Seven years ago, Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived in Washington, D.C., like a clap of thunder. A high-profile lawyer and a key strategist during her husband's 1992 campaign for the Presidency, she brought an unapologetic commitment to policy and a determination to be a serious political player. Yet her ambitious plan to overhaul the national healthcare system faltered in Congress, and her outspoken style alienated both Washington insiders and voters in the nation at large.
Sen. John McCain may have given Republican favorite George W. Bush a surprise drubbing in New Hampshire, pitching the current campaign into at least temporary doubt, but one thing seems certain: The next First Lady won't follow in Hillary's footsteps. "They are all very different from Hillary," Washington journalist and socialite Sally Quinn says of Republicans Laura Bush and Cindy McCain and Democrats Tipper Gore and Ernestine Bradley. "One of Hillary's problems was that she wanted the power, but the power wasn't hers. These women are saying, 'My husband is the one who wants to be President, not me.' "
Yet each of the would-be First Ladies profiled in the following pages has passionate interests, whether they be teaching or social causes or family. And like Hillary, who has formally announced her campaign for the U.S. Senate in New York and who gained a measure of sympathy for her stoic handling of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, three of them have overcome personal crises—Gore in dealing with clinical depression, Bradley with breast cancer and McCain with an addiction to painkillers. In the process, they have shown that although they may not aspire to power in their own right, they are clearly women of character and substance.
An activist who brought home an orphan
Cindy McCain's cell phone never stops ringing. And she always answers it, even when campaigning, because it's sure to be one of her four kids back in Phoenix. Either it's 13-year-old Jack griping about his homework. Or it's Jimmy, 11, or Bridget, 8, needing her to referee. Not long ago in New Hampshire, she took a call from 15-year-old Meghan. "We're walking out of the debate," says Cindy, "and Meghan is weeping because 'This guy on TV is picking on Dad.' "
Cindy says she scoffed ("Ha, I don't think so!") when her husband, Sen. John McCain, 63, first said he wanted to run for President. But then she thought about how they were always trying to instill in the children the idea of service to their country. In the end the kids themselves voted 3-1 in favor of his running. The holdout, says Cindy, 45, "decided that if his dad were elected, he might get head-of-the-line privileges at Disney World. So he joined us."
Raised in Arizona, where her father was a wealthy beer distributor, Cindy Hensley met Vietnam War hero McCain in 1979 at a reception in Honolulu for a group of senators. "We both lied about our ages," she recalls. "I made myself older and he made himself younger." They wed in 1980 (it is his second marriage) and subsequently moved to Phoenix, where McCain became a congressman in 1983 and a senator three years later In 1988, Cindy started a charity that provided emergency medical care to world hot spots. When she took a team to Bangladesh in 1991, she brought back an orphan baby with a severe cleft palate. "I met Cindy at the airport," recalls McCain, "and she said, 'Meet your new daughter.' That's how we got Bridget, who has enriched our life."
Cindy McCain tells audiences that adoption would be her issue as First Lady. Drug abuse could be another. In 1994, Cindy, who had become addicted to painkillers after two back operations, admitted to taking drugs from her charity. Today she talks frankly to her children about the morass she found herself in and how she should have asked for help when she needed it. "I made a very serious mistake," says Cindy, "but I also learned from it."
First in her heart: her family
An avowed homebody who'd rather huddle with her family than host dinners for heads of state, Laura Welch Bush never hungered for the life of a political spouse. Yet she has campaigned vigorously for her husband, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, 53, drawing the line only when it comes to their 18-year-old twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara, who are applying to college and avoiding the campaign's glare. "We won't use them in any ads," promises Laura, "and we've assured them they'll never have to speak to the press."
For Laura, also 53, home is very much where her heart is. A former teacher and librarian who gave up her career when she married 22 years ago, she doesn't hide the fact that she'd rather be with her girls than campaigning. "They are the center of our life," she says. When the family does reconvene at their lake house in Athens, Texas, George fishes, Laura cooks Tex-Mex, and both avoid politics. "We find a lot of refuge in each other," she says.
Laura describes her childhood in Midland, Texas, as "slightly lonely" because her parents, homebuilder Harold, who died in '95, and Jenna, 80, who kept his books, could not have more children. While not drawn to politics, she says, "I like that part about marrying into the Bush family, having those brothers-and sisters-in-law." The affection is mutual. Mother-in-law Barbara has described Laura as a "catalyst in our family; she brings out the best in us."
