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The Evolving Roles Of Political Spouses


This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

On Sunday, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels announced that he would not run for president, writing: Our family constitution gives a veto to the women's caucus, and there is no override provision.

Daniels followed Haley Barbour, another Republican presidential dropout, who cited his wife's opposition as an important factor in his decision.

So the political spouse has already played a significant role in the 2012 presidential race. Whether you think political spouses should be important, there is undeniable public interest. So politicians and the consultants who run their campaigns make the family part of the campaign. And the media focuses with some describe as pitiless scrutiny.

It's important to note that one political spouse is currently in low orbit right now, the husband of Representative Gabby Giffords, Mark Kelly.

Has a candidate's spouse ever affected your vote either way? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, what do you do when you hear the tornado warning? But first, political spouses, and we begin with Connie Schultz, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and author of "And His Lovely Wife: A Memoir from the Woman Beside the Man." She's also the wife of Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown. She joins us from the studios of member station WCPN in Cleveland. And thanks very much for coming in today.

Ms. CONNIE SCHULTZ (Columnist, Cleveland Plain Dealer; Author, "And His Lovely Wife: A Memoir from the Woman Beside the Man"): Thanks for inviting me. I appreciate it.

CONAN: And I wonder: What did you think of Mitch Daniels' announcement?

Ms. SCHULTZ: I thought he was blaming his wife.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SCHULTZ: I thought he was also stating the obvious. This should always be a joint decision, and what you don't hear from, typically, are the candidate whose wives had made it very clear they're not for it, they're not going to campaign for them and for all we know are going to really complicate their lives if they run.

This was a little unusual that he was willing to just say basically it was her fault that he wasn't running.

CONAN: It was interesting to read, I think Tim Pawlenty's wife said that she only managed to do it by convincing herself he was going to lose.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SCHULTZ: Well, whatever it takes to get you there. I certainly wouldn't be an expert on how you make that decision. I know in my husband's case, he was criticized for not getting in the race sooner, in the fall of 2005.

And I was the reason that he didn't. And it took a lot of convincing for me. I had a number of fears. And he wouldn't say that afterwards. I mean, they were still going after him, and I said just tell that I was the reason. He said: I'm not going to blame my wife for my not getting in. So I ended up putting in my book so I could come clean.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, did any of those fears come true?

Ms. SCHULTZ: No, well, sure. Yes and no. One of my fears was - I didn't know what was - quite selfishly, I didn't know what was going to happen to my career. There hadn't been any precedent for a journalist staying in her career once she had married, you know, an elected official.

I married Sherrod when he was in the House of Representatives. So we had done that. But that's a lot lower-key than a Senate race.

I also was worried about the attack ads, just what it would do - we were a young marriage. You know, a lot of people don't know that. We were only married for about a year and a half. I had been a single mom for 11 years before I married Sherrod, and he'd been a single dad for 16.

So, you know, you don't get married in middle age unless you're crazy about each other. Otherwise, you're just nuts. And I really loved him a lot. But you know what finally did it for me was I would listen to Sherrod convincing other candidates, including Ted Strickland, who ended up running for governor that year, that this is their time, it was the time for them to step up, and I could hear it in his voice.

He would never put any pressure on me. And I thought: You know what? I am the only thing standing in the way of his race. And I decided that I needed to be a full-time wife to him all the time but really step up. And I took a leave of absence from my job.

And it was a gamble. It was a gamble.

CONAN: Was that in order to avoid ethical conflict-of-interest problems or to help him with the campaign?

Ms. SCHULTZ: It was really both, but primarily in the beginning, it was to avoid even the appearance of a conflict, because you know, Neal, you know how this business is. As soon as you even start worrying that you could give the appearance of it, you start reining yourself in.

And I write an opinion column twice a week, and I - you mentioned the Pulitzer, and I don't usually talk about this except that it was relevant in this context. It was only a few months after I'd won that he decided, you know, we decided he was going to run, and that is not your typical career move after you win the Pulitzer.

And I knew there would be attention...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SCHULTZ: So - and I'm a feminist. You know, and so a lot of women were blaming my husband right away. How could he do this to her? And he didn't ask me to do this. This was my decision. In fact, Sherrod did not - if I am critical of Sherrod at all, it's this: He had so much faith in me, he really didn't want to believe I was going to have to take a leave so soon.

