Not in My White House: French-Style Divorce Unthinkable Here

President Nicolas Sarkozy gave a French kiss-off this week to his 11-year marriage with wife Cecilia, who talked openly to the media about her affair that preceded the split.

It's a situation that political observers say would be unthinkable for a U.S. president.

Divorce, American-style, may be tolerated for senators and presidential contenders, but not for the leader of the free world.

Most observers say Sarkozy will survive the divorce politically, and polls show a vast majority of French citizens couldn't care less about the divorce.

In the United States, only once in American history did divorce touch a sitting president. In the early 1800s, political enemies of Andrew Jackson revealed that his wife's previous divorce had never actually been finalized, causing a furor.

Today, with a national divorce rate that approaches 45 percent, Americans still view the institution of marriage as sacrosanct — for their sitting presidents.

"We have a problem," said Catherine Allgor, political scientist at the University of California Riverside and an expert on first ladies. "We expect our leaders not to live the lives we do."

"We know a lot of people who are divorced, we ourselves are divorced, but when it comes to our leaders, Americans are like children and we like our big daddies," she said. "We want them to be nostalgic, old-fashioned and family oriented."

Divorce and the White House

Divorce doesn't seem to be an issue for four of the presidential candidates— not even Republican front-runner Rudy Giuliani, who has been married three times.

Historically, several presidents have held office sans first ladies. Former President Van Buren, a widower, had his daughter-in-law play surrogate first lady. Former President Buchanan — though he bore no resemblance to the dashing Michael Douglas in the 1995 film "The American President" — served his entire term in the White House as a bachelor.

Marriages of convenience, like that of Eleanor and former President Roosevelt, drew no barbs. Former President Cleveland raised some eyebrows when he fathered a child out of wedlock, but he was still re-elected.

Infidelity may have scarred a few reputations — like those of former President Kennedy and Wendell Wilkie — but today, even former President Clinton's political popularity still shines, despite his sexual escapades in the Oval Office with a young intern.

"He would not have survived politically if he had broken up the family," said Allgor. "He has Hillary to thank, because he would not be as popular if she had said, 'OK, I'm leaving.' She held the family together."

Democratic political consultant Bob Shrum plays down the significance of divorce, an issue that made no difference in the credibility of either former first lady Betty Ford or conservative former President Reagan — both of whom had married before.

Shrum, the author of the 2007 memoir, "No Excuses: Concessions of a Serial Campaigner," worked for presidential candidates Jimmy Carter, Al Gore and, in 2004, twice-married John Kerry.

"Americans are smarter than we give them credit for," he told by telephone after leaving Paris, where transportation strikes are rocking Sarkozy's administration. "Divorce is no longer relevant."

"The party would have an interest in having the president not thrown out of office, and the other party might overplay its hand," said Shrum. "But people would judge a president on how he governs the country and not his personal life."

  • 1
  • |
  • 2
Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
You Might Also Like...