Republican pillars of support

GOP candidates' wives focusing on presidential campaigns, not careers

By Mary Leonard, Globe Staff, 12/26/1999

Second of two articles on the wives of the presidential contenders. Today: the Republicans.

AMHERST, N.H. - Nobody in this quiet New England town square could ignore Steve Forbes when he dropped by one recent day. He bounded off a big, blue bus with ''Stars and Stripes Forever'' blaring, burst into the village market with a media gaggle, and baffled a couple of customers who weren't expecting a presidential candidate in the produce aisle.

Except for the one shopper who stopped to make small talk, the townsfolk might not have noticed that Forbes's wife, Sabina, was in tow. She was the unassuming woman waiting outside, the silver-haired one wearing sensible shoes and a slightly pained expression that pleaded for permission to reboard the bus.

''Campaigning isn't tough - it's really a wonderful thing to do,'' Sabina Forbes said unconvincingly in her low, gravelly voice. ''Last time, I was scared to come out. You know, I'd only ever been a mom.''

Wife, mother, homemaker, helpmate: Examine the field of spouses behind the GOP presidential candidates this season and you won't find a single career woman like Elizabeth Dole or a Hillary Rodham Clinton powerhouse. ''Supportive wife'' may sound retro to some, but Laura Bush, Cindy McCain, Carol Bauer, and Sabina Forbes are making it a mantra in their husbands' campaigns.

Steve Forbes, who could hardly pry the notoriously private Sabina (pronounced Sa-BYE-na) off their 500-acre New Jersey estate in 1996, is pitching family values this time and has coaxed his wife, the mother of five girls, onto the bus. George W. Bush, John McCain, and Gary Bauer also are drawing their reluctant mates into the spotlight - not in the old-fashioned form of silent, stand-beside-me props, but as spokeswomen for strong families, partners in healthy marriages, and character witnesses to model husbands and fathers.

Laura Bush, 53, a self-described introvert who quit her job as a librarian when she married, has become a secret weapon in the Texas governor's campaign. In solo appearances at schools, businesses, house parties, and women's clubs in early primary states, Mrs. Bush is quietly affirming her husband's faithfulness (they have been married 22 years), fathering skills (they have 17-year-old twin daughters), and discipline and depth (she said he reads in bed, every night).

''I consider myself blessed to be George's partner in life,'' a poised Laura Bush told an adoring group of GOP women in Nashua recently. ''Marrying him was probably the smartest political move I ever made.''

Aides to the Arizona senator call his wife, Cindy McCain, a star. Exquisitely turned out and as candid and chatty as her husband, Mrs. McCain, 45, has managed to overcome her allergy to Washington politics and to calm her separation anxiety (it helps to send video e-mails home to her four school- age children, she said), and now she is a fixture in the campaign.

In an hourlong interview, Cindy McCain talked about McCain's alleged violent temper (''I have never seen it. ... My husband is a gentleman''); his prisoner-of-war experience in North Vietnam (''This man has truly been tested''); and his reaction to her three-year addiction to prescription painkillers, which she kept secret from McCain until 1993, when she was one year into recovery (''I didn't want to fail him ... but he was and is my best support.'')

''I have never met anybody as unique and inspiring as John is,'' Cindy McCain said. ''People will say, well, she is his wife, she's supposed to say that. But the truth of it is that particularly when I was having my problems, I could look to him and the way he could relate to strife. With my husband, what you see is what you get, and that is wonderful.''

Gary Bauer, the former head of the conservative Family Research Council, turned to his wife earlier this fall to vouch for his marital fidelity and help end a whispering campaign alleging he was having an affair with a female staffer.

''I had absolutely no question in my mind as to what the truth was,'' said Carol Bauer, adding that her husband did the right thing in addressing the false rumors, though it was hard for her and their three children to go before the cameras.

''If you are Mr. Family Values, you cannot allow criticism of your lifestyle.''

