Political Spouses: More Action, Less Image : Traditional Role of Washington Wives Changing; Many Now Involved in Daily Staff Decisions

Times Staff Writers

It was a spectacle, First Lady Nancy Reagan and White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan feuding, hanging up on each other’s phone calls, the cross fire ceasing only when the former Marine and Wall Street executive left with what appeared to be a female footprint on his back.

Some may have seen it as an embarrassing case of feminine meddling, endangering the Republic.

But others saw it very differently.

“My role model” is how Janis Berman, the wife of Rep. Howard Berman (D-Panorama City), extolled the actions of the First Lady. Berman was not the only wife rooting for Mrs. Reagan.


Staff People Come, Go

“I’m sympathetic to Mrs. Reagan. We (wives) have seen a lot of staff people come and go and we can tell who’s serving our husbands,” said Jeanne Simon, the wife of Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) “Nobody is closer to Ronald Reagan than Nancy. This doesn’t make us busybodies or mean we’re interfering. It makes us normal.”

Although she defended Mrs. Reagan’s involvement in the replacement of Regan she added that “the public attention it’s drawn makes her husband look like a goof, like he can’t handle his own staff. If I were Nancy Reagan, I would have done the work in a quiet corner.”

(However, the President when queried Wednesday on reports about the First Lady’s role, said there is nothing to “the idea that she is involved in government decisions.” He also said,"That is fiction, and I think it is despicable fiction.”)


The hands-on style of the 65-year-old First Lady is more typical of a new generation of political spouses than of many of those her own age. Deeply involved in the day-to-day political fortunes of their husbands, this new “power spouse” seldom ventures into the arena of actual policy. Some may push their own issues, much in the manner that Mrs. Reagan focuses on her battle against drug abuse.

Working Tirelessly

But increasingly, spouses are doing what Mrs. Reagan specializes in: Keeping a close watch on the staff. Calmly, these spouses report that of course they sit in on meetings at the office, and yes, they stay in constant telephone contact with the office. Inspired perhaps by Nancy Reagan, they part company with her in making no secret of the way they influence hiring and firing within the office.

Janis Berman broke into tears recalling a staff incident years ago that so infuriated her, she set about urging her husband to “help them find other jobs.”

An older man from Los Angeles, dressed in a loud polyester sports jacket, dropped into the office to see Rep. Berman, and his staff, then young and fresh out of East Coast schools. The man was treated rudely by the staff.

“I find that intolerable,” Janis Berman said. “In a way, Regan was doing the same thing. From what I read, the biggest thing is, Regan doesn’t treat people right. Part of politics is how you treat people.”

Like Mrs. Reagan, Janis Berman felt that such actions by the staff would be detrimental to her husband’s career, even though he might be too busy to notice them. So she took the matter into her own hands.

Clearly, the idea of spouses possessing hidden power fascinates some and frightens others, just as it did in the days when Edith Galt Wilson, wife of Woodrow Wilson, was labeled “The Secret President” during the later years of her ailing husband’s Administration. First Lady Wilson’s guessed-at involvement triggered the ultimate political fear: That a President’s unelected, domineering wife actually might be able to run the country.


“We are very ambivalent about it as a nation,” said longtime Washington observer Abigail McCarthy, ex-wife of former Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D-Minn)., and author of a book in progress about the “two-person career” that flourishes in this city. “We’re ambivalent about how much we want it acknowledged that wives have this much impact.”

But Seattle attorney and broadcasting executive Stimson Bullitt, author of “To Be a Politician” (Yale University Press), takes a far stronger view. “What is harmful or pernicious,” Bullitt said, “is where the commands are being given by somebody who wasn’t elected.” Blasting the recent involvement of Mrs. Reagan in the ouster of Regan as “wholly wrong,” Bullitt may have expressed a common discomfort when he called the actions of such behind-the-scenes advisers “destructive to the democratic process.”

