Overnight, the Los Angeles Times revealed the cause of former NBC News journalist Maria Shriver’s split from her husband of 25 years, former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger: he fathered a child more than 10 years ago with a longtime staffer.
The Times has reported on the first couple for years, most memorably in the final days of Schwarzenegger’s campaign to replace recalled-governor Gray Davis, when the paper was criticized by some for publishing allegations of sexual misconduct.
Shriver defended her husband at the time, raising questions about their marriage. Those revelations, her response to them, and stepping aside from her profession as a journalist confused some watchers, but not Connie Schultz.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist recently revealed that Shriver called her in 2007, after Schultz returned to her journalism job following a yearlong leave of absence to campaign for her husband, now a U.S. Senator. During the call, Shriver encouraged Schultz to make different choices than she’d made.
” ‘Please don’t leave the profession,’ she said. ‘Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do this job.’
“We talked for about a half-hour, and in that time I got an inkling of what Ms. Shriver had sacrificed for love. She never once complained, but she talked at length about her days as a reporter, and why she missed them. And she made it clear that I should follow a different course.”
Like the Times’ reporting, Schultz’s column looks beyond the photo-op-friendly woman standing beside her husband as part of “the traditional narrative that casts such wives as either props or problems.”
Our modern fascination with political marriages dates back at least to Shriver’s uncle John F. Kennedy and his relationship with iconic First Lady Jackie. This fascination enjoyed a renaissance during Bill and Hillary Clinton’s White House years and since, with a new understanding of the dynamic dawning after “her turn” proved it could include a Senate career, a groundbreaking presidential run, and an effective role as Secretary of State.
The no-drama Obama marriage has been of much less interest to the media, unless the pair is going on a date night or exhibiting other normative behavior that surprises us in star couples.
But there has been no shortage of other political marriages taking center stage this year, particularly on the platform where potential presidential candidates preen.
Schultz mentions Callista Gingrich: “Is she — problem! — a reminder of her husband’s philandering past, or is she — prop! — his new secret weapon that will propel him into the White House?”
Next to Gingrich in the hall of curious spouses is Cheri Daniels, who reportedly received a call from former First Lady Laura Bush encouraging her to support her husband’s run for the presidency. Bush herself was a reluctant spouse who didn’t expect to spend eight years in the White House.
Bush also gave advice to Cindy McCain, who shares it in a just-published Newsweek piece, “Spouses get a bad rap.” Bush’s advice to McCain was to avoid reading about herself or her “performance” in a role that shifted long ago from supportive sidekick to scrutinized character.
“Sometimes the spouses get a bad rap, because we are the gatekeepers,” McCain writes, reminding us of another political wife who was portrayed as a shrewd protector.
“Nancy Reagan told me years ago, ‘Always remember you’re his eyes and ears. You have a very important voice in this, because you’re the one person he can trust.’ That’s very true. When you are the closest person to him, you hear and see things. Telling him what you think becomes a very important role.”
Whether women in politics derive power directly — like Clinton has — or indirectly through their proximity to powerful men, the way journalists cover them reveals our beliefs about their place in American society.
Dee Dee Myers writes today in Politico that women have become a sideshow in the 2012 election.
“Now, in the absence of a serious figure, like Clinton, the women getting attention as the campaign season begins fall into two categories: provocative but unelectable and provocative but who may render their husbands unelectable. …
“As 2012 approaches, the only women who are making news are either candidates who command attention but not respect or wives who raise uncomfortable questions about their husbands. This is not where women hoped or expected to be.
“But it’s still early. As the season unfolds and the field narrows, questions are answered and candidates and their wives have a chance to grow into their roles, the story may evolve. Women voters may assert their growing electoral power, and women leaders may help shape the political agenda. Women from both parties running for Congress and state and local offices may make important gains.”
With a female head of the Democratic National Committee — mother, breast cancer survivor and dynamic congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz — there will almost certainly be a push by Democrats to find candidates who command women’s attention and loyalty to the extent that President Obama has.
And we cannot ignore Wasserman Schultz’s colleague and friend, Gabrielle Giffords, a woman whose life and marriage have unexpectedly inspired perhaps millions of Americans.
When congresswoman Giffords traveled to Kennedy Space Center this week to watch her astronaut husband lift off in the Space Shuttle Endeavour, it was a remarkable marker of her progress after a January shooting at a constituent event in Arizona. But it was unremarkable in a supportive marriage that allowed Mark Kelly to tell reporters his wife wanted him to shoot for the stars even as she was never more bound to earth.
Giffords’ survival and story has offered hope that there can be a new “politics as usual.”
Giffords, Wasserman Schultz, Dee Dee Myers, Nancy Reagan, Cindy McCain, Laura Bush, Cheri Daniels, Callista Gingrich, Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, Connie Schultz, Maria Shriver.
They represent a range of women in politics, with so many more to be named and recognized.
I don’t know what led Schwarzenegger to release a statement to the LA Times confirming his extramarital affair and the out-of-wedlock child he is supporting. Nor do I know how this information escaped attention for the last decade. What I do know is that the reporting that follows this revelation is an opportunity to look beyond the casting of characters — male and female — as victims or saviors on a political stage.
Marriages are complex, and so is politics. Journalism is at its best when it reveals that reality.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated incorrectly that Debbie Wasserman Schultz was the first female head of the DNC. She is not.