A New Breed of Democratic Wives Looks for the Balance Between Liberation and Loyalty

updated 02/22/1988 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/22/1988 01:00AM

Even in more traditional times the role of the woman behind the candidate was uniformly demanding yet loosely defined. She should be supportive but not strident, intelligent but not overshadowing. She should also be above suspicion herself—that goes back to Caesar's wife, remember?—but willing to look the other way should Hubby not cleave to that standard.

Last fall, Lee Hart, 52, reminded us just how difficult this balancing act can be. Confronted with evidence of a liaison between Gary Hart, 51, and sometime model Donna Rice, 30, Lee apparently swallowed her pride in the interest of attempting to salvage her husband's tattered ambitions. "If it doesn't bother me," she told reporters, "I don't think it ought to bother anybody else." Fair enough, but how could the situation not bother her? Rather than being touched by Lee's unswerving loyalty, some observers found it repugnant. The Washington Post's Sally Quinn likened her to "those Indian wives who threw themselves on their husbands' funeral pyres." And though others leapt to Lee's defense, calling her, among other things, "remarkably strong, honest and levelheaded," it was hard not to wonder whether this trusty helpmeet—who put her husband through law and divinity schools—was not the last of a vanishing breed.

Nowhere did this question strike deeper than among Lee's peers, the wives of other Democratic hopefuls. "I could see standing by my man," admits Jeanne Simon, "but the younger women got upset. This is a very transitional time for political wives." Indeed it is. Even in 1988, of course, children must be raised, bills paid and the family image kept nicely polished for public consumption. Otherwise the rules of conformity are being tested and strained. To ascertain how a new generation of women is reshaping a time-honored role, we spoke to the wives of other Democratic contenders.

TIPPER GORE

She has smoked marijuana, marched against the Vietnam War and knows the lyrics to dozens of heavy metal songs, yet Tipper Gore, 39, is perceived by some as the squarest woman in America. Thanks largely to the efforts of the Parental Music Resource Center—the group Tipper co-founded with three other Washington wives—Congress held hearings in 1985 on the proliferation of violent and sexually oriented rock lyrics. But though Tipper insists her group wants only to give parents and kids enough information to know what they're buying, rock notables such as Frank Zappa cried censorship. The ensuing media melee ensured that Albert Gore Jr., 39, scion of an old Tennessee political family, would be the first candidate ever to enter the presidential race with a wife more famous than himself.

Tipper says her husband, whom she met at a high school party and dated through college—he went to Harvard, she to Boston University—has never attempted to muzzle her. "I think our relationship is very similar to the relationships many people have in this country," says the former Mary Elizabeth Aitcheson, called "Tipper" since childhood. "People work at two jobs. Women are involved in society independently with issues of their own." Still, many political observers saw the Gores' fall trip to Los Angeles as an attempt to convince Hollywood that Al and Tipper are no prudes.

Tipper supports ERA and abortion rights but limits her feminist activism to "how I raise my son and daughters." With four kids at home in Arlington, Va., she campaigns only part of the week. A former newspaper photographer now organizing a photo exhibit on the homeless, she would champion that cause as First Lady. Tipper also supports Al's plan to put an employee day-care center in the White House basement. As for her own kids, she jokes, Secret Service protection "is made to order for anybody with teenage daughters."

JANE GEPHARDT

"We're a Dick and Jane family" reads a bumper sticker printed up for the Gephardt presidential campaign, poking gentle fun at the family's oh-so-whole-some image. Jane, 44, did quit working 17 years ago to stay home and raise her three children, Matt, 17, Chrissy, 14, and Katie, 10. But nothing else has been done by the book since Dick, 47, a six-term congressman from Missouri, became the first Democrat to toss his hat in the ring. Now there's sometimes a Secret Service van in the driveway of the Gephardt's Great Falls, Va., home, camera crews at breakfast and image consultants urging Dick to touch up his eyebrows. Jane, the erstwhile homemaker, is on the road five days a week, and on those rare nights when she's booked into the same hotel as her husband, she sometimes wonders if there's a bug under the bed. "It's not the kind of life I want," she admits. "But I guess that's the kind of life I am actively seeking."

Not only that, she's even getting good at it. Jane, who had never appeared on live television before the campaign, is now so media-savvy she's advising her husband on his delivery. An advertising writer before she married him, she also edits his speeches.

Jane met Dick at Northwestern University in 1960 but didn't date him until five years later, when she was working in Chicago and he was at the University of Michigan law school. When he proposed, she said he'd have to wait until after she took a long-planned trip around the world. But once she settled into a life of Girl Scouts and volunteer school work, she never regretted the choice. "I really resent it when someone says political wives are pathetic," says Jane. "I've always flourished because I felt I played an important part in helping Dick win elections."

HATTIE BABBITT

Like her husband, Bruce, 49, Harriet "Hattie" Babbitt isn't afraid to grab hold of an issue, even if it's pricklier than an Arizona cactus. Consider the inevitable question about Lee Hart's role as the loyal, long-suffering wife. Other wives tiptoe around it ever so discreetly; Babbitt confronts it head-on. "I have very ambivalent feelings about her," she admits. "Part of me feels incredible sympathy and empathy, and part of me is outraged, from a feminist standpoint."

Hattie Babbitt, 40, has been something more than a "political wife" ever since the day in 1969 when she returned from her honeymoon in Central America to find her acceptance to the Arizona State University law school in the mailbox. She enrolled the next day—for the same reason, she says, that "every male of that time did: I couldn't think of anything else to do, and it was a treading-water exercise." Five years later she argued her first case before newly appointed Superior Court Judge Sandra Day O'Connor, now a friend. Though Hattie has recently scaled down her practice as a trial lawyer to "practically zero" for the presidential campaign, she built it up steadily for 14 years, despite the birth of two sons, now 12 and 10, and her husband's election in 1978 to the first of two terms as Governor of Arizona. "Someone in the family needs job stability," she says with a laugh.

