Hidden Husbands

When I saw Bill Clinton shuffling uncomfortably behind Hillary as she was giving her acceptance speech last week, I thought, What's he doing there? Could it be that the Clintons don't know the "hidden husband" rule?

Of course, a male candidate will always have his (preferably attractive) wife beside him on stage smiling deferentially during such serious moments. Rick Santorum and George Allen even had a few assorted children awkwardly surrounding them in their defeat. This works well because a male candidate is always presumed to be the dominant family member, and, since wives often don't work at "serious" jobs, they are expected to find the time to be supportive whenever called upon. When a male candidate is unmarried, we try hard to make them regular guys. But the fact that they don't have wives certainly doesn't make them more electable. Just think. If Harold Ford, Jr., had been accompanied on the campaign trail by a willing wife, we wouldn't have had to watch that ugly Playboy ad over and over again. Unsettled men open our imaginations to "disturbing" possibilities. Neither a ladies' man nor a gay man seems a good risk. "Sexless" (like Ralph Nader or Ed Koch) is maybe okay, but can we ever be sure? No. A married man with a smiling wife at his side (and even a few cute kids in arms or nearby) is always the best bet.

But women candidates, who of course have become more or less acceptable recently, have to work with a very different--yet equally strict--set of rules.

A woman with a driving desire to be a politician must, we prefer to assume, be married to an even stronger, more powerful man. Therefore, it follows that he would be much too busy to take even a couple of hours off to help get votes for her. Of course he supports her from a distance as she tries to prove that she also has some value. The female candidate goes along with this fairytale. If her husband were visible, she'd have to prove in some way that she was really subservient to him, even though a little ambitious. Something similar to Hillary's cookie recipes, for instance. We had an interesting glimpse into this strategy when Nancy Pelosi was interviewed on 60 Minutes recently. She'd often told us that she was a grandmother but we'd never before seen her husband. In his few minutes on camera he seemed amused by the whole thing and implied he had basically shrugged it off when Nancy "started doing volunteer stuff."

Of course, a woman candidate should never be divorced, which makes her too ambitious to accept the role of wife, or unmarried, which introduces the "scary" possibility that she's a lesbian. Widows, of course, are exceptions here. But what would we do if Condoleezza Rice ran for office? No other scenario is allowed, or contemplated.

Even in Europe, male heads of state drag their wives around these days, perhaps following the American example. And woman leaders, such as Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, do choose to keep their husbands mostly hidden, which leaves them vulnerable to unwanted massages, of course.

In order to keep up the "strong husband" fantasy, the press has agreed not to pursue any details about him. If we're going to support a woman, we definitely do not want to see a mild-mannered husband tagging smiling behind his powerful wife on the campaign trail. That would make her a bitch. Even Bill Clinton and Bob Dole had the good sense to stay hidden for the most part when their wives were running for senator, though Hillary was still often accused of being hysterical. Nor do we want to imagine there's a weak hen-pecked suffering man at home washing the dishes and changing the diapers, or even just supervising the household help, while she's off gallivanting around the country. Mr. Pelosi (even his name reverberates like "Mr. Vicki Lester" in A Star Is Born) probably opened himself up to lots of future guffaws when he confessed that he shops for Nancy's clothes. In addition, we'd rather not know about any small children at home, because then, by choosing to run for office, the woman candidate would also be choosing to be a rotten mother. And since we suspect some of the above might often be the case, we prefer to ignore the question altogether.

A glaring exception to these gender rules, one that caused much consternation among the press, was Judy Dean, Howard's wife. She had the gall to decide to continue working at a job she valued instead of following her husband around on what she of course agreed was a laudable quest. But if Dean had ended up the Democratic candidate for president, Judy would have been forced to submit to the loving-wife role, just as Teresa Heinz Kerry, John Kerry's wife, was. We were all warned months ahead that she would be a problem on the campaign trail because she had an independent personality. Yet Kerry couldn't hide her or he would fall into the hen-pecked-husband category, with a wife who the voters would assume was the dominant partner in that marriage.

The reason the wife stands dutifully beside her husband the candidate is to "prove" that he's a family man, and therefore neither gay (although that hardly worked for Jim McGreevey) nor a womanizer out looking for sex all the time, or at least not noticeably so. And if he's caught, you can depend on her to stand beside him in denial, just as Congressman Gary Condit's wife did after the murder of Chandra Levy.

A woman candidate can't use her husband that way. In fact, she shouldn't be interested in sex at all. She's allowed to act powerful as long as men feel she's just trying to do good deeds that they approve of and might even try to do themselves if they had the time. She must be careful not to be at all shrill or give any hint that she might use her power to dominate men in any way. Nancy Pelosi was smart enough to surround herself with powerful Democratic men when rejoicing about their victory. No sign anywhere of Mr. Pelosi. And then there's Hillary, fetching coffee for the Senator boys. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But then again, it's not news when anyone else does it. If they do it.

But with more and more women set to take over powerful political jobs in America, we're going to have to quickly resolve the problem this country has with how to handle their husbands. Our current consensus of deceit will never do when a woman runs for president, because we will no longer be able to hide the husband. Yet we can't possibly have the First Gentleman relegated to the East Wing of the White House with his own press secretary and some gardening responsibilities, say.

Therefore, at this point I'd advise any woman considering running for president or even vice president to forget about it if her husband is just a run-of-the-mill professor, journalist, businessman, or even lawyer. He would be picked to death immediately. Let's not forget Geraldine Ferraro, our only example so far.

Probably the first time a woman succeeds in being elected to high office it will be at least partly because her husband excels somewhere in his own right. He would of course profusely and publicly admire his wife for her great desire to solve the problems of the day, while he continued on his own equally important quest to save the world from AIDS, or some such thing.

Here, of course, Hillary has the advantage: That description fits her ex-President husband to a tee. And Bill Clinton has done just that, positioning himself in support of her potential run and managing to control the giggles somewhat. It's even been suggested that President Hillary could appoint him Secretary of State (though we're getting ahead of ourselves here). But if a woman ever does become president - and that's still a big if, for many reasons - the problem will be one of finding balance. That's not a problem that's unique to women candidates, but in the sexually messed-up America of today, the solution seems far more elusive.