What's Real on the Campaign Trail?

People are questioning if candidates' political stunts are real or fake.

ByJAKE TAPPER via logo
February 12, 2009, 12:27 PM

Sept. 24, 2007 — -- When Rudy Giuliani took a phone call from his wife during a major speech he was making at the NRA Friday, a rival Republican campaign wondered if it was truly a spontaneous call or a planned stunt. The Giuliani campaign insisted the call was spontaneous, but the rival Republican campaign pointed out that a similar incident had happened during a Giuliani speech earlier this year.

Either way, the call from Judith Giuliani -- and the fact that the former mayor took the call in the midst of an important speech before a skeptical crowd -- underlines the degree to which candidates' spouses are playing a large role in this campaign in attempts to humanize their ambitious mates.

At the same NRA meeting, Republican candidate and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson brought his wife, Jeri, into his pitch, saying, "I think she'd make a much better first lady than Bill Clinton, what do you think?"

Myra Gutin, a first lady historian at Rider University, said the candidates' spouses add a human face to the campaign cycle.

"We always take a certain measure of a candidate based on his or her spouse and certainly they will help to humanize," Gutin said.

What's Real, What's Staged?

But humanizing a candidate is not always easy, and can sometimes feel staged; the reviews of the famous Al and Tipper Gore kiss at the Democratic National convention in 2000 were mixed. When President Bush gave first lady Laura Bush an affectionate pat on the rear early on in his first term, late night comedian David Letterman was provided with comedy fodder for years.

Ana Marie Cox, Washington editor of Time.com, said these moments may look natural but may carry ulterior motives. "There are times when it seems like that is passion, however genuine it is, is trotted out for specific reasons," she said.

Some candidates and their spouses have crossed interesting lines in the process of humanizing. Michelle Obama told Glamour magazine that her husband Barack Obama, the junior senator from Illinois, is "snore-y and stinky" in the morning. Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards suggested to Esquire magazine that he broke his wife's rib while they were making love. Judith Giuliani told Harper's Bazaar that her "big testosterone-factor husband" cried while watching "Sleepless in Seattle."

It is of course the media often prodding for these details, and then sniggering when they're revealed. On "60 minutes," Mike Wallace asked former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney if he and his wife had ever engaged in pre-marital sex. Romney said he wouldn't answer the question, and then said that they hadn't.

What's real and what's planned? Skeptics scoffed at the 1998 photo of Bill and Hillary Clinton dancing in their bathing suits on the beach in St. Thomas right before Clinton testified in the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit, suggesting that it was a staged shoot. But the White House got angry at the photographer and first lady Hillary Clinton was reportedly horrified.

These days, the Clintons do not advertise the intimacies of their relationship -- perhaps that's because there's already so much baggage there. Which is probably just as well. In this day and age of political stagecraft it makes it hard for voters to tell the difference.