Warning: Politics Can Be Hazardous to Your Marriage


Many of them won their congressional campaigns by stressing their strong moral fiber, their conservative beliefs, and their determination to enact legislation embodying traditional family values.

After taking Capitol Hill by storm, some of them signed up for weekly Bible studies with like-minded Republicans. They formed a special freshman caucus to advance their agenda, fighting, for example, for welfare reform provisions designed to deter out-of-wedlock births.

Sometimes, though, trouble visits even the most strait-laced of houses.

Less than a year after its triumphant arrival in Washington, the celebrated Republican freshman class of '95 is finding that a high-pressure Washington lifestyle can be hazardous to your marriage.

The discomfort is intensified by the fact that many of the GOP freshmen, including some of those who have come to grief, campaigned on their commitment to traditional moral and family values.

Four freshman marriages have fallen apart. At least two more are on the rocks. And the House cloakroom is rampant with reports of more impending separations and tales of infidelity.

It's gotten so bad that the Republican Bible study group has begun praying for "protection against rumors" and support for members whose reputations have been sullied.

In this year of unusually bare-knuckled debate in the House, some freshmen charge that Democrats are deliberately spreading stories about their marital problems--to puncture the GOP's claim to stand for moral renewal.

"They love this," complained Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.), a leader of the freshman class. "They see it as a chance to smear the freshman class. There's a feeling that they're out to get us. It's clear that it's all over the place. We've got to destroy it."

Even if some Republicans are having family troubles, Souder said, that shouldn't taint all 73 freshmen.

"Because we have a class that is more open in talking about religious faith, people just assume the worst," he lamented.

Indeed, some Democrats can't resist making a political point out of the Republicans' personal travails.

"It does raise legitimate concerns about whether these people are using so-called family values issues in an insincere way and politicizing these issues rather than living them," said Rep. Robert Matsui (D-Sacramento).

The Republicans' private conduct deserves public scrutiny, he argued, because they made family values such a central issue in their campaigns and were so critical, in some cases, of the personal conduct of their Democratic opponents.

"We've all been kind of tittering about it," admitted Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.). "There are people calling it 'Fornigate.' But to see this group that is so strong on preaching fall apart on practicing is nothing to titter about, really. It's sad."

Some of the GOP family travails are merely the stuff of small-town gossip, but at least two have been spelled out in painful detail in court documents.

One such case is the failed marriage of Rep. Jon Christensen, a first-term Republican from Nebraska who filed for divorce earlier this month. His petition included an affidavit from his wife, Meredith Christensen, a Texas beauty with piles of family money, accepting full responsibility for the divorce because of her repeated infidelity.

Meredith Christensen's admission was unusual because under Nebraska's no-fault divorce laws, neither party is required to accept any blame for a marriage's failure. The chatter in the House cloakroom is that the couple cut a deal: She would try to save his political life by absolving him of responsibility, and in return he would keep his hands off her family fortune. Rep. Christensen won't comment on the matter.

This is the third time the Christensens have filed for divorce, citing similar marital problems. In the two earlier instances, they changed their minds and stayed together.

Another freshman, Rep. Enid Greene Waldholtz (R-Utah), filed for divorce amid charges of campaign finance improprieties. Her husband, Joseph, the financial manager of her campaign, went AWOL for a few days and then turned himself in to authorities.


Some Republicans suggest that the embarrassing series of marital problems may be an unintended consequence of the breakneck legislative pace of the Republican revolution.

If so, it is an ironic if understandable phenomenon. When the Republicans took control of the House this year, Speaker Newt Gingrich pledged to restructure the work schedule to make Congress a more "family friendly" institution.

"We're going to try to run a more humane House," Gingrich said at the time. "We're going to turn values into policy and not just leave them as empty rhetoric."

Oregon Republican Jim Bunn, another House freshman whose marriage ended in divorce this fall, now refuses to talk to the press about his family problems. But he recently expressed his bitterness in an interview with a weekly congressional newspaper called the Hill: "With all due respect to the leaders, there is nothing family friendly about this Congress, except the legislation," he said.


No matter what circumstances led to the failed marriages, the breakups are likely to become prominent issues in next year's reelection campaigns.

Bunn, for instance, ran in 1994 against a liberal Democratic divorcee. He pulled ahead in a close race largely by portraying himself as a "deeply rooted family man" and stressing his conservative values, according to Congressional Quarterly's "Politics in America" report.

Another freshman, Wisconsin Republican Mark Neuman, has talked openly about the heavy toll that this year's legislative meat-grinder has taken on the marriages of first-term lawmakers. Neuman counts at least six marriages ruined since the beginning of the session: those of Reps. Christensen, Waldholtz, Bunn, James Longley (R-Maine) and two couples who have not yet gone public.

"When you're forced into a situation of having to keep a commitment to family or do other things and you always choose the other thing, eventually your family is going to suffer," Neuman said in an interview. "I would not want to blame Congress for any of the marital problems that exist, but if you keep breaking commitments to your family for Congress, your families are going to suffer."

When Neuman faced criticism for skipping an important vote on the budget to go deer hunting with his son, he defended himself by saying he was not going to fall into the same trap as some of his colleagues.

"I intend to still have my family to come home to," Neuman said in a letter to newspapers in his district.

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