Candidates' Spouses Reflect Parties' Views of Women

Tipper Gore promises to be an activist and adviser. The reticent Laura Bush would be strictly a wife. Regardless of the election results, the next first spouse is likely to find the task of being the nation's chief volunteer a profound challenge.

Tipper Gore

Both Tipper Gore and Laura Bush married their high school sweethearts. Both quit their jobs to care for their children and support their husbands' political careers. And both have been enlisted this year to tout their spouses' family-man credentials as they run for the White House.

As prospective First Ladies (to use a term that many believe should be passé), Laura Bush and Tipper Gore have also both signaled they would not emulate the current White House occupant, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has drawn both accolades and attacks for her powerful and controversial role.

But they are very different women in terms of style and substance, representing contrasting role models that appeal to diverse constituencies. One is retiring and traditional, the other outspoken and activist.

Laura Bush, a former teacher and librarian, has taken up the causes of literacy and breast cancer awareness, but she works behind the scenes on agency boards, avoids making speeches and keeps her personal life off limits. She avoids talking about reproductive choice, deferring to her husband's position.

Tipper Gore, a former news photographer, takes to the streets at night in blue jeans to feed the homeless, she plays the drums and she Roller-Blades. She speaks out about the problems of the mentally ill and the destitute, endorses gay and lesbian rights and champions pay equity and advancement for women. Although she would prefer to work quietly, she is a natural campaigner and openly supports choice, as does her husband.

Tipper drew the ire of civil libertarians in the 1980s, when she lobbied for warning labels for sexually explicit and violent song lyrics, a campaign that has since caught fire among mainstream politicians.

And perhaps one of the best indications of the different roles they would play at the White House is how their husbands present them from the stump.

One of George W. Bush's favorite laugh lines recalls how his wife only agreed to marry him 22 years ago “so long as she didn't have to give any speeches.”

“I'm sure glad she didn't hold me to that!” says Bush.

Laura BushThe Texas governor did prevail on his spouse to deliver the kick-off address for the Republican convention in Philadelphia, but the lengths to which his campaign went to underscore her reluctance may speak volumes about what model of First Lady she would follow.

In the run-up to the big event, the Bush camp made much of her nervousness, detailing her sleepless night on the eve of her national debut and underscoring her general distaste for politicking. Laura Bush's homey address acknowledged her supportive family at length and stressed the importance of being a good wife and mother to her twin 18-year-old daughters.

She spoke about her decade as a schoolteacher, highlighting her husband's chief campaign issue-improving education-and she delivered some light jabs at President Clinton's moral lapses.

Later in a special tribute hosted by the National Federation of Republican Women, Laura's mother, Jenna Welch, and her popular mother-in-law, former First Lady Barbara Bush, sang her praises in a campaign video. Laura was always well-mannered and never rambunctious, according to Welch, who said her daughter's “quiet manner” always appealed and never “intimidated.”

And while candidate Bush takes pains to demonstrate his affectionate marriage and his reverence for his wife, Laura Bush makes it clear she will know her place in the White House.

“We talk about issues, of course. We talk about personalities. But I'm his wife, and I really don't see my role as his adviser,” Laura Bush said last week.

Al Gore also highlights his solid marriage when he introduces his wife and the mother of his four children on the campaign trail.

“Someone I've loved with my whole heart since the night of my high school prom, my wife Tipper,” Gore said as he accepted the Democratic nomination at the convention in Los Angeles.

Then Gore, who struggles with his “wooden” image, planted a long kiss on Tipper's lips.

For all the efforts to show Tipper as loving wife and mother, the Gore camp apparently has no qualms about activist first ladies. “Mrs. Gore is his top adviser. On any major decision he's going to consult her,” spokesman Chris Lehane said.

Tipper has also been very open about her battle with clinical depression after her then six-year-old son, Albert Gore III, almost died in a 1989 car accident. In her convention speech, she urged other sufferers to seek treatment as she did, saying, “I got help and it worked.”

Tipper still carries her camera on every campaign trip and has toured the nation with her photographic exhibit entitled, “Homeless in America: A Photographic Project.”

Her daughter Kristen told conventioneers about how across from the White House her mother found a homeless woman who refused to leave because she thought she was the president's wife. Tipper took the woman over to the gate and told the guard to tell the president his wife would be away for a while and persuaded her to seek help.

“I'm inspired by my mother's courage,” Kristen said.

Tipper Gore happily speaks out on gender equality, protections for gays and abortion rights and that, combined with her crusade against obscene rock lyrics, has made her uncommonly visible.

“That's as much of a public splash prior to becoming a first lady that we've ever seen,” says political historian Allan Lichtman. “She was a national figure in her own regard on a controversial issue and that's highly unusual. Even Hillary didn't have that kind of a profile.”

The American University professor said the contrasting styles of the two prospective first ladies fit with their parties' traditional views of the president's spouse gender role.

“In terms of influence there isn't necessarily a distinction between the parties. In terms of willingness to be more activist, political and controversial, certainly the Democrats have taken the lead and certainly the Republicans have made clear that's not the kind of first lady Laura Bush is going to be,” Lichtman said.

But Karlyn Bowman, of the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank, disagreed. Polls showed many Americans objected to the “two-for-the-price-of-one” offer the Clintons presented, Bowman said. She doubts that either Tipper Gore or Laura Bush would present themselves as policy equals to their husbands.

Gretchen Cook covers the White House for the international news agency Agence France-Presse.