In ‘08 race, a little leg may go a long way

Times Staff Writer

In March, an aspiring Republican presidential couple -- Rudolph W. and Judith Nathan Giuliani -- appeared in a fashion layout in Harper’s Bazaar that accompanied an interview with Mrs. Giuliani. The most striking thing about the feature, a coming-out of sorts for Judith Giuliani, was their pose.

Sitting on the arm of her husband’s chair, eyes closed, she tipped her head down, caressed his face and planted a kiss that looked like a precursor to something steamier.

“Rudy’s a very, very romantic guy,” Judith Giuliani told the magazine. “We love watching ‘Sleepless in Seattle.’ Can you imagine my big testosteronefactor husband doing that?”


A couple of months later, after seeing a photograph of presumed presidential hopeful Fred Thompson’s much younger wife, Jeri Kehn Thompson, in a low-cut gown that would be modest on a Hollywood red carpet but could be shocking at a Washington social event, MSNBC talk show host Joe Scarborough quipped, “Do you think -- think she works the pole?” (He had been discussing women who use stripper poles in their exercise routines.)

Not long after that, Cindy McCain, wife of presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), gave Fox News talk show host Greta Van Susteren a tour of the couple’s new Phoenix condo. Mrs. McCain wore a pink blouse with a plunging neckline, and heavy makeup that would not have been out of place at a black-tie event.

In this long, hot campaign season, intimations of sexuality are sprouting like wildflowers along the road to the White House. Not that the commingling of sex and politics is anything new, but for what seems to be the first time in memory, voters are being confronted with questions that don’t usually break the surface: Just how sexy is a first lady allowed to be? And what constitutes an appropriate display of affection between candidates and their spouses?

With a nominating field full of older men and younger wives, experts say that a youthful, even sexy wife offers a none-too-subtle message about the vitality of the candidate.

Not since Al Gore’s ostentatious lip lock with Tipper at the 2000 Democratic National Convention has sexuality-as-strategy raised its head in quite so insistent a fashion.

“What’s going on reflects what’s happening in the larger culture, a culture increasingly focused on young, attractive women and blatant sexuality, on display for all to appreciate,” said Elizabeth Sherman, a political sociologist and Democrat who is married to former Republican Rep. Mickey Edwards of Oklahoma. “The candidate’s wife is a strategic asset. How are you going to deploy that asset?”

Though voters may profess to evaluate candidates on their policies, Scarborough’s racy comment revealed an attitude that, for better or worse, is always simmering.

“Sexuality has this unconscious power,” said Pepper Schwartz, a University of Washington sociologist who believes that the looks and interactions of political couples send powerful messages. “It goes past the rational brain and goes into the emotional circuit. It’s one of those visceral things where voters say one thing and think another.”

Schwartz said that although older women might be put off by the May-December aspect of some of these marriages, younger men might be impressed. “The men say, ‘What a guy!’ and women say, ‘What an ego!’ ”

For the record, Thompson is 24 years older than Jeri. She is a political professional who has worked for the Republican National Committee and as a media consultant for a Washington law firm.

McCain is 18 years older than Cindy, Giuliani 11 years older than Judith. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, a Democratic hopeful, is 18 years older than his wife, Jackie. The prize for greatest age gap, however, goes to Democratic contender Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio, who is 31 years older than his 29-year-old wife, Elizabeth.

As often is the case in a campaign, let alone a marriage, it is hard to tell when spontaneity ends and calculation begins. Public displays of affection are no exception.

Robert Watson, director of American studies at Lynn University in Florida, recalled that when President George H.W. Bush had sagging poll numbers during his 1992 reelection campaign, his advisors begged him to show some affection to his popular wife, Barbara, on the trail.

“He just wouldn’t do it,” Watson said. “He had that cold Yankee demeanor.”

(And we all know how the election turned out: America went with the guy who held hands with his wife on national TV as he admitted he’d “caused pain” in his marriage.)

In 1998, when President Clinton’s affair with Monica S. Lewinsky was about to drive the nation into a paroxysm of partisanship and eventually, impeachment, the Clintons were photographed, paparazzi-style, on a beach in the Virgin Islands, in bathing suits, waltzing together on the sand.

It was an apparently tender marital moment, and because he was preparing to be deposed in Paula Jones’ sexual harassment lawsuit, many believed it was not spontaneous.

“That will live in my gallery of infamy,” said social critic Camille Paglia, convinced the moment was fake. (Nor was there any question about what George W. Bush, then Texas governor, was referring to when he campaigned on a pledge to restore “honor and dignity” to the White House.)

