Monday, 2 August 2010

The would-be Caesars' wives

[We try to offend only when we mean to here at The Dabbler so I should warn you that this post contains some bad language. It's at the end. There'll be something else along soon enough if you don't fancy it.]

I like reading American political history and I love reading about it through a decent political biography. What appeals is seeing how the individual personality, with its quirks and ticks, is exposed and transformed in such a vast and pressured arena. I'm currently enjoying Race of a Lifetime, an account by a couple of journalists of the 2010 presidential race. Whilst not a biography, it comprises roughly two-year sections from the lives of the rather motley group of contenders told in parallel.

American politics is played out on an imperial stage - and I'm not referring to the US's foreign involvements. The US itself has characteristics of empire: a diversity of cities, states and regions spread across a continent-sized landmass; it's a federation of different ethnicities, cultures, geographies, and economies. Any politician who seeks the American presidency has to come to terms with the lot of them, at least to some degree. He or she must play up to half-a-world's worth of particularities: Hollywood stars and Silicon Valley techies, Iowan farmers and Chicagoan retailers, Wall Street financiers and New Hampshire fishermen, Texan oilmen and Nevadan hoteliers, Boston brahmins and New Mexican ex-Mexicans. And these sprawling, multi-million dollar efforts are all relayed to the American public via the American media, by turns unwieldy, faddish, ignorant, lavish, punctilious, obsessive, dogged, lazy, sycophantic, malicious and frenzied.

It's epic and complicated. And an awful lot of political calculation - and luck and timing - is required to master such a vast theatre of action and ideas.

The fun comes when this outsize challenge is attempted by politicians whose continental-scale egos tell them the prize is within reach, but whose fate it is to see it move beyond their grasp - or, at least, it is for all but one of them. The book conveys very well the excitement of this situation, even if the language can be a bit exuberantly journalistic: it's billed as the story of 'the meat-grinder, flash-incinerator race to be the 44th President of the United States'. But don't let that put you off (perhaps it wouldn't anyway - you may enjoy your races recounted racily).

However, for me, the most striking thing about the book is the number of crazily dysfunctional marriages on display. Put it this way - Hilary and Bill's is the second-most harmonious (the Obamas' marriage comes out top, probably not coincidentally).

What's peculiar about these screwed-up partnerships is how profound mutual dependence is so often combined with a reckless level of abuse. In Rudy Giuliani's case, his wife 'called him constantly when he was travelling without her, no matter where he was or what he was doing...'
"Hello, dear," he said when she interrupted him while he was onstage addressing the annual meeting of the National Rifle Association. "I'm talking to the members of the NRA right now. Would you like to say hello?"
His staff concluded that he had no choice but to answer Judith's calls, because ignoring her risked dire consequences - more dire than wrecking some speech. To the NRA members, Rudy apologised, but added, "It's a lot better that way."

Even at long-distance the American political wife is more than a match for a hall full of gun-toting voters.

Another daunting spouse is Elizabeth Edwards, who, admittedly, had reason to feel aggrieved when the story of her husband's affair with a staffer appeared in the National Enquirer. In the course of his denial, John Edwards praised her as 'an extraordinary human being, warm, loving, beautiful, sexy and as good a person as I've ever known'. His staff went into 'damage-control mode, going into overdrive to dissuade the mainstream media from picking up the story.' And, 'Their efforts at constraining the fallout were remarkably successful.'

Edwards felt he owed 'the small coterie of aides who had corralled the story':
"It's John," he began in a voicemail to one of them. "I just wanted to call and thank you for everything you've done in the last few days. It hasn't been easy. I know that, and I want you to know how grateful I am for everything you've done. We'll get through this together. Don't worry, man"
The next voice mail in the staffer's queue was from Elizabeth, who vented her fury that the story had appeared in any form, suspicious that the very aides who had kept the matter from mushrooming had somehow enabled the affair.
"You're to have nothing more to do with this!" Elizabeth hissed. "Nothing more! You stay away from our family! You're poison! You're dead to us!"


I wonder, do American politicians tend to attract crazy wives or do they send them that way after a while? I'll leave you with John McCain (his wife, Cindy, is pictured below):
"FUCK YOU! FUCK, FUCK, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck!!!"
McCain let out a stream of sharp epithets, both middle fingers raised and extended barking in his wife's face. He was angry; she had interrupted him.


  1. Well, let's see, old Jack, K that is, who bonked anything that would stand still for 2 minutes then handed the poor unfortunate over to bruv, now she, Jackie that is, was made of sterner stuff, not much would budge La Bouvier, standing silently at the graveside thinking "you've gone down for your last time, Jack boy, and this one ain't smelling of no roses.
    Then there was Eleanor of course, she wasn't bothered either, finally converting from AC to DC.

    Surely the biggest barmpot has to be Clinton, waving at the clouds as she does and upstaging her daughter at the wedding after naming her after a football team, a stroke that used to be the prerogative of Hollywood movie queens.

  2. Yes that Clinton wedding business was pretty nauseating. Hillary, in particular, is an unsettling sort of person.

  3. By all accounts the Edwards marriage was pure American Gothic – like something out of Tennessee Williams or August, Osage County. It’s hard to decide who is the most unlikeable - Edwards, his terrifying wife (who at least had the excuse of serious illness), or Andrew Young, the aide who attempted to save his boss’s skin by claiming that the Edwards love child was in fact his own. Probably, the prize for all round loopiness goes to the mistress, Rielle Hunter – a woman who was apparently unable to choose a sandwich filling without first calling her psychic. According to David Runciman, reviewing Young’s book about the scandal:

    “In an earlier incarnation, when she had been called Lisa Druck, Hunter had briefly dated Jay McInerney, and is reputed to have inspired the character of the horrible, cocaine-addled sex-fiend Alison Poole, who appears in several of McInerney’s novels … When she was a teenager, her father, James Druck, was implicated in a notorious scam that involved killing horses in order to claim on the insurance; he ended his daughter’s promising equestrian career by paying someone to electrocute her prize pony. After that, she seems to have had, as they say, issues.”

    (From the March edition of the LRB: I’d link but I’m fairly sure it’s subscribers only.)

  4. It's all in the book I read, Jonathan - apart from the pony electrocution. Good lord. One of those situations where fiction can't compete.

  5. Widening the field a tad, the American wives become paragons of normality. Starting with Mrs Mao, murdering psychopath. Winnie Mandela, gang leader. Mugabe's missus, receiver of stolen goods. Mme Chirac..ditto. Imelda, ditto. Ma Ceau┼čescu, barking mad, eventually met her bullet. Mme Sarkozy, crimes against music.

    Yanks have a long way to go.

  6. Young's book is well worth a read.

  7. And let's not forget Denis Thatcher, Malty...