As First Lady of Texas, Bush has championed literacy, and her efforts have helped to raise $600,000 for state libraries. But as the nation's First Lady, Laura's greatest asset might be that she is comfortable in her own skin. Asked by a reporter whom she'd be more like, Hillary or Barbara Bush, she replied simply, "I'll just be like Laura Bush."
Following her own inner compass
It was January, the Iowa caucuses were fast approaching, and Bill Bradley was ready to move on to the next campaign stop, in Des Moines. But his wife, Ernestine, 64, was lingering over a conversation with a striking Teamster. The candidate tapped his wife on the shoulder. She ignored him. He tried again. She held up a finger. "I want to hear what this is about," she explained. Bradley, 56, just shrugged. "She is who she is, which is real and wonderful," he said. Then, louder, to make sure she heard him: "I think we're going to have to tie ourselves together, so when I walk, she's got to come."
Not too likely. Bradley's wife of 26 years is a professor of German and comparative literature at New Jersey's Montclair State University, a linguist fluent in four languages (English, German, French and Spanish), the author of three scholarly texts—and every inch her own person. "You could spend hours with her and not know she was married to Bill," says fellow professor Rita Jacobs. Indeed, her independence is precisely what drew Bradley to her.
Ernestine Misslbeck grew up in Germany, where her father, though not a Nazi, was in the Luftwaffe during World War II. She came to the U.S. in 1957 as a PanAm stewardess and in 1965 earned her Ph.D. at Emory University in Atlanta. Married to a physician in 1958 and divorced in 1963, she met Bradley in 1970 while he was starring for professional basketball's New York Knicks but says she hadn't "the faintest idea of the halo around him." Wed in '74, the Bradleys have always believed in teamwork. In the mid-'80s, Ernestine stayed in New Jersey for her work and commuted to Washington on weekends, where Bradley, then a second-term senator, lived with their daughter Theresa Anne, now 23 and a student at New York University. (Ernestine has another daughter, Stephanie St. Onge, 40, and four grandkids, from her previous marriage.) "Bill was the primary mother for 3½ days a week," she says.
Bradley also took charge in the early '90s—this time over Ernestine, who had developed breast cancer. Throughout her ordeal, he supervised her care. "It really bonded our relationship," says Ernestine, who is now deemed cancer-free. In fact, friends say the two complement each other remarkably. "When she's around," says Jacobs, "Bill's warm and open—anything but aloof." Though she has campaigned less for her husband in the past, this time she says she's having a blast. As for the possibility of becoming First Lady, she says when pressed, "I'd bring my own qualities. They are not going to be idle."
Turning belief into action
Five years ago, Tipper Gore, 51, volunteered to help with a van that provides medical care for the homeless in Washington, D.C. The first day, she sat on the ground next to a man in dire need of a meal and a checkup. "Let's take him with us," she mouthed to physician assistant Pat Letke-Alexander, who shook her head, explaining that the Secret Service would not allow an unknown man to accompany the wife of the Vice President. Letke-Alexander recalls that a determined Tipper "then turns to this man and says, 'Sir, would you like to come with us?' She listened to him like he was the most important person in the world."
Ever since husband Al Gore, also 51, was first elected to Congress in 1976, Tipper's approach to public life has been to translate her concern for others into immediate political action. In the mid-'80s her shock at the explicit lyrics on daughter Karenna's new Prince record led her to persuade the music industry to put warning labels on albums. For her troubles, critics labeled her a cultural despot.
No issue became more personal, however, than mental health. The only child of businessman John Aitcheson and his wife, Margaret Carlson, Tipper was 4 when her parents divorced. After she and her mother moved in with Carlson's parents in Arlington, Va., Tipper watched her mother struggle to maintain an accounting career between debilitating bouts of depression that sometimes required hospitalization. Years later, in 1989, when the Gores' son Albert III, then 6, was gravely injured after being hit by a car, Tipper put on 25 lbs. and sank into a clinical depression herself. Her experiences led to her post as a mental-health policy adviser to President Clinton. "Her worry translates into action," says friend Carmala Walgren.
Tipper is no less passionate on the home front, where she has shared her concerns with all four children—Karenna, 26; Kristin, 22; Sarah, 21; and Albert, 17. She also counsels her husband, urging him last year to soften his image with more casual clothes and to base his campaign in his native Tennessee. "She is the most effective campaigner of us all," says the Vice President. "I don't make any important decision without consulting her."
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