Amendment made Harding the first American woman who was able to vote for her husband in a presidential election. The Republican National Committee used her adroit social skills to attract women voters. She cultivated a friendly relationship with the press and was instrumental in creating some of the first staged photo-ops.

Eleanor Roosevelt was perhaps the first candidate’s spouse who was as politically active as her husband. She joined the League of Women Voters in 1920 and later accompanied Franklin D. Roosevelt on the presidential campaign trail. Her outspokenness and promotion of racial equality garnered enemies, but she remained her husband’s trusted adviser until his death.

During John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign, Jacqueline Kennedy was pregnant with her second child, which forced her to cut back on heavy campaign travel. Young, glamorous and a fashion trendsetter, she participated in TV and newspaper interviews and taped radio commercials in foreign languages. Kennedy, who worked at a newspaper before marrying, wrote the nationally syndicated column "Campaign Wife."

Elizabeth Dole was considered by her husband Bob’s critics and supporters the secret asset in his 1996 presidential campaign. A former cabinet member, Dole was better liked than her husband and his running mate. She used her down-home appeal to help bridge the gender gap and convince women to support her husband.

In the 2008 primaries, former President Bill Clinton found himself in the unusual role of being the male spouse of a presidential candidate. His popularity and star power helped raise millions for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign. But with star power came media scrutiny, and Clinton often found himself on the defensive explaining controversial comments.

In 1920, The New York Times wrote, "Mrs. Harding is the only candidate’s wife who came more than half way to meet newspaper reporters."

What a difference 88 years makes.

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