Can a Bachelor Be Elected President? : Politics: Not since Grover Cleveland has an unmarried man made it to the White House. Enter Democrats Brown, Kerrey and Wilder . . .

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Shortly after James Buchanan, a courtly bachelor, moved into the White House in 1857, hiscritics began wondering if the treachery in his Administration was caused by his unmarried state.

"Cain was a bachelor, and so was Judas Iscariot!" one newspaper warned.

Buchanan left office as one of the least popular Presidents in American history, and the "experiment to elect a bachelor" was deemed a failure, with the newspaper noting: "For being freed from the cares of domestic life . . . (a bachelor) would be more likely to become dissatisfied with himself and be prone to mischief. . . ."

However, the "experiment" did not end with Buchanan. Next year, Democrats, and possibly all voters, will be asked--to an extent they've never been before--to toy with the notion of putting an unmarried man in the White House. This comes at time when the media are digging through candidates' private lives like never before.

This week Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey became the third unmarried Democrat to show serious interest in the 1992 race for President--and, as everybody knows, with three there's a trend.

Kerrey, 48 and divorced, declared his candidacy Monday with his two teen-age children flanking him and his former wife on stage.

Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, 60 and also divorced, had his three children by his side when he declared last month, although his former wife was not present.

And then there is never-married former California Gov. Edmund G. Brown, 53, who has not formally declared but who is positioning himself for a presidential run.

In Washington, pundits and pollsters of both parties are predicting that being unmarried will not automatically make these men unelectable. And some experts suspect divorced candidates may discover wells of sympathy from voters with similar family situations.

After all, this is a country where half of all marriages end in divorce, where the baby-boom generation is coming to terms with family life after remarriage, stepchildren and single parenthood, and where an intact nuclear family can seem downright old-fashioned.

If there are general caveats about these single candidates, they are reserved for people like Brown, who has never been married although his liaison with singer Linda Ronstadt was well-publicized. With concern for the next generation a primary political metaphor these days, people who have no experience with marriage or the strains of balancing work and children may come under attack.

"At least Kerrey and Wilder have known family life and are involved with their children," says Jeff Garin, a political consultant for Democratic candidates. But Garin quickly notes that even a never-married person may have a better shot at the White House than a married-and-philandering candidate who is subjected to embarrassing questions by the media, a la Gary Hart in the 1988 race. Hart, who is married, withdrew from the race after a Miami Herald reporter caught him in an apparent extramarital affair.

"If Gary Hart hadn't been married, everyone would have thought he was just another healthy American boy messing around," Garin says. "A single candidate has more leeway in his private life."

Republican consultant Eddie Mahe, was one of the few who expressed immediate concerns about a candidate without the traditional trappings of family life.

Much symbolism is still assigned to the presidency, Mahe explains. People like the warm, fuzzy image of President Bush in bed with his wife and gaggle of grandchildren; they like the big family scenes on the South Lawn for Easter egg hunts and the lighting of the Christmas tree.

And although a candidate's marital status may not be a pivotal issue in a general election, Mahe asserts that it could cost him.

"By definition, a divorced candidate was unable to sustain a family unit," says Mahe, "or if he was never married, then a family unit was not important to him.

"In either case, it would be marginally more difficult for a divorced man to get votes from a percentage of the 60 million people who go to church every Sunday and who still put a lot of stock in middle-class values. We may not be living the American dream family, but we still yearn for it."

Mahe says a perennial bachelor who has no known relationships with women also might face questions about whether he is gay, which Mahe argues is still "a problem for the overwhelming majority of the 50% of Americans who do vote.

But Charlie Black, a political adviser to Bush, doesn't agree with Mahe on this one: Just because Americans still believe in the idea of family doesn't mean a candidate has to have a picture-book version by his side. He notes that he has worked for several Southerners who have been elected to Congress after a couple of divorces.

When asked if an unmarried presidential candidate might someday show up on the Republican ticket, Black pauses for a minute and says, "Sure, why not?"

But what about a divorced politician who once lived out of wedlock with a very hot actress who was photographed scantily clad and smooching a German shepherd? Would that sell in the heartland--say, in Nebraska?

Nebraskans didn't seem to object when Kerrey, then governor, was living with his steamy steady, Debra Winger, in the governor's mansion in 1985. The Lincoln Journal conducted a poll of 300 registered voters after a local minister denounced Kerrey for setting a bad example for young people by having his "mistress" live at the mansion. A total of 76% of those polled said it was all right for her to stay there, 12% said it was not and 12% said it was nobody's business.

Kerrey, in fact, seemed to display his fractured family proudly Monday as he announced his candidacy. His strategy apparently was to simply allow the intricate social protocol of a divorced family to play itself out in public that day.

After he gave his speech, which he opened by expressing concern for his daughter's future after graduation from high school, Lindsey Kerrey, 15, and Benjamin, 16, joined their dad at the podium to wave to the crowd. But former wife Beverly Higby, also onstage, remained seated.

Doug Wilder, who has been divorced for 12 years, also had to confront the unconventional configuration of his family when he announced his candidacy. He also has to deal with another possible minefield for the single candidate: having what some feel is a politically incorrect relationship.

Although he says they're "just friends," the black Virginian has been dating Patricia Kluge, a white former sex advice columnist who was recently divorced from one of the wealthiest men in America. Conventional wisdom has it that she could be a liability for him, particularly among voters who don't approve of interracial dating.

But in this case, Wilder's problem is not so much the fact he's single, but that he's led such a non-traditional social life.

"If there's a problem, it's like Supreme Court Justice (Potter) Stewart once said about pornography: Americans will know it when they see it," says Paul Maslin, a Democratic strategist.

"The people will size up the character and judgments of these candidates based on a whole lot of things."

In addition to James Buchanan, Grover A. Cleveland was elected as a bachelor, but he went on an immediate hunt for a bride after he moved into the White House, hoping to detract from the scandal that emerged during his campaign over a son born out of wedlock.

By all accounts, most Americans have not had a serious problem with divorced politicians in modern times--although in every case the candidate had to endure a lot of tongue-clucking. In the 1950s Democrats put forth Adlai Stevenson on the ticket and in the 1960s Nelson A. Rockefeller was a serious contender for the Republican nomination.

And although many people thought Ronald Reagan might have to answer to the religious right for his divorce, it rarely came up in his wildly successful 1980 campaign.

"Americans have had, after all, a long acquaintance with divorce at the highest levels of government, and voters rarely registered objections if the remarriages met their approval," Betty Boyd Caroli wrote in her "First Ladies."

And indeed, at least one American thinks the voters will be thrilled when they hear about three bachelors on the Democratic slate.

Comedian Jay Leno, echoing the emcee on the TV show "The Dating Game," wryly notes that voters can simply go into the booth and vote for--Bachelor No. 1, Bachelor No. 2 or Bachelor No. 3.

Bachelor No. 1, Bachelor No. 2 or Bachelor No. 3?

The dapper and dashing James Buchanan was the nation's first never-married President, but widowers and divorced-and-remarried men have achieved that political pinnacle. 1992 is shaping up as the year of the unmarried candidate.

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