But I could see the writing on the wall. My colleagues were uncomfortable. I was writing for the largest paper in the state. And so people who had gone to our wedding, people who had been friends for years were avoiding me because I was morphing into what, you know, not just a colleague anymore. I could potentially be a source. It was just uncomfortable for everyone, and so I left.

CONAN: And then, as you essentially joined the campaign, what was that experience like, not just with the candidate, suddenly your husband, but also there's a new group of people around the candidate?

Ms. SCHULTZ: Well, there certainly is a new group of people, and most of them were about half my age. And some of them thought they were going to tell me how to talk and - that was a very short period of time that they thought they were going to do that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I bet.

Ms. SCHULTZ: Real short. And for the most part, I loved all the young people working on the campaign. And I, you know, I came to appreciate the consultants to an extent, certainly the team we had.

But, you know, people are full of opinions in campaigns, and there is a traditional motif for them that doesn't really fit most women I know who are married or - you know, married to candidates, even.

So it was hard because I went - but I must say this. I want to qualify right now. My editor, Kate Medina at Random House has a model for my life that she - when she chastised me during the editing of this book, she said: Connie, no whining on the yacht. I have a great life.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SCHULTZ: And I don't want this to be oh, the poor little spouses, because we get to do a lot of great things, and I have a great life.

CONAN: Yeah, the champagne's a little flat today.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SCHULTZ: Oh, how do you say it in English? Yeah, so no. I'm not going to be sitting here whining about it.

CONAN: We're talking with Connie Schultz, a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Have you ever changed your vote because of a political spouse? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Kathy's(ph) on the line, Kathy calling us from San Antonio.

KATHY (Caller): Yes, hello.

CONAN: Hi, Kathy.

KATHY: When I voted for the first George Bush, I was definitely voting for Barbara.

CONAN: Voting for Barbara?

KATHY: Yes, I was definitely voting for Barbara.

CONAN: And did she get your vote twice?

KATHY: Pardon? Why? Because she was a very strong mother figure, successfully raised some strong-willed children. She was a size 16. She didn't wear a lot of fancy jewelry, and she didn't take a lot of guff off of people. You know, I mean, she was like me.

CONAN: I was asking, though, before: Did she get your vote twice?

KATHY: Twice? Yeah.

CONAN: First election...

KATHY: When I voted for her son, too.

CONAN: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Kathy, that's about as good an endorsement as anybody can get.

KATHY: Okay, well, thank you.

CONAN: Thank you very much. And that's a fun call, but do you think it's in any way meaningful to read something into a candidate because of his or her spouse?

Ms. SCHULTZ: Are you asking me that?

CONAN: I'm asking you that.

Ms. SCHULTZ: Yeah, I just don't believe that most voters care. I know consultants say it, and I keep saying - I keep putting this out there, especially in the last three weeks: All right, so consultants, give me your data. Give me your proof that it actually matters in the long run what the wives are or are not saying.

I've said this publicly many times. I wrote it for the New York Times a couple weeks ago. We're typically viewed as props or problems. And I don't think either stereotype really fits. And I just can't imagine many voters caring what's on the minds of the women.

You know, I think if there's misbehavior on the part of the candidate in his marriage, that could draw attention, and then the focus - you know, then they have a lot of questions about the wife. But I still don't think it affects votes much.

CONAN: And then you think of Hillary Clinton's "60 Minutes" interview, where a lot of people said she helped her husband a lot in that campaign.

Ms. SCHULTZ: Well, and she did. I mean - so there you go. What do I know? Except we all know the name Hillary Clinton, and we all know that example because it is, I think, so singular in its effect.

I mean, there are certainly occasions where wives have stepped up. I do think it's typically they're stepping up to help their husband when their husbands are in trouble.

And if infidelity is the issue, certainly at that point, especially wives or women, I would say, women want to know what she's thinking and why she's still in this and, you know, not just this marriage but in this race with him. Why is she willing to do this. And I think that's a valid question at that point.

CONAN: And again, you think of Maria Shriver in the election, recall election, when there were rumors of groping incidents of the then-candidate, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Ms. SCHULTZ: I'm still - I guess I'm not with the groupthink on that one. I'm not sure she rescued his candidacy entirely. I do think she certainly helped, and I know she helped me.

When I went back to the Plain Dealer, she called me the first day of work. I had met her so briefly, I had given her no reason to remember me, but, you know, Romenesko was - they had that I was coming back. The Romenesko site, for your listeners who don't know, is a journalism blog that we all go to all the time, basically a gossip blog.

And the Plain Dealer ran a story about me the day I went back, saying: We know she's married to a senator, but she's coming back, and we trust her instincts.

