How will we know when women have achieved equality? Male politicians will all be bachelors. It was bad enough when politicians’ wives were expected to be the living background in their husbands’ campaign photos and appearances. At least when the speech was over they could go home and get drunk or have a good cry without having to worry that their private lives would be splashed all over the morning papers. Now, political wives are expected to expose their most intimate secrets before someone else does. He does Meet the Press, she does Oprah. Joan Kennedy (alcohol), Betty Ford (alcohol, prescription drugs, breast cancer), Kitty Dukakis (alcohol, prescription drugs) and now Tipper Gore (clinical depression). It’s not enough for politicians’ wives to adopt a worthy cause; now they have to serve as their causes’ poster children, too.
It’s nice that Tipper Gore wants to destigmatize mental illness–it sure beats her previous cause, the war on dirty rock lyrics. It’s possible that she revealed the bout of depression she suffered after her son’s near-fatal car accident as she says, spontaneously in response to a question from an audience and not to pre-empt revelations that might damage her husband’s campaign. But the very fact that her depression is big news is part of the larger problem: Everything in America has changed, it seems, except the outmoded, unrealistic expectations large numbers of people have about politicians’ wives. Every other person in the country is on Prozac, in a self-help group or in therapy; the media cover the latest treatments the way they cover new diet pills or cosmetic surgery techniques; “I’m depressed” is easily one of the top ten everyday utterances. But political wives are supposed to spend decades smiling in the shadows of the egomaniacs they married when they were too young to know better–and like it.
To this ancient formula, our touchy-feely culture has added the proviso that if the assignment proves impossible, their difficulties can be used to give their husband’s campaign, in Time‘s telling phrase, “a human dimension.” Like Dukakis before him, Al Gore morphs from cold fish to put-upon loyal spouse. Meanwhile, poor Tipper can’t even tell the New York Times about her childhood as the daughter of a woman who was hospitalized twice for depression without being directed by her spokeswoman: “I think you do want to dispute the fact that you had a difficult childhood,” Ms. Johnston told Mrs. Gore, who was silent for several beats, then agreed. “Right,” Mrs. Gore said. “I had a great childhood.”
Keeping a stiff upper lip can land you in trouble too. Look at Hillary Clinton. Only a few short years ago, a wife who stayed with her philandering husband got credit for loyalty, morality, stick-to-it-iveness and maturity. No one thinks less of Eleanor Roosevelt, who stayed with FDR even though he had a long-term love affair in the White House–au contraire, she gets tons of historical brownie points for not making a fuss and losing World War II. But the other night I heard Jimmy Breslin on the radio doing a pretty good impression of a barroom loudmouth as he raved on about Hillary’s “immoral” choice to stay married to an unfaithful man, which, according to him, proved she would make a lousy senator. Can you imagine a male politician being criticized because he didn’t divorce his wandering wife? He’d be a hero, a prince, a saint! Of course, in return she’d have to confess to being a sex addict and an alcoholic, and schedule a mastectomy for the following week.