Having spouses provide the character sketch makes sense as the nation, post-Clinton, takes extra care in deciding what kind of man it wants in the White House. Celebrating traditional family values, as the wives do, also is an important way for GOP candidates to woo conservative voters, who are particularly influential in the presidential primaries.

Thomas D. Rath, a Bush adviser in New Hampshire, sees the spouses playing a very significant role in the now-hot primary contest. First, he said, they are the most sought-after surrogates for the candidates. Second, they are uniquely able to settle, support, and focus their husbands in the rough-and-tumble of the race. Third, they are best qualified to create a comfort zone for voters about the character of the men they will choose among.

''Spouses, better than anyone else, can assure people they can wake up the day after the election and be totally comfortable with the choice they made,'' Rath said.

Both Sabina Forbes and Laura Bush appear in their husband's television commercials. Cindy McCain narrates one of the senator's radio ads.

The only wives missing from the GOP action are Elaine Hatch, Utah Senator Orrin Hatch's wife of 42 years and the mother of six children, and Jocelyn Marcel Keyes, the wife of talk show host and former ambassador Alan Keyes, who directs a Catholic soup kitchen when she isn't home with the couple's three children.

According to Mary Lewis, Alan Keyes's chief of staff, Jocelyn Keyes is ''extra supportive, but she is also very private.'' Like her husband, she also is an antiabortion activist.

These would-be first ladies present a stark contrast to Hillary Rodham Clinton, the lawyer and key policy adviser who won no popularity contests until the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal showed her as a stand-by-her-man wife. Indeed, they seem to have more in common with former first lady Barbara Bush - the mother-in-law Laura emulates - than with Elizabeth Dole, who said in 1996 that if Republican Bob Dole won the White House, she intended to keep working at the American Red Cross.

''I was very disturbed by that sneering comment - it was insulting that Mrs. Dole felt the great and powerful job of being a first lady, or of being a supportive wife, wasn't as valuable as working at the Red Cross,'' said Danielle Crittenden, author of ''What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us.''

''And whether you are a Democrat or Republican, you have to be sick of this Lady Macbeth character we now have in the White House, and look forward to having a first lady who will be happy in the traditional role and secure in a good marriage,'' Crittenden added.

In general, the GOP wives are avoiding substantive issues and say they are giving their candidate-husbands no policy advice.

Sabina Forbes describes her campaign function as ''being there and listening to Steve.'' Cindy McCain says she is ''not involved in policymaking or anything like that,'' though she is ''the keeper of the man'' - making sure he eats right, gets enough sleep, and stands up straight. She recently sent him clean shirts by Federal Express.

''I give my husband some counsel, but I actually think counsel or advice from a spouse ends up being nagging, or sounding like that,'' Laura Bush said. ''So I am very careful about actually telling George anything. I know I wouldn't want him telling me to do a lot of things or to be some way. I know he really doesn't want me to tell him, either.''

Laura was advised by Barbara Bush never to criticize her husband's speeches. The one time years ago that she did, Laura recalled with a hearty laugh, her flustered spouse plowed the car into the garage wall. But the senior Bushes have credited their daughter-in-law with domesticating their fun-loving son, and Bush himself says Laura was the reason he gave up alcohol when he turned 40.

''He might think I was the key to his stopping, but I don't think really I was,'' Mrs. Bush said. ''He was already very disciplined. I didn't nag him, but I did say of course that he was drinking too much, or that he ought to quit drinking.''

Laura Bush, a former second-grade teacher, has been a strong advocate in Texas for early childhood education and - like her mother-in-law - family literacy. Those interests, she says, would follow her to the White House.

Sabina Forbes says that to the extent she has even thought about being first lady, her agenda would be children. Cindy McCain, who brought a Bangladeshi baby home from Mother Teresa's orphanage in 1991 and kept her, said she wants to promote adoption.

But she doesn't think a first lady belongs in the bully pulpit. ''That's not for me,'' said Mrs. McCain, who comes from a wealthy Phoenix family and has been involved in its charitable foundation. ''I would take my role as kind of the hostess - that is probably a light word, but I will use it - very seriously because it is an important aspect and large part of the job. If that's traditional, I am traditional.''

