The Political Wild Card: Love

Samantha Dunn is the author of the novel "Failing Paris" and the nonfiction book "Faith in Carlos Gomez." Contact her at magazine@latimes.com.

I first saw a picture of the man who would be my husband on an Internet dating site. I took one look at the tattooed arms, the flinty, Steve McQueen-like stare, the sardonic twist of his smile, and I yelled over my shoulder, "Mom, check this one out! I think this guy's looking for me."

Mom, out visiting from her retirement in New Mexico, ambled up to assess the candidate on the screen. "Yum, yum," came the verdict. Then she added, "But he's probably a Republican."

Coming from her, that was like saying the man beats his dog when he's not in prison. As far as my family is concerned, God himself is not only Irish, he's a Democrat. Great-Aunt Ethel and Great-Uncle Jim O'Brien's idea of home decor was to hang framed pictures of the pope and JFK on the dining room wall. During the last seven years, Mom has forsaken most major news outlets for fear of coming across the latest pronouncements from George W. (Bad for her blood pressure, you understand.)

My response: Ha ha. Very funny, Mother. Why do you always have to find fault? Or words to that effect.

Of course, the joke was on me. Four months later, I found myself seated at a swanky fundraiser for the California Republican Party, deep in the red heart of Orange County. The tattooed bad boy named Jimmy Camp was indeed a Republican. Not merely a Republican, but a well-established campaign manager and political consultant for the GOP. He'd even run U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch's bid for president. That is to say, relative to my politics, I had fallen in love with Darth Vader and was dining aboard the Death Star.

After Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's speech to the 500 or so assembled faithful, but before conservative radio talk-show host Dennis Prager took the mike, my love and I slipped outside to share a cancer stick. Jimmy had forgotten matches, so he bummed a light from a woman puffing on her own cigarette. The two had worked together on campaigns and fell into easy shop talk, but the woman's eyes narrowed as she began to dish about the governor's chief of staff, who evidently leaned too far left to suit her.

"It's Maria's influence," she hissed. Did I imagine it or had her eyes hardened as she looked at us and said, "That's what happens when our Republican men hook up with liberal women."

Jimmy immediately became very interested in lighting another cigarette. Meanwhile, I smiled, said nothing and thought, if this woman knew we drove here in a hybrid she'd have me burned at the stake. Today Jimmy's driving a hybrid, tomorrow he might work for Al Gore, all because of her--when will it end?

This would be the first of my many trips to the minefield at the junction where love and politics meet. Jimmy is not an elected official, but being married to him has given me a sliver of appreciation for the pressures couples feel and the judgments they provoke when they move in the world of politics, whether or not they sit on the same side.

My friends--Westside-Topanga-artist-former-Peace-Corps-writer-multicultu ral-all-is-Zen pals--first questioned my sanity, then became angry. After my buddy Rachel was sure I wasn't kidding about the whole Republican thing, she demanded to know how I could even stand to be in a room with someone who had worked for anti-choice candidates. Laura and Veronica were concerned: Was it hormonal? Was I that desperate to find a straight, employed, single man in Southern California? Maybe I should watch "The Secret" again? Other longtime acquaintances rescinded a dinner offer when I told them whom I was bringing. And when Rachel--now having met Jimmy and been assured he didn't have horns and carry a trident straight from Hell--invited him to play his guitar at a reading, the promoter tried to ban him, saying, "A right-wing fascist playing the club? Not on my watch."

If I had been dating, say, a conservative lawyer, they would only have been amused, but Jimmy represented the Political System. When it was clear this wasn't a passing fling, everybody tried to make sense of Sam and Jimmy, to understand the logic of our being together . . . forgetting that once love comes in the front door, logic goes out the window.

Love, of course, is not rational, but then neither is politics. The difference being that we pretend politics is. Maybe this explains why political couples offer a near-constant source of irritation and fascination: They're expected to represent--and purport to be--stability itself, but the very nature of their union makes things messy, unchartable.

What they really embody is the passionate and ultimately unpredictable essence that ends up running government. And who wants to consider the implications of that, huh? It's like thinking your own house is built on the San Andreas fault.

Oh. Wait. It probably is.

It might be that we Americans, more than any other people, are hard-wired to want great things from our politicians' marriages. Nancy Cott, a professor of American history at Harvard University whose works include "Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation," observes that no other country demands as much transparency in the personal lives of its politicians, maybe because no other country needs to.

Cott says that since the early days of the American Revolution, the family structure has been held up as what she calls the "civic common denominator." We don't have ethnic ties that bind us, we don't have a shared religion--basically there was no public institution strong enough or widespread enough to teach people of a fledgling democracy how to be good citizens. None, that is, except marriage.