Some believe there is a calculated quality to the touchy-feelyness of couples like the Giulianis. The former New York mayor and his wife need to present a solid, loving front to the world because they are each on their third marriage and he engaged in an affair with her while still married to his second wife, Donna Hanover.

“I think it’s a very ostentatious, egregious and rather offensive appeal to women voters, and I think it’s condescending and actually off the mark,” said Paglia, a professor of humanities and media studies at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts. “I feel the great majority of women voters don’t like to see a woman with her hands and lips all over her man.”

Giuliani spokesman Michael McKeon disputed whether anything was calculated about the Harper’s Bazaar photograph. “That was more of a spontaneous thing than anything else,” he said. “It was just a reflection of them and their relationship, and of the moment.”

Thompson, who was single for 17 years after his divorce and who had a rich dating life between marriages, nevertheless does not have Giuliani’s kind of relationship baggage.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican who has been running third in national polls behind Giuliani and the undeclared Thompson, has been married for nearly four decades to his high school sweetheart, Ann, a fact the Romneys tout on the campaign trail.

Richard Land, a politically influential evangelical Christian, sees nothing improper about husbands and wives displaying affection for each other. (“I certainly liked Al kissing Tipper rather than an intern,” he said.) But he was offended by the photo of Giulianis’ embrace.

“If I were Rudy Giuliani and I were in my third marriage and my third wife was the woman I was committing adultery with when I was cheating on my second wife, I would probably avoid public displays of affection,” said Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the public policy entity of the Southern Baptist Convention. “Most evangelicals have had their families touched by divorce, but what matters is the number and the circumstances.”

McKeon countered: “How can you criticize a couple for being affectionate toward each other? You have to be sort of a jaded person to go there.”

The Clintons are a singular case, say observers. Land lauded Hillary Rodham Clinton -- who is now a New York senator and Democratic presidential contender -- for staying in her marriage, but Schwartz said the couple had to be careful how they related to each other in public. “I genuinely believe they like and respect each other,” she said, “but the sexual part has been complex, to say the least. I would tell them to be warm and respectful, and don’t pretend you are the love affair of the century.”

Recently, the Washington Post’s fashion critic, Robin Givhan, stirred the ire of the Hillary Clinton camp (and provided a peg for a fundraising pitch) when she noted that Clinton had worn a lower-than-usual neckline to make a Senate speech.

Though Clinton was hardly displaying what one would call cleavage, Givhan wrote that “there was the sense that you were catching a surreptitious glimpse at something private.” The blogosphere and talk shows ate it up.

When Barack and Michelle Obama were on the cover of Ebony’s February issue, their pose, while close, hewed to the traditional vision of a president and first lady. She stood behind the candidate, in the support role, her arms around his shoulders. His arms were at his side.

And yet Sen. Obama (D-Ill.) has become a sex symbol himself. In a much viewed Internet video, “I Got a Crush ... on Obama,” a young woman -- “Obama Girl” -- sings about her unrequited love for the candidate. She poses in a bathing suit next to a widely published photograph of him frolicking in the surf during a Hawaiian vacation last Christmas.

“The video cuts both ways,” said psychologist Drew Westen, who is advising Democrats on language and imagery. “On the one hand, it turns Obama into even more of a rock star than he is.

“But on another, it activates all the stereotypes of the sexualized black man who wants to be with white women, or in this case, a woman of ambiguous race, which the Republicans used against Harold Ford in Tennessee just a few months ago. It also has overtones of phone sex with Monica Lewinsky. I would be surprised if Michelle Obama enjoyed it.”

(Ford, a black Democrat, lost his Senate race to Bob Corker, who is white. A Republican National Committee ad featured a white woman saying, “I met Harold at the Playboy party.... Harold, call me!”)

Obama spokesman Bill Burton said the campaign didn’t have a response to the Obama Girl video. “Supporters show their support in all sorts of ways,” he said. “But ultimately people are paying attention to the more important things in their lives, and what Obama has to say about issues like ending the war in Iraq.”

Maybe. But in a world obsessed with appearance and sexuality, even presidential campaigns are offering something to sate our national appetite for the superficial. To paraphrase the old Jell-O campaign, there’s always room for cleavage.

Politics experts often say that a candidate’s spouse is a negligible factor in helping voters choose a president. But that may be changing, said Sherman. “A candidate’s spouse has to be a positive enhancement. If not, at least do no harm. The way things are sliced today, 1% here, 2% there can make a big difference. One false move can destroy your whole campaign.”