And Maria Shriver called me at my desk and said: Please don't leave your job. Don't leave your career. And we talked for a while. And I could see how much - I could hear it in her voice how much she missed reporting, how much she missed the business, and I just decided then and there.

I didn't know how this was going to go. I had a few - it was virtually all men speculating in our profession that I couldn't keep doing this job, and I decided that I was going to decide that for myself, that they weren't the voice of authority on my life.

CONAN: Well, joining us from NPR's bureau in New York is Irin Carmon, a staff writer at Jezebel who has written about the role of political spouses. Thanks very much for being with us today.

Ms. IRIN CARMON (Staff Writer, Jezebel): Thanks for having me, Neal.

CONAN: And does anybody really care?

Ms. CARMON: About political spouses? I mean, it seems to me that it becomes not just humanizing the candidate but also sort of looking for authenticity in the candidate, that the spouse becomes a place in which you can try to figure something out interesting about these very canned, very packaged spouses, very, very...

CONAN: About that difficult issue character.

Ms. CARMON: Right, right, and I mean to say very canned candidates. But it's a moment in which you can sort of find out more about their home life. And whether that matters in a political sense or not, it sort of draws people in who may have trouble parsing the issues, especially at the outset.

CONAN: And is more important for somebody who's had a checkered past or somebody who may be a little stiff in public, who may not be as fluent as other people?

Ms. CARMON: Sure. I mean, I think even without a checkered past, even without - being fluid, it's possible that the candidate can sort of -that the candidate's wife or in rare cases husband can provide a counterpoint.

You know, Michelle Obama can talk about Barack Obama as a - in the beginning of the campaign, she would talk about him as someone who would leave the butter out and had smelly socks and all of these things. So, you know, at the time, he was being criticized for being formal, and people couldn't relate to him. She was sort of bringing him down to earth.

CONAN: We're talking about the role of political spouses. Has a candidate's spouse ever affected your vote? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

A recent article in Newsweek described the conflicting roles of today's political spouses - wives, in particular. They must be seen as both fully supportive and independent, but not too independent. And, the article continues, parts of the role remain as they ever were.

A political spouse should be poised and gracious, able to smile benignly for 16 hours straight while wearing pumps and pantyhose in 100-degree heat. She should make frequent mention of how much she cherishes her role as a wife and mother, and she should strive to look the part: pretty is a plus. Sexy is a no-no. Packaging is key.

We've put a link to that article on our website: npr.org. Has a candidate's spouse ever affected your vote? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are Connie Schultz, a columnist with the Cleveland Plain Dealer and author of "And His Lovely Wife: A Memoir from the Woman Beside the Man" - she's married with Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown - and Irin Carmon, who writes about the role of political spouses from time to time for Jezebel.com.

Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. And why don't we go to Cleveland? And Cleveland - and Shana's(ph) on the line.

SHANA (Caller): Hi. Thank you so much for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure. Go ahead, please.

SHANA: I'm a 30-something African-American female, and my decision to vote for Barack Obama was based largely, almost solely on Michelle Obama. I absolutely love her, and if - I felt much better about my vote with Michelle Obama. I think she's awesome.

CONAN: And that made the decisive factor for you in - may I ask, was that in the Democratic primary, or in the general?

SHANA: It was general. In the primaries, I did vote for Hillary Clinton. But in the general, I voted for Barack, and it was - it just made me feel better. I was going back and forth of who would I vote for. I'm an independent liberal. I honesty couldn't bring myself to vote for a Republican. I didn't agree with the Republican candidate.

But to this day, every time I see Michelle, I just feel so much better about my decision, and she has made a huge difference in, I feel, his candidacy and his overall time in office.

CONAN: And the role of a first lady is - well, she gets to do a lot of things, but there's a lot of things she does not get to do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SCHULTZ: That's right.

Connie Schultz, I'm sure you've taken a look at that.

Ms. SCHULTZ: Well, and I've spent some time with Michelle Obama on the -when she was campaigning for her husband, and I was so impressed with how smart she is. And she really is who she presents herself to the public. I think that passage you read from Newsweek, to me, is just laughable.

You know, I was out in public, by the way. I drove here. I'm going to go grocery shopping afterwards, and I'm wearing cargo pants and Tom sneakers. And I've got glasses on and not my contacts, and I'm not worried at all that I won't fit that perfect image.

