Hillary’s Not 1st Power Spouse, but She’s Rewriting Rules

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In the entertainment world, successful teams of spouses have been plentiful--from Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz to Roseanne and Tom Arnold, from Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne to John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

In science, there have been Pierre and Marie Curie. In sports, Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Bob Kersee. In business, William Agee and Mary Cunningham. In literature, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.

And, of course, in the beginning, Adam and Eve.

But on the political stage, while many couples have enjoyed celebrity status, few have formed more or less equal political partnerships in which the wife seriously and visibly participated in the duties of her title-holding husband.


That is, until the Bill and Hillary show came to town.

Yes, William and Mary, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, Juan and Isabel Peron, Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt were famous couples. But they did not operate, in the same time frame, as equals.

The wives served as advisers to, or were eyes and ears for, their husbands. Or they pursued their own political causes. Or they shared purely ceremonial equivalence. Or they assumed the mantle of power only after their spouses were gone.

The only possible exceptions were two Chinese duos--Mao Tse-tung and Jiang Qing, and Generalissimo and Madame Chiang Kai-shek--who exercised great power not only as individual players but also as teammates.

Now come the Clintons, fast forming in the public eye as darn near co-Presidents of the United States. The impression became starkly vivid Monday after Bill put Hillary in charge of a task force on health care reform, essentially elevating her above six Cabinet secretaries.

“I can’t think of anything close to this kind of partnership in American history,” says Thomas Mann, an astute government-watcher with the Brookings Institution here. “But this kind of thing is going to increase. The changing role and status of women make it almost inevitable.

“Clearly,” he adds, “Hillary Clinton is at the cutting edge, exploring the possibilities and boundaries of substantive involvement in her husband’s Administration.”


What is unique about the situation is that the country elected Bill and had nothing to say about Hillary.

What will the American political system permit her to do in her husband’s Administration? We haven’t had a chance to ask that question before. All we can say is that Hillary Clinton is writing the rule book.

How different this is from Hollywood, for example.

“In the entertainment business, each partner is being judged by whatever standards apply,” Mann says. “It’s a market-based system, presumably, but each has come to his or her position independently. In the Clintons’ case, Hillary is in her position by virtue of her marriage to Bill.”

Actually, women have been moving slowly into their husband’s political loop for some time.

Former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev relied heavily on his wife, Raisa. Winnie Mandela spoke for her husband, Nelson--the head of the anti-apartheid African National Congress--until he was released from a South African prison.

In the United States, several widows have acceded to their husband’s seat in Congress, including Muriel Humphrey for Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey (D-Minn.) and Lindy Boggs for Rep. Hale Boggs (D-La.).

Similarly, Khaleda Zia, widow of assassinated President Ziaur Rahman was elected prime minister of Bangladesh after a popular uprising forced her predecessor to resign. Isabel Peron succeeded her dead husband as president of Argentina, while Corazon Aquino was elected president of the Philippines after her husband, Benigno--a potential candidate to replace Marcos--was assassinated.


Indeed, the co-ruling couples who bore the most similarity to the Clintons were the aforementioned Chinese. Mao’s third wife, Jiang, originally a film actress, helped spearhead China’s chaotic Cultural Revolution for a decade before Mao’s death in 1976.

Mao’s longtime rival, Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of China’s Nationalist government, had an equally powerful wife. She was instrumental in maintaining American support for China during World War II, was Chiang’s main contact with President Roosevelt and his government, and accompanied her husband to key international meetings. Madame Chiang is still alive, in seclusion in a house on Long Island.

Meanwhile, the Clintons can find caution, perhaps, in Shakespeare’s chronicle of that tragic power couple, the Macbeths. Lady Macbeth, as we know, was consumed with insatiable ambition for her husband, while Macbeth himself was endowed with an extraordinary ability to speak.

So, to escape legislative bloodshed, Bill and Hillary might avoid sleepwalking through minefields sown by witches.