Whore, Hayseed, Bigamist, Bigot, Slut, Snob, Drunk: Candidate Wives As Campaign Issues

Jacqueline Kennedy campaigning in Eau Claire on February 26, 1960 (uwec.org)

Jacqueline Kennedy campaigns in Eau Claire, Wisconsin on February 26, 1960 (uwec.org)

Earlier this week, another malicious skirmish broke out on the presidential campaign trail.

The Melania Trump ad used in the Utah primary.

The Melania Trump ad used in the Utah primary.

First came an advertisement from a wing of the Stop-Trump movement using an old advertising photograph of the the candidate’s wife Melania Trump, a former model, showing her posed naked for GQ magazine on a fur carpet.

Headlined “Meet Melania Trump. Your Next First Lady,” the point was to suggest that she was too wanton a woman to rule from the nation’s roost – and that the only alternative to this was to vote for her husband’s rival Ted Cruz.

It was aimed at Mormon women voters who, the creator of the ad intended, would find this too scandalous to support her husband in Tuesday’s Utah primary election.

Trump's response.

Trump’s response.

Trump immediately tweeted an angry response, directly blaming Cruz, adding a threat that he would soon “spill the beans” on his wife, Heidi Cruz.

Whether this was in reference to a substantial loan that Mrs. Cruz obtained for one of her husband’s earlier campaigns through her employer, the investment house Goldman Sachs or, more darkly, the truth behind a heavily redacted police report about her being found in an upset state near a Texas highway one night first made public through buzzfeed.com well over a year ago. These are the first and the fourth pages:

Austin police report on Heidi Cruz incident first made public by buzzfeed.com in March 2015.

Screen Shot 2016-03-24 at 11.30.26 AM

Austin police report on Heidi Cruz incident first made public by buzzfeed.com in March 2015.

Heidi Cruz.

Heidi Cruz.

If the exchange was an uncivil, inappropriate distraction it was also part of a long tradition of the nation’s colorful presidential campaign heritage.

In the last half-century, efforts to negatively characterize presidential candidates by focusing on details about their spouses have become routine.

Ann Romney satirized in a 2012 political cartoon as Marie Antoinette.

Ann Romney satirized in a 2012 political cartoon as Marie Antoinette.

In 2012, it was the high-cost horse-riding lifestyle of Republican candidate’s spouse Ann Romney. In 2008, the off-handed “for the first time in my life, I’m proud of my country” remark by Democratic candidate’s spouse Michelle Obama and the confessed stealing of painkillers from her medical care charity by Republican candidate’s spouse Cindy McCain led to both women being turned into partisan caricatures as a radical ingrate and a greedy drug addict, respectively.

When Laura Bush disclosed her tragic teenage driving accident that resulted in the death of a boyfriend and Tipper Gore her struggle with depression, the viler elements of the opposition of the 2000 presidential race dubbed them a “murderer” and “mental case.”

The Clintons during the 1992 primaries.

The Clintons during the 1992 primaries.

Anything said this year about Bill Clinton as a presidential spouse is likely to seem mild compared to what was said about his wife when he was a presidential candidate himself in 1992. Hillary Clinton was a working professional attorney, acknowledged her husband’s infidelities, an advocate for children’s rights and women’s equality, and overtly political in her ability to address the complex policy issues of the campaign.

All of that ended up providing more raw material to be manipulated into endless points of attack, certainly more than any previous candidate’s spouse had endured.

The Clintons during the 1992 general election.

The Clintons during the 1992 general election.

It started during the Democratic primaries when Jerry Brown raised questions during a debate about Hillary’s legal clients and earnings and culminated with her being excoriated as the greatest threat to the nation at the 1992 National Republican Convention by speaker Pat Buchanan and the vice presidential candidate’s spouse Marilyn Quayle. In between were tee-shirts, buttons and bumper stickers deriding and demeaning her.

If that was the worst sustained exploitation of a presidential candidate’s spouse during a campaign, it wasn’t the first to be explicitly linked to the larger debate of any given presidential election.

Betty Ford and Nancy Reagan were "rivals" during the 1976 Republican presidential primaries and counterpointed as symbols of the growing split between their party's moderates and conservatives.

