The Most Colorful Presidential Campaign Spouses
A look at the candidate wives who faced criticism before Ann Romney and Michelle Obama
The firestorm sparked by remarks about GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s wife Ann, have re-ignited the debate over how much coverage and criticism the families of presidential candidates should have to endure. Below is a look back at some of the most colorful presidential campaign spouses over the years.
Rachel Donelson Jackson (1767-1828)
The wife of Andrew Jackson, who was elected president in 1828, is widely recognized as the first political spouse to be the target of high profile, negative attacks. Jackson, one of the first divorcees to become First Lady, (and one of only a handful of divorcees to hold the title to date) initially married the future president in 1791. It was later discovered that her divorce had not been finalized at the time, requiring them to remarry in 1794. Jackson’s political opponents seized upon what has been dubbed unintentional bigamy on the part of the couple, making issue of it during the presidential race. Tragically Mrs. Jackson would die shortly after purchasing her gown for her husband’s inaugural. President Jackson would blame the criticism she endured during the campaign for her death.
Florence Mabel Harding (1860-1924)
The wife of President Warren G. Harding is considered such a colorful character that it is questionable her husband would have been elected today with the media coverage that likely would have dogged her personal life. After a teen pregnancy she was disowned by her wealthy family for eloping with her first ne’er do well husband. Only according to historians, there actually was no official elopement so her son, the president’s future stepson, was actually born out of wedlock. Upon the dissolution of this early relationship, she married her father’s business nemesis, the future president, Warren G. Harding, whom she was five years older than. Her father was so incensed he refused to attend the wedding and did not speak to the couple for years. She was known for her interest in astrology and consulted clairvoyants. But perhaps the most colorful part of her legacy concerns her husband’s death while in office. To this day, the First Lady’s legacy is haunted by innuendo that she was somehow involved in his untimely death after years of enduring his infidelity.
Cornelia Wallace (1939-2009)
The wife of famed segregationist and four-time presidential candidate, former Alabama Governor George Wallace, the Alabama First Lady was a former child performer, and neice of her husband’s longtime political rival when the two met. She would eventually run for Governor herself after her messy 1978 divorce from the Governor left her without spousal support following allegations of her infidelity. Known for her beauty, and for protectively laying on top of her husband after his 1972 assassination attempt, she was depicted by a then rising star Angelina Jolie in a 1997 Wallace biopic.
Jean Thurmond (1926-1960) and Nancy Thurmond (1946-the present)
Though the first Mrs. Thurmond was married to the Senator during his 1948 run for president on a segregationist platform, both Mrs. Thurmonds bear mentioning because of their commonalities. Both women held the title of Miss South Carolina, and both were hired by the Senator, (who was decades older than them) to work as secretaries after their reigns. Shortly after he proposed.
Kitty Dukakis (1936-the present)
Dukakis, who holds the distinction of being the first Jewish First Lady nominee for a major political party, also has the unfortunate distinction of being the most high profile cautionary tale for family members of aspiring politicians. Her years long battle with depression (which culminated with her 1989 suicide attempt by drinking rubbing alcohol following her husband, Governor Michael Dukakis,’ 1988 loss to President George Bush), was blamed in part on the pressures of being a political spouse. Dukakis would later recall being on the receiving end of some of the most vicious rumors ever to target a candidate’s spouse in a documentary on legendary GOP hatchet-man Lee Atwater, “Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story.”