Carol Bauer, 51, who is working as a part-time fund-raiser and surrogate speaker for her husband, says traditional is good - so good that she would use the offices of the White House to promote a better understanding of women's roles in society and elevate the status of full-time homemakers.

''The woman who chooses, for a season of her life, to take time off, be home to advise and counsel her children, be part of the PTA, the Cub Scouts, the Sunday school, shouldn't be looked down upon,'' said Mrs. Bauer, who in 1994 was named the conservative Eagle Forum's Full-time Homemaker of the Year. She once worked for the Republican National Committee (where she met her husband in 1972) and for then-Representative Margaret Heckler of Massachusetts but quit her job when her third child was born.

Laura Bush says she doesn't know exactly what it means to be a traditional wife, but she ''had the luxury, financially, to stay home and raise my children after I married.'' The daughter of a Midland, Texas, homebuilder, Laura Welch went to junior high school with her future husband but didn't fall in love with him until both were 31, when friends reintroduced them at a dinner party. They wed three months later.

''We were late bloomers,'' said Mrs. Bush, noting she was attracted to George W. because he was talkative, which she was not. ''Our personalities complemented each other. We're actually very alike in a lot of ways. And we both wanted the same thing - we wanted to get married, and we wanted to have children.''

Like George W. Bush, Steve Forbes has twin daughters, and the picture of those men changing diapers, doing midnight feedings, and rocking fussy babies to sleep is still vivid in their wives' memories. ''Steve has always been a very involved father,'' said Sabina Forbes, 51, describing how her workaholic husband of 28 years made time for softball, board games, and biking. ''No matter how tired he was, Steve read bedtime stories to Elizabeth every night'' when the 12-year-old was on the campaign bus touring Iowa last summer.

Mrs. Forbes laments that she isn't home all the time now to fix her daughters' supper or, since she has no staff, to straighten the house. Steve and Sabina met at a society party in New York where, she confirms, Forbes offered her a cigar, which she promptly lit and smoked (not so unusual, she noted, for a girl raised in Europe). What attracted her to Forbes? ''His wit. His smile,'' Mrs. Forbes blushed.

McCain was separated from his first wife and had three children when he met Cindy Hensley, a special-education teacher, at a party in Hawaii. Her first impression was he was ''cute.'' His first impression was she was young. Neither knew the other had lied about their age that night until they got their marriage license in 1980. She was actually 24, he was 41.

After McCain was elected to Congress in 1982, he commuted every week to Washington and his wife stayed in Phoenix to raise their children, be near her aging parents, and run the home. Two back surgeries put her on painkillers; she became addicted and fed the habit by stealing drugs from an international medical-relief group funded by her family. She concealed it all from her husband, partly because she was embarrassed, partly because he was embroiled in the Keating Five investigation and she didn't want to tell him, ''here's another mess.''

''You make mistakes and you move on,'' said Cindy McCain, who says her recovery has made her a better person and a more watchful parent. And she says she has no regrets about choosing a life that sometimes put her husband's career ahead of her needs. ''I'm happy where I am with John,'' she said.

Linda Fowler, a professor of government and director of the Nelson Rockefeller Center at Dartmouth College, says the GOP candidates could create a gender gap if they appear to exalt the privileged, stay-at-home wife. ''To the extent they satisfy the Christian right view of womanhood, they risk looking out of touch to women voters, because the majority of them are working.''

But Laura Bush says women understand it's all about being at peace with your choices. Hers - schoolteacher, librarian, full-time wife, and mother - happen to have been traditional.

''At one point I fussed at my parents, and said to my dad, `Gosh, you all just programmed me to be a teacher. You should have programmed me to be a lawyer,''' Mrs. Bush recalled. ''My dad said, `I'll send you to law school - that would be great!' Then I had to admit I didn't want to go to law school. I was happy with what I was.''