Such comments sting Mrs. Reagan, who is “frustrated at being portrayed as the heavy,” according to press secretary Elaine Crispen. Often accused of meddling, frequently branded as power-grabbers, First Ladies have been distressed by criticism throughout history. But the specter of such disapproval seems of scant consequence to the newer political spouses, most married to people who have been elected within the past six years, who are unashamedly pronouncing themselves equal partners in the political career.

“We’re still a minority,” Janis Berman said of the spouses, like herself, that she describes as “new age.” “But so many women had high-level positions in other careers, moved here and decided to use those skills in their husband’s careers.”

“In a lot of strong political marriages, there is very much a strong exchange of judgment-sharing and ideas. The wife is usually a strong component,” said Tipper Gore, wife of Sen. Albert Gore (D-Tenn.). “To me that’s normal. That’s realistic.”

Janis Berman interviews applicants along with her husband for jobs on his congressional staff, making sure they know what she expects of them, too.

Heather Foley heads the staff of the two Washington offices of her husband, House Majority Leader Thomas Foley (D-Wash.), even though Public Law 90-206, the nepotism rule of 1967, prevents her from accepting a salary for the two high-level positions. She said she does not publicly discuss her role, calling it a “private matter.”

But Jeanne Simon said she would not hesitate to urge the firing of a staffer she thought was harming her husband’s career.


“Do I interact with staff? You bet I do!” said Jeanne Simon, an attorney who met her husband when they were both members of the Illinois state legislature. She does not, as she put it, “just stand there wearing a white orchid, waving to the crowd.” She gives speeches, has working lunches with her husband’s chief of staff and analyzed the key memo regarding whether Simon should run for President. The senator himself added that his recent announcement that he would not seek the presidency in 1988 could have been swayed the other way by his wife.

A Major Factor

“If Jeanne had said real strongly, ‘We ought to do it,’ that would have been a major factor,” he said. “But she was kind of like me, going up and down on the thing.”

Jane Morrison has urged her husband, Rep. Bruce Morrison (D-Conn.), to fire a staffer “several times,” she said. “I can’t think of any case where it wasn’t already in the wind. It was more a case of watching my husband being harassed to death, or being unhappy with a performance.”

A former dean of admissions at Yale University, Jane Morrison now does executive search work. When her husband was elected to Congress in 1982, she put those talents to work.

“I did a lot of work identifying people who would be good to run the two offices,” she said. “I interviewed virtually everybody we were considering.

“The job is big enough to allow for a husband and wife to really look at it as two components of a job. I consider myself a partner. That doesn’t mean I vote (on the House floor). We do talk about substantive legislation and I also periodically have long soul talks with staff members on how to deal with my husband.”

But other political spouses, describing themselves in general as “more traditional” Washington wives, say they employ a more indirect approach. “I certainly have given my opinion on hirings,” said Jane Muskie, the wife of the former Democratic senator from Maine who co-authored the Tower Commission report on the Iran- contra arms scandal investigation. “There have been certain staffers over the years who have been favorites of mine, or not favorites. But I have never said to Ed, ‘fire so-and-so,’ nor would he allow me to make suggestions as to who he had to fire.”

“I work very, very closely with my husband’s staff,” said Ursula Meese, wife of Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese. “I think they see us as a sort of unit.” She said she is on the phone with her husband’s office at least once a day, and said she is “close with about a dozen staff people in Ed’s office.” But as for hiring or firing, “I don’t think so,” she said. “No.”

Married for almost 18 years, 40-year-old Nancy Thurmond calls herself “one of the senior citizen spouses” of Capitol Hill. Since she arrived in Washington as the bride of the senior Republican senator from South Carolina, “I’ve seen more involvement and less involvement” among congressional wives.

Background to Foreground

“When I first came here,” she said, “the spouses were really very much in the background, kind of the shadow-at-the-tea-party type of image. Now, the spouses are very involved politically as the helpmate, and/or they’re totally into their own careers.”

For her part, Nancy Thurmond, the mother of four children, likes to think of herself as “a silent cheerleader” for Strom Thurmond. “I have always tried to interact and communicate with Strom’s staff without interfering with their work,” she said. “We have a real good rapport.”

