- The Washington Times - Monday, September 1, 2003

If a Democrat wins the presidency, America’s next first lady could be a doctor tending her patients while her husband tends the country. She could be a fabulously wealthy philanthropist who speaks five languages. She could be an immigrant, an author or the child of Holocaust survivors.

Wives of the leading presidential hopefuls are accomplished in their own right as well as important influences on their husbands’ political careers.

That influence is not as visible as Hillary Rodham Clinton’s was; they saw how a spouse who exercises so much clout in her husband’s political work can polarize people. They are quick to emphasize their devotion to family and husband, in the manner of Laura Bush.

Yet interviews with the wives, some of the candidates and their aides reveal that almost all the spouses act as integral parts of the campaigns.

“I speak up,” said Adele Graham, who reads everything written about her husband, Florida Sen. Bob Graham, and is known to call his office and politely make suggestions. “I tell them how I feel about things, and I think they listen.”

Most of the wives say they have no interest in running for office themselves, though many are well-versed in politics and policy. The headstrong Teresa Heinz, wife of Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, is the only one who doesn’t completely reject the idea.

“If I live to 100, maybe,” she said. “Who knows? I might be one of those wacky old ladies who wakes up one day and decides she’s really going to change the world.”

Mrs. Heinz, who along with former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s wife, Judy Steinberg, does not use her husband’s last name outside politics, has a long record of advocating for the environment, health care, human rights and women’s equality. She donates money to the causes as the head of the $1.2 billion Heinz Foundation endowment, a job she inherited when her first husband, Republican Sen. John Heinz of Pennsylvania, died in a plane crash.

Most of the wives travel the country speaking on their husbands’ behalf, acting as unpaid advisers and revealing the personal side of the politician. They don’t have professional staff’s experience of working for several candidates, but their husbands often turn to them for a frank, fresh perspective.

Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt credits his wife, Jane, with helping him change his position from an opponent of abortion rights to a supporter. When developing health care policy, he asks about her experience as a former insurance biller and assistant in a pediatrician’s office.

“It’s not like I’m calling the shots on staff and funding and all of this,” Mrs. Gephardt said. “I’m more of a behind-the-scenes adviser, I think. Dick likes to talk to me about these issues because he said I really come to it from a constituent’s viewpoint. He says I have that good Midwestern common sense.”

Elizabeth Edwards listens in on conference calls among staff working for her husband, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. She contributes her intimate knowledge of how he thinks.

For example, she said his aides once discussed having him advocate a cap on corporate executives’ pay, but she knew he would say the market should determine such things.

“They had these ideas, and I said John would never go for that,” she said.

But she said she doesn’t try to usurp staff decisions. “He doesn’t climb into bed and I say, ‘You ought to do X,’ ” she said. “They’ve done the research.”

Hadassah Lieberman counseled her husband, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, through his decision to criticize former President Clinton in the Senate for his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. In “An Amazing Adventure,” a book the Liebermans co-wrote with another author about the 2000 campaign, she described the Lewinsky speech as “the most difficult, wrenching day of Joe’s political career.”

Mrs. Lieberman, the daughter of Holocaust survivors who immigrated from then-Czechoslovakia when she was a child, would be the first foreign-born first lady since London native Louisa Adams in the 1820s. So would Mrs. Heinz, who was born and raised in Mozambique when it was a Portuguese colony and speaks Portuguese, French, Spanish and Italian besides English.

Mrs. Steinberg is an exception to the wives who act as political operatives. As Mr. Dean’s candidacy gains momentum, she remains focused on her general-medicine practice.

She’s given a few interviews recently at his request — something she didn’t do when he was governor — but said she will not travel or work on his campaign. She said she intends to continue practicing medicine if her husband becomes president.

Of the three long-shot candidates in the race, only Al Sharpton is married. His wife, Kathy Jordan, a former backup singer for James Brown, declined to be interviewed. Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich and former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun are divorced, which would make either the first unmarried president since Woodrow Wilson’s wife died in 1914. He remarried a year later while still in office.

Colleen Kelley, who wrote a book about first ladies, said politicians always have tended to marry smart, assertive women who can help them shape their careers, but historically their influence has been kept under wraps. Today’s political wives are more at liberty to show their smarts, but still are expected to act like a traditional wife and not talk too much about political issues.

“She has to be able to walk that line and not move too fast and too far,” said Miss Kelley, an associate professor of communication at Pennsylvania State University, Erie. “If she makes America even a tad bit uncomfortable, it’s going to backfire and hurt her husband.”

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