CONAN: Yet you are the wife of a United States senator. You said the scrutiny was a lot less when he was in Congress. Would you not accept that it becomes thermonuclear if he's running for president?

Ms. SCHULTZ: It does. But I think when you watch how Michelle Obama conducted herself, you can see that you can be very much yourself and really be a wonderful spokesman for your husband.

And the first time I saw her as a mother backstage, the first words out of her mouth was to one of her daughters, when she said: Why am I carrying your backpack?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SCHULTZ: I thought: OK. That is a mother I can identify with. And I think, you know, you tell that story, and anybody who's listening who wouldn't be surprised, I suspect, because that's how she comes off onstage, as well: a good mom, a strong mom. She loves her husband.

And there is more scrutiny, but I think we've got to quit buying into this myth of perfection. Nobody's expecting it, and it doesn't close the distance with voters. That's the other thing. I mean, there's a reason that so many feel so strongly about Michelle Obama. Her ratings continue to be higher than the president's.

And, you know, and a large part, this whole notion of humanizing the candidate to me is also pretty funny, because I'm married to a human, and he's not a freak of nature. And I know that some candidates can come off as very cardboard, but that too is a cliche.

Ms. CARMON: Well, just to sort of chime in about Michelle Obama and what her appeal was, I know that for a lot of members of my generation - I'm 27 - one thing that was very inspiring about the Obamas' marriage is how much it seemed to be the sort of model of an ideal partnership.

You know, Michelle Obama is a smart, educated, independent woman. Obviously, right now, Barack Obama's career is more important, or taking a front row.

But, I mean, you know, if I could sort of extrapolate from what the caller was saying, there's a real feeling that the Clintons' marriage was - is very complicated and very singular, but also something that we didn't feel like we really wanted to emulate, whereas - that Barack Obama would choose as his partner Michelle Obama, whatever the campaign made her go through or made her soft-pedal, that was very inspiring. And it said something about him as a person.

CONAN: Shana, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it. Let's see if we can go next to, well, another voter from - another caller from Ohio - probably a voter, too - Darby(ph).

DARBY (Caller): Yes.

CONAN: You're on the air, from Cincinnati. Go ahead, please.

DARBY: I have decided to vote for candidates, for male candidates based on whether I perceive their wife as being a strong, independent, opinionated woman, because it made me think that they, perhaps, did not have egos that would be so fragile that they needed to be stroked all the time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And might you give us an example?

DARBY: Well, my example, though, proves that my judgment is poor, because I voted for John Edwards because of Elizabeth.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DARBY: So I don't know whether it's - you know, clearly, I was wrong.

Ms. SCHULTZ: Well, Darby, strong women can be duped, also.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DARBY: So...

Ms. CARMON: That was really a problem of John, and not so much a problem of Elizabeth.

DARBY: Right. And so I was right about Elizabeth, I think, but I was wrong about that - his choice of her as the wife being a reflection of him. He clearly went wrong somewhere along the way.

CONAN: And just...

Ms. CARMON: And...

CONAN: Oh, I'm sorry. Go ahead.

Ms. CARMON: Oh, I was just going to say with regards to Elizabeth, I mean, I know a lot of people felt the way that you did, you know, admired her independence and her smarts and her health care policy chops.

But she also, you know, she also got a lot of flack. There was an entire that just portrayed her as this controlling, you know, harridan who was constantly getting involved in campaign things. So it can - so that can be a double-edged sword.

CONAN: And Connie Schultz, that book has been cited, in fact, as a part of the decision-making process in at least a couple of political spouses' lives.

Ms. SCHULTZ: Are you talking about "Game Change"?

Ms. CARMON: "Game Change," yeah.

Ms. SCHULTZ: Yeah, I thought - I've written about "Game Change." I really objected to some of the characterizations of Elizabeth that were based on anonymous sources who sound to me to be disgruntled campaign workers no longer working for them. And there's no one easier to find and quote than somebody who's guaranteed anonymity who has an axe to grind.

And I've said this before, that I don't know what it's like to be a woman who has terminal cancer and has found out that her husband has fathered a child with another woman. But I do know this, that life will bring you to your knees. And I will never sit in judgment by how she responded.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Maryann(ph) in Phoenix: I could not vote for John Edwards when I realized Elizabeth was critically ill. I thought there was something wrong with his character for going forward with his presidential ambitions. Boy, was I right.

So maybe at different points in that political - former political career. Darby, thanks very much for the call.

Let's go next to Riley(ph), Riley with us from St. Paul.

