How to Be a Political Spouse
Stay behind the scenes. Avoid controversy. Choose a few issues of your own. And don't expect much of a private life.
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NOT LONG AFTER WORD LEAKED out in the late fall of 1977 that my husband, Bill, was going to run for governor, the Republican women had a convention in Brownsville. By this time, Ray Hutchison had already announced he was in the race. Polly Sowell, who had been a colleague of mine in the seventies when she was the Republican state vice chair and I was a Republican National Committeewoman, was at the convention, and when she heard about Bill’s decision, she called me on the phone. She said, “What in the world is going on? I’ve already committed to Ray. I think Bill is making a big mistake.” My reaction was, “Polly, we’re still friends, and I understand, but this is bigger than politics.” That’s one reality of being the spouse of a politician: It is bigger than politics.
Another is, campaigning is harder than serving. It’s very arduous. When Bill decided to run, he was not that well known. He had been the finance chairman for George H. W. Bush’s Senate campaign, and he had been deputy secretary of defense in the Nixon and Ford administrations, but he had never really been in the political arena. After he won the primary, we decided to spend the summer covering the rural areas of the state. He did mostly East Texas, and I concentrated on West Texas. One of my first forays took me to a small town; I would always go to the bank or the courthouse. But back then, rural Texas was heavily Democratic, and I can tell you the boys at the courthouse were not glad to see me. Sometimes I certainly got a cool reception. But that’s what the wife of the candidate does.
At the same time, political spouses do well to stay behind the scenes. I had been active in Republican circles for years; in fact, I was maybe better known in party circles than Bill was. I knew that I could contribute a lot, that I could definitely be his partner. But I also knew that I had to be careful. When Bill took over, I made sure my office was away from his, in one of the other buildings in the state complex. It’s not that I didn’t have a hand in what went on. During the eight years that he was governor, I sat in on most of the meetings with his director of appointments, but I wasn’t public about it.
I felt free to express my opinions, but I certainly left the substance to Bill. If I was going to make a speech and I was talking about policy, I’d choose my words carefully. A good example is the abortion issue, which a lot of spouses have wrestled with. I’m not saying I had a different opinion than he did, but you have to walk a thin line. It’s an emotional issue; anything you say is going to make headlines. Even in private you try not to force issues, though Bill was always amenable to my suggestions. Generally, we agreed anyway.
It’s possible for a spouse to have issues of her own, especially the wife of a governor. When we were in Washington, I observed the lives of congressional wives, who are one of many. In my opinion, it’s much easier to have a prominent role as first lady, assuming there are areas you want to emphasize. After the election, I was immediately asked to get involved with lots of things around the state. Bill and I discussed them, and we agreed that I’d concentrate on two or three and try to have an impact. In his first term I picked education, volunteerism, and historic preservation, which I liked because we were restoring the Governor’s Mansion at the time. In the second term, the economy was in bad shape, so I decided to promote tourism in Texas. It was a fun project, and I had a great time.
One thing spouses need to understand is, you have to work hard to maintain a private life. We never campaigned on Sunday, which was strictly a family and church day. And all through Bill’s terms in office, we went back to Dallas on weekends; we kept a home there. Which is not to say we didn’t love the mansion. We were able to furnish the upstairs quarters the way we wanted, we allowed public tours only in the morning, and we had control over which groups put on events there. I think it’s more difficult when you have small children—the Whites, I think, had three. Then the quarters can get pretty cramped.
I liked being a political spouse very much. When it was over, I was kind of ready to move on, but that’s how I feel about life: When it’s time, you move on to something else. So I don’t miss it. But I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Rita Clements, the first lady of Texas from 1979 to 1983 and 1987 to 1991, is the vice chair of the University of Texas System Board of Regents.