The analogy of the wife giving her consent to her husband, who was then supposed to care for her and be loyal to her (yes, we're talking theory here), gave people a model they could understand for how an elected official was supposed to look after those who put him in office. Cott says marriage was thought to be a "training ground for virtue," where citizens learned to care for one another and balance the common good with their self-interest. A citizen, thus steeped in virtue, could then go to the polls and vote not only for what he reasoned would be good for him (and of course back then it was only him, white him, but let's just get on with this analogy) but also what might be good for the nation.

As a result, Cott says, "the married couple does play a different role in our civic mess." Cott doesn't mean to suggest that in 2008 any of us are conscious of this as we evaluate our politicians' spouses, their marriages--or the litany of marital disasters. But when, for instance, we discover that yet another marriage is a fraud, it is always news because it "strikes a nerve," she says. We are not only reacting to hypocrisy, or dishonesty; at some deep level it makes us fret over "the stability on which our governance operates."

Pepper Schwartz agrees. A sociologist and senior fellow at the Council on Contemporary Families, she is the author of numerous books, including "Love Between Equals: How Peer Marriage Really Works." Underneath that cynical eye-rolling over news of the latest hooker/gay-cruising/home-wrecker-affair/sleaze-with-an-intern revelation, a collective fantasy about what should be still breathes. "There is that mother/home/apple-pie vision we have--which has been shredded," she says. "But there is a vestige of the longing: Aren't they supposed to stand for something we care about in America--love, loyalty, happiness?"

A regular plain old marriage takes as much tending as any hothouse flower; what must it be like when you add, gee, I don't know, the responsibility of upholding the whole framework for the United States government? And know that while you're doing it, any aspect of your life can become public at any moment? Jeri Thompson, wife of GOP also-ran Fred Thompson, once said, "I've likened it to walking down the street with no clothes on, emotionally and all the other ways."

When political couples stumble, Schwartz believes, people are more likely to react strongly because it feels as though something personal is at stake. "I was at a party not too long ago where everyone was talking about Eliot Spitzer and being all upset about it. One of the women talking the loudest about how she would do something physical to her husband if he ever cheated--well, I know from friends that her husband has slept around a lot, so I'm telling myself, 'OK, Pepper, not one expression on your face, just keep it calm,' " she says. "I think we are scared mostly of the things that could infect our relationship and our community standards, and that's why people get so mad."

Although we might still long for a romantic fantasy that might have existed for George and Martha Washington (or, more likely, for Cinderella and What's-His-Name), Schwartz thinks the real expectation for how our politicians' relationships should operate, what they should look like, has had a makeover. In fact, she thinks the presidential-candidate couples today are doing nothing less than "educating the public about marriage and relationships."

"The changing role of women has finally been recognized, for one. Remember the hoopla over Hillary's names at first? Rodham? Rodham Clinton? She was a crackerjack litigator, and they had her baking cookies to assure everyone she knew her place in the White House. Today, nobody even blinks that Michelle Obama is a lawyer," she says. "Ronald Reagan was the first time the nation had to deal with divorce, and now the fact that McCain was married before isn't brought up as an issue."

Marriage itself is being seen as a different kind of partnership--now the collective "we" wants couples to be interdependent but maintain their individualism, to seem not only like friends but also lovers. She points to the Clintons as the modern models, who at times have served as virtual poster children for success at this kind of partnership and at others, dire failures. "It's a complex picture," Schwartz says, being diplomatic.

The dictionary tells me that politics means "social relations involving power or authority." I put the emphasis on the social relations part. I like to believe that Jimmy and I have that kind of Michelle-and-Barack panache, the Edwards' evident closeness, the Shriver-Schwarzenegger respect for each other, and that my forehead is as smooth as Cindy McCain's. (OK, that one is absolute delusion.) In this way, I suppose I do look to politicians' marriages to see my values reflected there, and when I do, am reassured.

We are witnessing some partnerships in these election times that appear dynamic; they're imperfect, to be sure, but that, in my mind, only helps their case.

I am a Gen-Xer, bottle-fed on irony. I get suspicious when I'm being pitched anything that sounds ideal. Sure, hypothesizing about a politician's relationship is a faulty guide to how they may govern--kind of like knowing somebody's astrological sign or reading the tarot or studying the racing form to pick a trifecta--but I indulge in those too. I believe that in life some insight, no matter how it's derived, can only help.

I know in my own house that ultimately things get built and life proceeds not because Jimmy has convinced me that school vouchers will solve education's woes or I've persuaded him that universal healthcare is not the first descent into total communism. We go together because we may be the only two people who can name a song by Zodiac Mindwarp & the Love Reaction, because we agree that popcorn must be made stove-top style and coated with real butter. He has introduced me to my new great love, baseball (Go Angels!), and because of me he now owns a buckskin mare and reads Western Horseman magazine.

When he walks into a room, my breath still catches at the sight of him, and he writes me love letters that he sticks in my purse for me to find at unexpected moments. That's the stuff of which democracy is made.

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