RILEY (Caller): Yes, hello. Thanks, Neal. What I would say is I had a problem voting for Hillary in the primary simply because I wanted some change, and that's not because of the slogan. But mainly I didn't want to Bush, Clinton, Bush, Clinton again. And then I'll take my answer off the air.

CONAN: Well, so you did not vote for Hillary because of her husband. I guess he's already gone off the air to - well, you know, there were some people who did not want a return to the Clinton administration and thought that the former president would be too much of an influence on his wife.

Ms. SCHULTZ: Mm-hmm. I think Hillary has set a lot - Hillary Clinton has set a lot of firsts for women, and that was one of them, that candidacy that almost prevailed. And I suspect the second woman who becomes the viable, you know, a viable candidate for president will not be the spouse of a former White House president, you know, president in the White House.

CONAN: Here's an email from Marie(ph) in Indiana: After learning that Governor Daniels' wife remarried and moved to California, leaving her four daughters in Indiana, I knew I would never vote for him for president. It is inconceivable to me that a mother could ever leave her children for any reason. I would not want her to be the first lady. I realize we all make mistakes, me included, but this is one mistake I cannot comprehend.

And I think, Connie Schultz, it's fair to say that the attention that that incident was going to draw was one of the factors in her decision.

Ms. SCHULTZ: Well, we can be very harsh on other wives, especially those of us who are wives and mothers. And Irin, actually, I'd like you to speak to that, because you wrote about that, didn't you? Or somebody...

Ms. CARMON: I did, yes.

Ms. SCHULTZ: Would you please - you gave the back-story of that, and I wish you'd - I really would like you to provide that for the listeners.

Ms. CARMON: Well, one of the things specifically about their divorce back and forth is that when reporters actually looked at the file, they saw that it was not quite so simple as she left three years ago - or she left for three years, and she left her daughters while she was in California with another man.

She was actually fighting for custody, and it sounded like it was a very difficult back-and-forth between her and her husband.

One of the things that I was very struck by was that his - Daniels' decision not to enter the race, you could say he was blaming his wife. That's certainly how many people read it. There's also this sort of dynamic where he said: My family life is more important to me.

And even though, you know, many of our readers are not that sympathetic to his politics, they were very sympathetic to that. They contrasted it with Sarah Palin, who dragged her very complicated family onto the national stage, you know, whereas you can imagine that if those things are about to become an issue, you're sort of weighing all of these things and one of them is how much do we want to answer for this. Obviously, Daniels - Mitch Daniels forgave Cheri. Obviously, marriage and divorce are deeply, deeply complicated. But the idea that this was already going to become a history of she's a bad mother, she's a bad wife, it becomes the stage through which we are worried or concerned about all of the roles in which women are being the right kind of wife or the right kind of mother, if we're looking to the first lady is to kind of fix all of the problems that we have with the changing roles of women.

Ms. SCHULTZ: That's a great point that you just made. And I - and as a mother myself - we have three daughters and son and a daughter-in-law -I can only imagine what Cheri Daniels was thinking about in terms of her family and what this was going to put them through. And, you know, you do think of that.

We make no excuses for the coverage of the spouse and the candidate, I think they are fair game - but families are very different. And especially once theyre grown, we really want our children to have their own lives. And if they don't want to be involved in this, they shouldn't have to be. And I can see becoming very protective of your children, particularly because this got to be a difficult history for everyone.

CONAN: Well, Connie Schultz, let me ask you. And obviously if you think back to Elizabeth Edwards and Hillary Clinton and any number of other political spouses are articulate and able to stand up for your own -yourselves perfectly well - Cindy McCain after that election, look, I was just very painfully shy person. I was just not ready for all the speaking and being looked at.

Ms. SCHULTZ: Well, that really puzzled me because she said if someone had asked, she would have told them. And I tried like crazy for months to get an interview with her, because I was going to do both wives. And certainly I had a track record of advocating for wives. I'm nonpartisan when it comes to unless you want to say I'm bias on behalf of wives. I really understand how nuanced marriage can be. I couldn't make any headway whatsoever with that campaign. I don't know if she ever even knew that I was requesting it, which says, to me speaks volume about that campaign if she didn't know about it.

CONAN: Because she may have been protected from that request.

