Reflecting on the Gores: Marriage as a Political Litmus Test

Last week, Al and Tipper Gore announced that they are getting a divorce after 40 years of marriage. It’s a “mutual and mutually supportive decision,” according to an email the Gores sent to friends and family. Since their announcement, the internet has been a-twitter with a fair degree of disappointment and confusion. To many, the Gores’ marriage epitomized an ideal union: an equal partnership, free of scandals and palpably romantic (over the past week, blogs, newspapers and cable news shows alike have been obsessing over the validity of the Gores’ steamy kiss at the 2000 Democratic National Convention).

Ultimately, it’s immaterial why the Gores have decided to separate. They’re clearly both responsible adults, capable of making their own choices and it’s frankly none of our business. However, their announcement did get me thinking about the importance of marriage in today’s political arena and, in particular, the burden of expectation placed upon the political spouse to behave a certain way in both the public and private sphere.

In a brief conversation on last Tuesday’s “All Things Considered,” NPR host Michele Norris and Salon Broadsheet commenter Rebecca Traister discussed the public’s fascination with political marriages:

NORRIS: In some ways is the presidency and the requirements that presidents have solid marriages, is that a bit out of step with larger society, where almost half of all marriages end in divorce?

Ms. TRAISTER: It is totally out of step with society. The idea that our leaders are supposed to in any way be in functional, heterosexual, child-producing unions is totally archaic, and it has nothing to do with their ability to govern or to lead us.

And this is probably ultimately leads to a lot of the bad political marriages that we wind up seeing, which politicians who realize they have to fit this very outdated mold in order to be taken seriously and elected get into sham marriages.

While the conversation focused mostly on the Gore split, Traister’s point about the necessity of political figures having a spouse and children rings true across the board. Of course it’s only in recent history that marriage has been widely considered a term denoting love and romance; when the word first entered the cultural lexicon, “marriage” was almost always politically or financially motivated. Matches were made to strengthen ties between two families, and women were given away as brides in order to secure property, wealth or social status. That said, it should come as no surprise that marriage and politics are still so inextricably intertwined.

Recent political history suggests a few things:

  1. Marriage is (usually) a political asset. A stable marriage implies political stability, even though being a good leader and being a good partner have little to do with each other. Hence, the unfaltering interest in the Obamas’ marriage and what it says about his ability to govern, as well as our national obsession with political sex scandals. This cultural obsession with marriage’s supposed effect on political efficacy leads to curious clashes of public and private, like the treatise on forgiveness published in the Washington Post and penned by Jenny Sanford,  ex-wife of South Caroline Governor Mark Sanford, who famously disappeared with his Argentinian mistress for a week last summer after having told family and staffers that he was hiking the Appalachian trail.
  2. Being single is a political deficit (and probably due to a personal fault). With the exception of Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), whose single status has garnered her the dubious honor of “Sexiest Senator” and rampant speculation about her love life, most unmarried female politicians, particularly those over 40 who find themselves vying for major government positions, are deemed somehow incomplete. I’m not sure if the same is true for men, but the question of whether family should be eschewed in favor of a career certainly doesn’t seem to come up as often for male politicians. Take for example the case of Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan (she’s not technically a politician, but she functions within the political arena), whose opponents questioned her perceived choice of  “having sacrificed a home and personal life in her quest for a brilliant legal career.”
  3. Not being “the good wife” can get you into trouble. Political wives have a role to play and not playing that role can get them and their spouses into serious hot water. Certainly it’s more and more common for the wives of male politicians to have lives and careers of their own (take Dr. Jill Biden, for example). But I still remember the national scandal that ensued when former President Bill Clinton was on the campaign trail back in 1992 and Hillary, still a working lawyer, had the audacity to defend her choice to enter the workforce with her infamous “cookie comment”: “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession which I entered before my husband was in public life.”  Perhaps it seems crazy now, but this was a huge scandal, even garnering a segment on ABC’s Nightline.
  4. Husbands should be manly but silent. Politics may be the one arena where  spouses are held to similar standards regardless of gender. While it never hurts to make sure your masculinity isn’t compromised by your gung-ho political wife–calling yourself the “First Dude” is one option–except for the most innocuous signs of support, being too outspoken even gets men in trouble in the political arena. After all, having an outspoken, intelligent and politically-minded husband might mean that the female politician is incapable of leading on her own; if too present, husbands are either liabilities or secretly pulling all the shots.

To conclude, let me throw out a few numbers: out of 100 U.S. senators, only five have never been married; out of the other 95, only four are divorced or widowed (this does not include those who remarried after a divorce or the death of a spouse). Almost all of the married and divorced senators have at least one child, which suggests the importance of having heirs as a symbol of fecundity, growth and future promise. Moreover, three out of the five unmarried senators are women, perhaps suggesting that having a husband is less necessary for a woman politically than having a wife is for a man, given the stereotypical wifely roles of helpmate, nanny and glorified personal assistant. Of course, the U.S. Senate is hardly a statistically-relevant sample. What’s especially instructive about the juxtaposition of marriage and politics is that these days, supposedly private affairs reflect publicly and acutely on our political leaders.

Above: Al and Tipper’s wedding day in 1970. Public domain photo.


Aviva Dove-Viebahn is an assistant professor of film and media studies at Arizona State University and a contributing editor for Ms.'s Scholar Writing Program.