For voters and the media, presidential elections can be a bit like watching the same play performed every four years, only with a different cast, crew, set and wardrobe. But the main characters appear every campaign. There's the frontrunner, the firebrand and the candidate who seems great on paper but not so much in practice. (According to a friend of mine, this time around that would be Jon Huntsman who she's nicknamed the Wesley Clark of 2012: handsome, likable yet completely unelectable.) And then there are the also-rans, those attempting to relive their previous political glory days, and like athletes that don't know when to hang up their jerseys, run for office despite knowing that the last time anyone cared about what they thought, twitter hadn't been born and neither had some eligible voters. This election Rudy Giuliani and Newt Gingrich may end up competing for that role, but their wives may find themselves competing for another: The role of Lady Macbeth.
Callista Gingrich is only the latest in a long line of candidate spouses blamed for allegedly sabotaging their husband's campaigns. You may have heard that last week most of Newt Gingrich's campaign staff quit. According to sources the straw that broke the camel's, or campaign's, back was when Mr. and Mrs. Gingrich took a luxury Mediterranean cruise, after he officially launched his race for the presidency. One anonymous departing staffer pointed a clear finger at the Mrs. saying, "We have a spouse who controls the schedule."
Judy Giuliani faced similar criticisms four years ago, with so many unflattering news items painting her as a social-climbing, temperamental, shopaholic, that the campaign actually began limiting her public appearances, a clear acknowledgment that she was perceived as a liability. But even out of public view her presence was felt. In one notorious incident her husband answered a call from her in the middle of a speech to the NRA, a moment that would haunt him the remainder of the campaign.
Newsweek summed up the attitude of aides on the 2004 Kerry campaign towards the multilingual, multi-millionaire Teresa Heinz Kerry as "we'd lock her in a closet if we could." Then of course there was Hillary Clinton, who spent much of the early years of her husband's presidency viewed as dangerously polarizing until the Lewinsky scandal made her more likable than he was. Even Elizabeth Edwards was eventually caricatured as the shrew that was somehow at least partly to blame for the personal and professional implosion of her husband, despite enduring a terminal illness and his infidelity. While all of these women may not share a party affiliation, they do share a legacy, namely as women who became scapegoats for their husband's failings. (Click here to see a list of the most controversial candidate wives.)
In the case of Newt Gingrich, last I checked he was a big boy, old enough to make his own decisions about his travel plans, and if he's incapable of running something as basic as his own schedule perhaps running a country might be a tad ambitious for him. His aides should lay blame where it's due for that -- with the candidate, not with his spouse.
But I can't help wondering if there's something else at play here, something tinged with a hint of sexism and misogyny. Every time anonymous aides pile on the wife of a candidate (It's almost always the wife, after all when was the last time we read an unflattering profile of Todd Palin?) there's an underlying message there: she needs to be put in her place.
In the case of Gingrich and Giuliani though, I have a feeling there's something deeper occurring -- one of society's oldest double standards. I think ultimately Judy Giuliani and Callista Gingrich never stood a chance with their husband's high-priced advisors. The reason? Because any political operative worth his salt knew from the get-go that Gingrich and Giuliani's affairs with their current wives essentially rendered them unelectable -- at least in the GOP primary for president. But that's not the wives' fault. They weren't the ones who were married or decided on a career in politics. And yet based on some of the sneering they were rumored to engender from such aides, it seems that these little details didn't much matter. They were the ones that ended up silently shouldering the blame for their husband's primary political vulnerability, despite the fact that it was a vulnerability of their husbands' making. The aides were happy to take their husbands' money -- electable or not -- as long as the baggage-bearing Mrs. didn't get too uppity.
After seeing their treatment -- and the treatment of other candidate wives similarly thrown under the bus -- it's no wonder that a number have discouraged their husbands from running to avoid also being run over.
I guess the only way to avoid the throw-the-Mrs.-under-the-bus-syndrome (aka Blame the Broad syndrome) in the future, is for us to have more women driving the bus -- as candidates.
This post originally appeared on TheLoop21.com for which Goff is a Contributing Editor.