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Can a Bachelor Be Elected President? : Politics: Not since Grover Cleveland has an unmarried man made it to the White House. Enter Democrats Brown, Kerrey and Wilder . . .

October 04, 1991|GERALDINE BAUM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Shortly after James Buchanan, a courtly bachelor, moved into the White House in 1857, hiscritics began wondering if the treachery in his Administration was caused by his unmarried state.

"Cain was a bachelor, and so was Judas Iscariot!" one newspaper warned.

Buchanan left office as one of the least popular Presidents in American history, and the "experiment to elect a bachelor" was deemed a failure, with the newspaper noting: "For being freed from the cares of domestic life . . . (a bachelor) would be more likely to become dissatisfied with himself and be prone to mischief. . . ."

However, the "experiment" did not end with Buchanan. Next year, Democrats, and possibly all voters, will be asked--to an extent they've never been before--to toy with the notion of putting an unmarried man in the White House. This comes at time when the media are digging through candidates' private lives like never before.

This week Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey became the third unmarried Democrat to show serious interest in the 1992 race for President--and, as everybody knows, with three there's a trend.

Kerrey, 48 and divorced, declared his candidacy Monday with his two teen-age children flanking him and his former wife on stage.

Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, 60 and also divorced, had his three children by his side when he declared last month, although his former wife was not present.

And then there is never-married former California Gov. Edmund G. Brown, 53, who has not formally declared but who is positioning himself for a presidential run.

In Washington, pundits and pollsters of both parties are predicting that being unmarried will not automatically make these men unelectable. And some experts suspect divorced candidates may discover wells of sympathy from voters with similar family situations.

After all, this is a country where half of all marriages end in divorce, where the baby-boom generation is coming to terms with family life after remarriage, stepchildren and single parenthood, and where an intact nuclear family can seem downright old-fashioned.

If there are general caveats about these single candidates, they are reserved for people like Brown, who has never been married although his liaison with singer Linda Ronstadt was well-publicized. With concern for the next generation a primary political metaphor these days, people who have no experience with marriage or the strains of balancing work and children may come under attack.

"At least Kerrey and Wilder have known family life and are involved with their children," says Jeff Garin, a political consultant for Democratic candidates. But Garin quickly notes that even a never-married person may have a better shot at the White House than a married-and-philandering candidate who is subjected to embarrassing questions by the media, a la Gary Hart in the 1988 race. Hart, who is married, withdrew from the race after a Miami Herald reporter caught him in an apparent extramarital affair.

"If Gary Hart hadn't been married, everyone would have thought he was just another healthy American boy messing around," Garin says. "A single candidate has more leeway in his private life."

Republican consultant Eddie Mahe, was one of the few who expressed immediate concerns about a candidate without the traditional trappings of family life.

Much symbolism is still assigned to the presidency, Mahe explains. People like the warm, fuzzy image of President Bush in bed with his wife and gaggle of grandchildren; they like the big family scenes on the South Lawn for Easter egg hunts and the lighting of the Christmas tree.

And although a candidate's marital status may not be a pivotal issue in a general election, Mahe asserts that it could cost him.

"By definition, a divorced candidate was unable to sustain a family unit," says Mahe, "or if he was never married, then a family unit was not important to him.

"In either case, it would be marginally more difficult for a divorced man to get votes from a percentage of the 60 million people who go to church every Sunday and who still put a lot of stock in middle-class values. We may not be living the American dream family, but we still yearn for it."

Mahe says a perennial bachelor who has no known relationships with women also might face questions about whether he is gay, which Mahe argues is still "a problem for the overwhelming majority of the 50% of Americans who do vote.

But Charlie Black, a political adviser to Bush, doesn't agree with Mahe on this one: Just because Americans still believe in the idea of family doesn't mean a candidate has to have a picture-book version by his side. He notes that he has worked for several Southerners who have been elected to Congress after a couple of divorces.

When asked if an unmarried presidential candidate might someday show up on the Republican ticket, Black pauses for a minute and says, "Sure, why not?"

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