An impatient shopper ("It's such a waste of time standing in lines") who early on convinced her husband that the grocery store was a great place for him to press the flesh, she would be concerned with more than White House decor. "When we make it, you're going to hear a lot about the environment from First Lady Hattie Babbitt," says Hattie, an avid skier and backpacker. She is also concerned about family issues and recalls with pride the year Bruce devoted his entire "State of the State" speech to a "children's agenda"—proposing, among other things, a voucher system for day care. Now a campaigner herself, Hattie finds it a lot like climbing a mountain. "The summit is so distant that you really just concentrate enormous energy on making the next ledge," she says. ' "Ask me in November if we've reached the peak."

JEANNE SIMON

The year was 1959, and Paul Simon and his bride-to-be, Jeanne Hurley, faced an unusual dilemma: your district or mine? Jeanne, then a 36-year-old lawyer, was a second-term member of the Illinois General Assembly from Chicago's North Shore. Paul, six years her junior, represented a downstate district where he also owned a newspaper. Reasoning that it was easier to move a law practice than a paper, Jeanne decided not to stand for re-election and went downstate. She never held elected office again, but she never got out of politics either. So integral has Jeanne been to Paul's 22 campaigns for office over the last 27 years that the media call them Simon and Simon. Meanwhile she pursued her own career as a lawyer. Jeanne also got her daughter, Sheila, 26, and her son, Martin, 23, into the political act; both are now campaigning full-time.

A 1947 law graduate of Northwestern University, Jeanne picked up politics from her father, a lawyer and Democratic Party stalwart. She and Paul did not meet cute. They were legislators, and they co-sponsored bills. "It certainly wasn't love at first sight," she says. Three years passed before Simon asked her out; then he proposed—and she accepted—on their second date. His bow ties were never an issue; the Simons are not frivolous people. A Washington magazine once speculated that a big night in the Simon White House would be a few "couples sitting on the floor eating Jeanne's spaghetti and discussing the desalination of seawater."

Jeanne would like to be known as an activist presidential wife and wouldn't hesitate to sit in on a Cabinet meeting. She would have no truck with the label First Lady. "It's really just a silly title that was originally given to Martha Washington by some of the British people who called her Lady Washington," she says. "I think it's a put-down to other women." Besides, says Jeanne, "my husband is the one who's running for office. If I want a title, I'll earn it."

JACKIE JACKSON

While other candidates' wives were hustling on the hustings last month, Jackie Jackson, 43, was following a different political instinct. Standing in the rain on Capitol Hill, she joined a protest against U.S. intervention in Central America. Afterward, catching sight of Amy Carter, Jackson rushed to wrap her in a motherly embrace. "Amy," she said, "when are you coming to Chicago so I can cook you some beans?"

A lifelong peace activist who met with Yasser Arafat, Daniel Ortega and Anwar Sadat even before her husband did, Jackie takes equal pride in her role on the home front. "See! I know how to keep my husband," she once joked to a reporter as she presented Jesse with a stack of pancakes. And she is a staunch defender of marital privacy. When, following the Gary Hart-Donna Rice imbroglio, journalists began poking through long-standing rumors of her husband's philandering, Jackie declared the subject off limits, saying, "I don't believe in examining sheets."

When Jaqueline Davis Brown met Jesse Jackson, she was an 18-year-old freshman at North Carolina A and T State University in Greensboro. He was 20, already a star athlete and civil rights activist. They married two years later, and she left school, pregnant with the first of their five children—Santita, 24, Jesse Jr., 23, Jonathan, 22, Yusef, 17, and Jaqueline, 12. But she was never simply a homebody. The daughter of a 15-year-old unwed migrant worker who earned 15 cents a bushel picking beans, Jackie was politicized early. "I understand the pain of poverty," says Jackie. "That's why I'm committed to ending it." Besides, says the Jackson campaign's biggest booster, "if I was a man, I'd want to be Jesse."

KITTY DUKAKIS

She is not the quiet type. "I'm impetuous and volatile," says Kitty Dukakis, 51. "That's my personality." Seeking more funding for the arts during her husband, Michael's, first term as Governor of Massachusetts, she made a dramatic appearance on the floor of the legislature and got what she wanted. In 1985, when a colonel in Thailand tried to bar her from a Cambodian refugee camp, she fell to her knees in front of him and once again had her way. Then last July, just as the presidential race was heating up, she confessed that she had taken five milligrams of Dexadrine every day for 26 years before beating the habit at a drug clinic in 1982. Noting the tiny dosage, skeptics wondered if she was making a play for the Betty Ford sympathy vote. "Even though I was taking small amounts," counters Kitty, "they had taken on a life of their own."

Katharine Dickson, Jewish, divorced and the daughter of a symphony violinist, met her Greek Orthodox husband in 1961. They have three children—Andrea, 22, Kara, 19, and John, 29, Kitty's son by her first husband—and their marriage is, appropriately, democratic. Mike, 54, does his own shirts, and everybody cooks. An energetic advocate for the homeless, Kitty would give President Dukakis advice on many issues: "I would be remiss if I didn't." Always honest to a fault, Kitty also admits to confusion about the role of political wife—or First Lady—in a postfeminist era. "There's a schizophrenia out there," she says of the new climate for political wives. "We're not sure where we're going."

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