Well-known as a workaholic’s paradise, Washington is a place where professionals are regularly consumed by their careers, often all but vanishing from the lives of their spouses and children. Wives who fail to become highly involved in their husbands’ spheres, Janis Berman warned, run the risk of becoming “isolated,” or even, she contends, “victims, martyrs.”

As Berman observed, “The husband is surrounded by the staff and it’s a real sad situation. She has no role here. She worked in the campaign and she was the surrogate candidate. She doesn’t get a schedule from the office. She’s lost her emotional support group, her family, her job and all of a sudden she calls the office and the staff tells her he’s in a meeting.”

It’s an ongoing problem, said Rep. Lindy Boggs (D-La.), who, as the widow of former Rep. Hale Boggs (D-La.), has served both as congressional spouse and now in the House as her husband’s successor. “All during the campaign, the wife has been obliged to be totally current with the issues in the campaign, with the scheduling of the campaign, filling in for her husband and so forth.

“Then,” Boggs said, “you arrive in Washington, and instead of the wife being central to the decision-making, she is more or less peripheral to the discussion. It’s only if her husband is smart enough to use the expert knowledge that she has gained during the campaign that she has an input.”

Of the scant 24 women members of Congress and the even fewer women in higher level positions, very few have husbands who are highly involved in their day-to-day operations. Both women senators, Democrat Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and Republican Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas, are unmarried. There are several widows and divorced women in the House as well.

Typical Husband

Most typically, husbands take the route that Stewart Boxer, married to Rep. Barbara Boxer (D-Greenbrae), has. Stewart Boxer remains at home in Greenbrae pursuing his law practice, getting together with his Congressional wife on long weekends when she flies home.

“He does not take part in her job, other than to accompany her to an event, and I’m sure they talk about what she does,” said Sam Chapman, Boxer’s top assistant. “She is very independent.”

An exception to the rule is Republican Virginia Smith of Nebraska, who has installed her husband, Haven, as a full-time partner.

A retired grain elevator executive in his 70s, Haven Smith assists the senior Republican woman in Congress by becoming heavily involved with her visiting constituents, attending breakfasts with them, showing them around the city and listening to their concerns.

“He’s like having three staff people for free,” said a Smith staff assistant, who spoke on the condition he not be identified. Haven Smith shies away from interviews, preferring to keep a low profile.

“He sits in the gallery day after day watching her on the (House) floor,” the aide said. “They talk things over and she values his judgment very highly.

“They talk over the schedule and divide up the chores. But Mrs. Smith is clearly the boss on Congressional matters and he defers to her completely. He is her constant companion but he stays out of the staff’s hair.”

Jim Schroeder, the attorney husband of senior Democratic woman House member Patricia Schroeder, gave up his law practice in Denver to move to Washington with his wife 15 years ago, when their two children were so young that Rep. Schroeder remembers being sworn in “with Pampers in my purse.”

Now practicing international law in Washington, Jim Schroeder seldom becomes intricately involved in his wife’s career. But he did once, writing a memo to 1984 Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale, outlining why his wife would make a good vice presidential running mate.

“That was an extraordinary action on his part,” said Daniel Buck, Schroeder’s administrative assistant, meaning that it was unusual for him. Jim Schroeder was on his way to the Orient and could not be reached for comment.

“I have lunch with him once a year just for fun,” Buck said, “and once or twice a year he asks for a copy of a bill. I can’t remember a single instance of his calling about anything else. He’s the perfect congressional spouse.”

In what is often an ongoing battle between staff and spouse, scheduling is a veritable world war. Unless they keep an eye on the scheduler, many wives lament, every wedding anniversary, family birthday and weekend will be spent pumping hands at a parade.

Endangering Health

Besides robbing the family of togetherness, an overpacked schedule can endanger the member’s health. What it comes down to, Janis Berman said, “is a struggle for power and for time. The staff thinks they’re hitching their star to his career and the more they promote him the higher their careers will go.”

In these cases, she said, the politician often has to choose between what his staff wants him to do and what his wife wants him to do. And, what usually happens, she said, is “The husband sadly, sadly chooses the staff. It’s stupid.