Betty Ford and Nancy Reagan were “rivals” during the 1976 Republican presidential primaries and counterpointed as symbols of the growing split between their party’s moderates and conservatives.

The fundamental Republican split now underway between “establishment” moderates and religious conservative first erupted during the 1976 primaries, the former being led by incumbent President Gerald Ford, the latter by California Governor Ronald Reagan.

Conservative supporters of her husband suggested that Nancy Reagan would be a better role model for the nation because she lived by higher moral values than Betty Ford, wife of moderate candidate, because she had consulted a therapist for emotional problems, and expressed her understanding of young people experimenting with marijuana and living together before marriage.

While his signing of the Civil Rights Act was one of the crowning achievements of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration, it began the destabilization of the Democratic “Solid South,” the states where the party’s core had always been strong based, in part, on its tacit approval of segregation.

That year, a U.S. News and World Reports story appeared suggesting that African-Americans were living as sharecroppers in sub-standard conditions on remote Alabama farmlands owned by her Lady Bird Johnson’s late father.

Lady Bird Johnson speaking in Alabama during the 1964 campaign.

Lady Bird Johnson speaking in Alabama during the 1964 campaign.

The implication was that, by willful negligence, she was at best a hypocrite, at worst a bigot. The fact that Mrs. Johnson was entirely unaware of such conditions didn’t matter to her husbands opponents as the story was fanned by either Republicans or resentful southern Democrats, both of which were demographics with reason to undermine LBJ.

One of the more famous episodes where candidates’ spouses were counterpointed for political gain was the 1960 election.

That year, Republicans claimed that Jacqueline Kennedy, wife of the Democratic candidate, was an elitist snob at odds with the average American, having studied at the Sorbonne, been celebrated as a Newport debutante, indulging in fox hunting and wearing a wardrobe of expensive Parisian couture.

A 1960 campaign cartoon spoofed the campaign "issue" comparing how much Jackie Kennedy and Pat Nixon spent on their clothes.

A 1960 campaign cartoon referencing the campaign “issue” of clothing costs for Jackie Kennedy and Pat Nixon.

Mrs. Kennedy responded on her own behalf, sniping that Pat Nixon, the Republican candidate’s wife, bought her clothing at Elizabeth Arden’s boutique in Washington, where items were just as costly.

To the printed estimate of her annual fashion budget running upwards of $30,000 she quipped, “I couldn’t spend that much unless I wore sable underwear.”

1952’s Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson had little to fear being said against his wife Ellen since he was the first divorced man to run for president.

The “whispering campaign” that the Republican candidate’s spouse Mamie Eisenhower had a problem with alcohol began during the latter primary campaign season when Dwight D. Eisenhower first emerged as the reluctant challenger to Republican U.S. Senator Robert Taft.

 Mamie Eisenhower during the 1952 campaign. (Life)

Mamie Eisenhower during the 1952 campaign. (Life)

During her husband’s re-election campaign four years later, the “drunk” rumors were revived, this time even being printed in tabloid rags.

Divorce was avoided as a point of attack on Florence Harding, wife of the Republican presidential candidate Warren Harding during the 1920 campaign only because the Democratic candidate James Cox had a history of marital infidelity.

In a private letter, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt revealed that the situation was a “Mexican stand-off” with both sides agreeing not to make the truth known about the other side.

Florence Harding and her husband reading congratulatory telegrams and election return reports on Election Night 1920.

Florence Harding and her husband reading congratulatory telegrams and election return reports on Election Night 1920.

This, however, didn’t stop a Democratic operative William Chancellor from trying to attack Harding with anti-Semitism on the claim that his wife had Jewish ancestors (possible, but unproven) and was “fast” (a more polite euphemism for today’s blunt “slut”) and gave birth to her only son out of wedlock (true, there is no record of her alleged first marriage).

The earliest examples of candidates’  spouses being used by the opposition proves that the 19th century was not a time of either sexual propriety or chivalry towards women.

In 1808, Baltimore and Boston newspapers supporting the Federalist presidential candidate Charles C. Pinckney circulated the tale that the Democratic-Republican candidate James Madison had made his wife Dolley Madison sexually available to the widowed incumbent President Thomas Jefferson for his endorsement, turning her into, well, a political whore.