Ms. SCHULTZ: Protected or they simply didn't trust her to be able to do the interview. I'm not sure how that went. I know that if I were a wife and I found out that that had happened, I'd be pretty upset.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Here's an email. We mentioned that call earlier. I voted for Bill because of Hillary, according to Newton in Laura - or Laura in Newton. My mother was furious. She asked me, how could you vote for that woman's husband? I underscored the differences between us. My mother disapproved of feminists, and I am one. I loved Hillary because she was smart, educated, dedicated, independent. She was more like the woman I wanted to be than any first lady before her.

We're talking about political spouses with Connie Schultz, a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and wife of Ohio senator Sherrod Brown. Irin Carmen is - Carmon, excuse me - is also with us, a staff writer at Jezebel. You're listening TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's talk next with Mel, and Mel is with us from Moab in Utah.

MEL (Caller): Hi. Yeah. I wanted to add to - I voted for Bill Clinton when I was registered as a Democrat in part because he would choose to have such a strong, intelligent, well-spoken, obviously successful woman around him, that he didn't show any resentment towards. I think the kind of spouse that a person in the public eye chooses says a lot about who they might be able to work within the larger world and in the political realm.

Do they choose someone who agrees with everything they say? Do they -you know, are they looking for complements to their own ideas? Or are they do looking for - like Maria and Arnold - to be that familiar. She had a lot of varying - a lot of directly opposed viewpoints.

CONAN: I wonder, Irin Carmon, what you think of that.

Ms. CARMON: Well, I mean, look, you can argue about the Clintons' marriage till the cows come home. I think it's true that Hillary Clinton is obviously a brilliant and accomplished person. Things maybe didn't go quite as planned during the presidency - you know, with regards to expectations of their marriage. But one thing that I think is really interesting is that probably with the exception of the Clintons - that we in the United States right now, we have all sorts of models of marriage. We have all sorts of partnerships.

We have 26 percent of women making more than their husbands. And yet somehow when it comes to the political process, even though - and certainly the national political process - even though the Clintons -Bill Clinton tried and, you know, was sort of punished in the public eye for trying to change that and trying to make Hillary Clinton more involved in the process, we still have this very flattened idea of what a wife's role is. So you know, I have yet to see - I mean, when you look at the wives right now of the Republican presumptive candidates, you don't see a lot of reflecting the range of partnerships that you have in America.

CONAN: Do spouses make more of a difference in the Republican Party than they do in the Democratic Party?

MEL: Oh, yes.

CONAN: You think so, Mel. What about you, Connie Schultz?

Ms. SCHULTZ: Well, I couldn't speak to Republican voters. I think what I'm hearing here and what we're not saying - and Irin, I'm wondering if you'd agree with me on this - what we're really not saying is, we're wondering what women think of the spouses of political candidates, because I don't really think it's a discussion a lot of male voters are having across the country, with perhaps the exception of Hillary Clinton, once he was in office.

But I think what we're really - you know, I'm a feminist to my core and I love women. But I also know that some of our greatest struggles still in front of us is how we treat one another. And if you like a strong wife, I'm wondering if it's - you identify with a strong wife or it's the wife you hoped to be. And either way it works for you. But if you don't like strong women, then you are going to have a problem with a lot of the - I would increasingly the crop of wives who are going to be coming up.

MEL: May I comment?

CONAN: If you make it quick.

MEL: Yeah. I lived - I now live in Utah. And here, where I'm no longer -I've been registered both Republican and Democrat, I'm presently registered independent for presidential primaries. In Utah I think it's imperative to know what kind of spouse either sex politician has around them, because it tells you whether they are part of the old school of business here. I mean I'd love to find out who's - Mitt Romney is married, but who's he married to? I have not heard anything about him.

CONAN: You will. And I don't mean to cut you off, but I wanted to give Irin a chance to comment.

Ms. CARMON: Well, I think one of the reasons that we see what you're talking about, Connie, is because, you know, women also have a thirst to see themselves in public life, and we still have 16, 17 percent representation in the House of Representatives, in Congress. And that number has barely budged.

And so, you know - and as much as I'm interested in talking about the ways that we play out our gender politics with regards to the spouses' wives, you know, I'm also really interested in their policies. I'm interested in the fact that Mitch Daniels just signed a bill defunding Planned Parenthood, you know, that affects many low-income women who now can't get their care at Planned Parenthood.

So you know, I think it's an entry point, but I hope it's not the end, and that the further points have to do with more women running for office so that women can see themselves...

CONAN: Speaking of exit points, we are about to reach one. Irin Carmon...

Ms. CARMON: Thank you.

CONAN: ...and Connie Schultz, thank you both very much for your time today.

Stay with us. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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