“They (the powerless wives) end up drinking. They are what a group of us call ‘victims.’ ”

At the nonprofit, nonpartisan Congressional Management Foundation here, executive director Ira Chaleff has studied the way spouses and staffs on Capitol Hill do and do not interact. Mindful that “the biggest area of spouse involvement in congressional careers is in the area of members’ scheduling,” Chaleff said that “a wise office” prints out an extra three-by-five schedule for the spouse, every day.

“It’s always a sensitive issue,” Chaleff said of the spouses he calls a kind of “new kitchen cabinet,” the “informal organization within the formal organization” of the spouse’s office.

In some ways, Chaleff conceded, these problems plague the spouse of any high-profile person. Spouses of top executives may be shut out of the office just as easily as the spouse of a politician, and the wife of a big-time banker or lawyer or broker may well harbor a secret desire to become involved in her husband’s career.

But “I think the reason it tends to happen more in politics,” Chaleff said, “is that the spouse traditionally is inextricably linked to getting elected.” A spouse of a businessperson, Chaleff said, “isn’t as integral a part of the team that got somebody to the rank of executive.”

Besides, political observer Stimson Bullitt said, “Politics is all mixed up with social life. People are eating and drinking and working together, while in business there is more of a compartmentalization.

“Everybody thinks he or she is an expert on politics,” Bullitt added, “while in, say, the chemical business, a lot of spouses don’t feel they know a lot about making chemicals.”

For the political spouse, Chaleff said, “Clearly, if the spouse wants to start taking an active role in how the office is set up, or how it makes its decisions, one way it can become a problem is that the spouses are only sometimes involved. They don’t have a clearly defined role. If they had a clearly defined role, I suppose it wouldn’t be a problem. You would have a known quantity.”

One known quantity that may increase tension between staff and spouse is a staffer who becomes too powerful, too significant in the office-holder’s life. It is said that one of Nancy Reagan’s numerous complaints about Don Regan was that the President and his chief of staff were simply becoming too chummy, that Regan’s habit of greeting the President with a new joke every morning was not entirely amusing to the First Lady.

It may have been Regan’s nemesis, for as Sheila Tate, former press secretary to Mrs. Reagan, pointed out, “To alienate the wife of your boss is a pretty dumb thing to do.”

“It’s extraordinarily difficult,” Lindy Boggs said. “It certainly doesn’t help the husband, but it’s very, very hard for the wife, because they are not really accepted into the office.”

Fragility of Marriages

What with obstacles such as scheduling, role definition and what Jane Muskie calls the “ghastly problems” she has heard about between staff and spouse, it’s little wonder that Washington marriages are sometimes particularly fragile. On the other hand, the peculiarly Washington phenomenon of political pillow talk may act as an odd kind of cement.

“Face it,” Tipper Gore said. “Whatever kind of marriage you have, hopefully the partners are going to be extremely important to one another and they’re going to rely on the other for advice and judgment. It’s just that in this life, you’re more exposed. These kinds of things are opened up and picked apart.”

Swimming prominently in the fishbowl of official Washington, one well-known couple, however, has chosen not to bring the office into the bedroom. “I think they go out of their way not to bring up work-related problems,” Walt Riker, press secretary to Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.), said of his boss. Dole and his wife, Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole, “did make an attempt to talk about work at home when she first became transportation secretary,” Riker said, “but after 12 to 14 hours a day of dealing with the same stuff, they found it was not the most exciting topic and dropped it.”

Many “traditional wives,” Jane Muskie said, do resemble First Lady Nancy Reagan in their unwavering dedication to their man, the officeholder. “I think that Mrs. Reagan feels, as I do, that my first job is to care for my husband,” Muskie said.

Although their devotion may be the same, their management style is definitely different. The “new age” wives, Janis Berman maintains, have evoked resentment from many of the older, more traditional wives.

“Absolutely,” she said. “We’re threatening their position. They can walk around and be the member’s wife and get status that way. What we have done is use the access that being a member’s wife provides and used it for our own agenda for social change.”