Convention Still Entraps Those at the Top

<i> Barbara Kellerman is professor of political science with the Institute of Leadership Studies at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. She is the author of "All the President's Kin" (New York University Press, 1984)</i>

News of the Duchess of Windsor’s death a few days ago came as a bit of a surprise. Her story belongs to an era that seems so far removed from our own that, frankly, it felt as if she had joined the dearly departed years ago.

Yes, the love affair between the twice-divorced Wallis Warfield Simpson and King Edward VIII has the whiff of antiquity now. It seems quite inconceivable that in this day and age, merely the desire to marry would topple anyone, save the Pope.

But is it? Is it unimaginable that in the final decades of the 20th Century a man (or woman) would be denied a public role because of his public behavior in matters of the heart?

With regard to the American political culture, two questions are particularly pertinent. Have we, lacking the pomp and circumstance of a royal house, always been more tolerant than the British of how public officials conduct their private lives? And have the enormous changes in our manners and morals over the last half-century had an impact on what we expect of those in public office?


On the question of just how different we are from the British, it so happens that the story of Nelson Rockefeller bears a considerable resemblance to that of Edward VIII. The year 1964 was the time when the then-powerful, experienced, attractive and lavishly funded governor of New York made his most serious bid for the presidency. He entered the race at the start, in the New Hampshire primary, pitting himself against Barry Goldwater and Henry Cabot Lodge. But Rockefeller had a problem: his personal life. Not only had he divorced his wife of 31 years, he had the further temerity to remarry (and to choose a woman 18 years his junior) 10 months before the New Hampshire primary.

There is no doubt that this had much to do with his coming in third in that all-important first primary. As the pre-eminent chronicler of our contemporary presidential campaigns, Theodore H. White, put it, “One can no more discuss the Republican politics of 1964 without dealing with Nelson Rockefeller’s divorce and remarriage than one can discuss English constitutional development without touching on the stormy marriage of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine.”

Rockefeller, it turned out, could not divorce himself from what was referred to then as “the morality issue.” No one can say that if he had stayed married to his first wife, he would have realized his burning ambition to be President. What is certain is that from the moment he remarried, his political fortunes at the national level declined precipitously. Another attempt to win the Republican nomination failed four years later, and in 1974 President Gerald R. Ford met considerable congressional resistance to his nomination of Rockefeller as vice president. But perhaps the ultimate humiliation was in 1976 when the once-powerful governor was not even considered for renomination as vice president. Neither the king of England nor the governor of New York seems to have understood that marrying the women they loved was a serious and ultimately unforgivable breach of an unwritten contract. In America, as in England, people expected their national leaders to hold to standards of a conventional morality. Failure to do so was a punishable offense.

One could argue that now, at least in this country, these standards have been relaxed. We’ve elected divorced politicians, remarried politicians, single politicians and gay politicians. Indeed, in the White House sits a man with a past that was unacceptable just a few presidential elections ago. Nancy Reagan is, after all, Ronald Reagan’s second wife and the mother of only two of his four children.


This is not to say that the changing times have brought about a change in the double standard--what’s OK for us is not necessarily OK for our national leaders--or that “the morality issue” is dead. Unlike Rockefeller, who was divorced and remarried just before the ’64 campaign, Reagan had been happily married to Nancy for almost three decades by the time he won a presidential election .

The story in England is not dissimilar. For all the years that have elapsed between the marriage of the former king of England to Mrs. Simpson and the marriage of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer, the criteria for what constitutes a “good” royal marriage seem hardly to have changed. It is easy enough to imagine the brouhaha if Charles had picked a wife who was a twice-divorced American woman a couple of years his senior.

Let the record show that by choosing as his bride an “English rose,” the veritably virginal Lady Di, he behaved in a way that can only be described as completely conventional. Charles understood that a man who would be king can’t be too careful, even in this permissive age. It’s a lesson that those who would be President should take to heart.