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Political Spouses: More Action, Less Image : Traditional Role of Washington Wives Changing; Many Now Involved in Daily Staff Decisions

March 05, 1987|BETTY CUNIBERTI and ELIZABETH MEHREN | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — It was a spectacle, First Lady Nancy Reagan and White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan feuding, hanging up on each other's phone calls, the cross fire ceasing only when the former Marine and Wall Street executive left with what appeared to be a female footprint on his back.

Some may have seen it as an embarrassing case of feminine meddling, endangering the Republic.

But others saw it very differently.

"My role model" is how Janis Berman, the wife of Rep. Howard Berman (D-Panorama City), extolled the actions of the First Lady. Berman was not the only wife rooting for Mrs. Reagan.

Staff People Come, Go

"I'm sympathetic to Mrs. Reagan. We (wives) have seen a lot of staff people come and go and we can tell who's serving our husbands," said Jeanne Simon, the wife of Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) "Nobody is closer to Ronald Reagan than Nancy. This doesn't make us busybodies or mean we're interfering. It makes us normal."

Although she defended Mrs. Reagan's involvement in the replacement of Regan she added that "the public attention it's drawn makes her husband look like a goof, like he can't handle his own staff. If I were Nancy Reagan, I would have done the work in a quiet corner."

(However, the President when queried Wednesday on reports about the First Lady's role, said there is nothing to "the idea that she is involved in government decisions." He also said,"That is fiction, and I think it is despicable fiction.")

The hands-on style of the 65-year-old First Lady is more typical of a new generation of political spouses than of many of those her own age. Deeply involved in the day-to-day political fortunes of their husbands, this new "power spouse" seldom ventures into the arena of actual policy. Some may push their own issues, much in the manner that Mrs. Reagan focuses on her battle against drug abuse.

Working Tirelessly

But increasingly, spouses are doing what Mrs. Reagan specializes in: Keeping a close watch on the staff. Calmly, these spouses report that of course they sit in on meetings at the office, and yes, they stay in constant telephone contact with the office. Inspired perhaps by Nancy Reagan, they part company with her in making no secret of the way they influence hiring and firing within the office.

Janis Berman broke into tears recalling a staff incident years ago that so infuriated her, she set about urging her husband to "help them find other jobs."

An older man from Los Angeles, dressed in a loud polyester sports jacket, dropped into the office to see Rep. Berman, and his staff, then young and fresh out of East Coast schools. The man was treated rudely by the staff.

"I find that intolerable," Janis Berman said. "In a way, Regan was doing the same thing. From what I read, the biggest thing is, Regan doesn't treat people right. Part of politics is how you treat people."

Like Mrs. Reagan, Janis Berman felt that such actions by the staff would be detrimental to her husband's career, even though he might be too busy to notice them. So she took the matter into her own hands.

Clearly, the idea of spouses possessing hidden power fascinates some and frightens others, just as it did in the days when Edith Galt Wilson, wife of Woodrow Wilson, was labeled "The Secret President" during the later years of her ailing husband's Administration. First Lady Wilson's guessed-at involvement triggered the ultimate political fear: That a President's unelected, domineering wife actually might be able to run the country.

"We are very ambivalent about it as a nation," said longtime Washington observer Abigail McCarthy, ex-wife of former Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D-Minn)., and author of a book in progress about the "two-person career" that flourishes in this city. "We're ambivalent about how much we want it acknowledged that wives have this much impact."

But Seattle attorney and broadcasting executive Stimson Bullitt, author of "To Be a Politician" (Yale University Press), takes a far stronger view. "What is harmful or pernicious," Bullitt said, "is where the commands are being given by somebody who wasn't elected." Blasting the recent involvement of Mrs. Reagan in the ouster of Regan as "wholly wrong," Bullitt may have expressed a common discomfort when he called the actions of such behind-the-scenes advisers "destructive to the democratic process."

Such comments sting Mrs. Reagan, who is "frustrated at being portrayed as the heavy," according to press secretary Elaine Crispen. Often accused of meddling, frequently branded as power-grabbers, First Ladies have been distressed by criticism throughout history. But the specter of such disapproval seems of scant consequence to the newer political spouses, most married to people who have been elected within the past six years, who are unashamedly pronouncing themselves equal partners in the political career.

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