James and Dolley Madison as they appeared in 1809.

James and Dolley Madison as they appeared in 1809.

Anna Cutts, Mrs. Madison’s sister was included in the false story, but her husband, a Massachusetts Congressman managed to sue at least one newspaper successfully.

The 1828 election marked the most dramatic and sustained attack on a candidate’s spouse. That year, legal documents and eyewitness accounts were used to pin the charge of lawlessness on Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Jackson in proving that his wife Rachel Jackson had technically been a bigamist.

The divorce decree between Rachel Jackson and her first husband Lewis Robards

The divorce decree between Rachel Jackson and her first husband Lewis Robards.

Despite being a lawyer, Jackson had gone ahead and married her, failing to first verify the claim that her first husband Lewis Robards had divorced her.

Rachel Jackson

Rachel Jackson.

For about two years, Rachel Jackson was married to two men, allowing Robards to finally divorce Rachel on the grounds of adultery.

Newspapers belittled the intellectual qualifications of 1848 Whig presidential candidate, the Mexican War hero General Zachary Taylor through observational editorializing that reported his appearances and remarks at public events.

Peggy Taylor.

Peggy Taylor.

When his wife Peggy Taylor was with him, her appearance and mannerisms were described in a way that made her an unsophisticated rural hayseed, reluctant to leave her ramshackle backwoods cottage.

The "Spanish Cottage" i Baton Rouge of Zachary and Margaret Taylor.

The “Spanish Cottage” of Zach and Peggy Taylor.

The candidate unwittingly encouraged this caricature, telling stories of how she was praying that he would lose the election.

It went on and on.

The young and beautiful Frances Cleveland, who had married the older, portly incumbent President in the White House in 1886, proved so wildly popular that Republicans challenging Cleveland in the election two years later feared she could tip the electorate in is favor.

Frances Cleveland's popularity threatened her husband's partisan foes who then crafted outrageous tales of adultery and spousal abuse to discredit her and her husband.

Frances Cleveland’s popularity threatened her husband’s partisan foes who then crafted outrageous tales of adultery and spousal abuse to discredit her and her husband.

Her appearance at the theater one night with a male escort other than her husband prompted a rapidly-spreading fabrication that she was having an affair and that the President routinely battered his wife.

It got so bad that Mrs. Cleveland finally felt forced to issue a public denial of the tale, the first time in history such an incident occurred.

William and Ida McKinley seated on their front porch during the 1896 campaign.

William and Ida McKinley seated on their front porch during the 1896 campaign.

A pamphlet defending her reputation was even circulated at the 1888 Democratic National Convention.

A similar tact was used in 1896 as rumors in the western states grew by wild proportions that there was something “wrong” with Republican candidate’s spouse Ida McKinley.

In fact, she suffered from epilepsy and occasionally had seizures but since this wasn’t confirmed by her husband’s campaign, the rumors soon claimed she was insane and confined to an institution, that she was secretly a Catholic with daughters hidden away in a convent school and, inexplicably, that she was a spy for the British government.

Eventually, a sanitized biography of her life was issued by the campaign with an admission only of “nervous” problems.

Sometimes, the smoke suggests not just fire but a raging conflagration.

Nellie Taft liked to surf, smoke, drink and gamble.

Nellie Taft liked to surf, smoke, drink and gamble.

Throughout much of the 1908 presidential election, Nellie Taft made the effort to be rarely seen in public, hiding her tactical advice from the public by advising her husband only through private correspondence and phone calls while he was on the campaign trail. When she could be observed by strangers, she was assiduously cautious in all her words and deeds. There finally came one Sunday afternoon at a remote western lodge when she finally allowed herself to relax in the main room by enjoying one of her favorite indulgences, hot games of poker.

Suddenly, after several rounds it dawned on her that other lodge patrons were pausing to watch her card games. Until the day her husband finally won the election, she was terrified of a headline appearing that the candidate’s wife was not only gambling, but doing it on a Sunday.

Luckily, few knew that Nellie Taft was a heavy drinker and smoker. And once on Waikiki, she even surfed.


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