Newt Gingrich Campaign Scuffle Puts Political Wives in Spotlight

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It can be unrewarding, relentless work that most women think twice about before signing up. And even though it might come with perks -- money, fame and possible influence -- the public demands and scrutiny can easily outweigh the benefits.

There's nothing new about the pressure that's cast on political wives, but it has taken on a whole new meaning in today's era of instant communication.

The latest person to learn that is Callista Gingrich, who has come under much scrutiny since 16 of her husband's senior aides resigned en masse Thursday. Many of them blamed her for being too controlling of presidential candidate Newt Gingrich's schedule, insisting he go on vacation instead of dedicating time to his campaign and fundraising, and, they say, treating his staff like interns.

But many observers say politicians' wives often get caught up in political wranglings whether they are responsible for such kerfuffles or not.

And it's often challenging to balance the dual roles. In Gingrich's case, she married the former House speaker after the end of his political career and, thus, has little experience with campaigns and Washington insiders.

"It's easy to blame the wife but his problems have preceded Callista," ABC News' political director Amy Walter said. "She's the symptom more than the problem. Newt's problem is, at this point, he lacks the discipline to run the kind of campaign that presidential candidates run."

Still, spouses can often tip the balance. In this instance, Callista Gingrich might not have been the deciding factor but discontent with her was "additive to the problems that the campaign was having in trying to generate some forward momentum," former Gingrich adviser Rich Galen said on "Top Line" today.

Whether they like it or not, political wives play a crucial role in a candidate's campaign and in determining its success.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels' wife, Cheri, reportedly vetoed his decision to make a 2012 bid. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour's wife, Marsha, has publicly said that the thought of her husband's running for president "horrifies" her and that it would be "a huge sacrifice for a family to make."

The public scrutiny on a family that comes in modern-day campaigning plays a key part in discouraging many wives, analysts say.

"The increased scrutiny, invasion of privacy and compliance with campaign finance and regulatory rules are causing more political wives and would-be political wives to rise up and object to their husbands pursuing that kind of career," said Kellyanne Conway, Republican pollster and author of "What Women Really Want."

Campaigns today are not just about the candidates but their entire families, especially the spouse.

First lady Michelle Obama famously went back and forth for months about her husband's decision to run for president, given the impact it would have on her personal life and family. Once he did enter the race, she wasn't spared from the public eye. From her fashion sense to her comments about being proud of her country "for the first time" in her adult life, Obama was in the spotlight just as much as her candidate husband.

"Voters have a natural curiosity to learn more about the person behind the politician," Conway said. "A wife, after all, is a window into the soul of a politician's judgment, choices and human side once he sheds the podium, coat and tie."

The task is a challenging one for political wives. Not only do they have to maintain a certain public persona, they also have to be careful about how they get involved with the campaign and balance tensions with campaign staff, which almost always arise.

Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson's wife, Jeri, learned that lesson in the last election cycle when she was assailed by many in the GOP for being a "trophy wife" and too controlling. Even the late Elizabeth Edwards, who many thought helped make husband John a more compelling and likeable candidate, clashed often with his staff members.

"Everybody who runs for office, no matter the level of office, has tensions between their family and their campaign staff," Walter said. "It is a rare campaign where there's not some tension."

Political Wives Help Shape Policy

The role of political wives has evolved in modern times. Not only do they heavily influence a candidate's policy positions, experts concur that spouses' involvement in their husbands' campaigns and their public demeanor can make or break the candidate.

"The candidates who seem to have the biggest advantage are ones where the wives are involved in a positive way, where they are really sort of on the team, where they are personally vested in their husband's success and really see that as part of their job," said Lisa Witter, a communications specialist and co-author of "The She Spot: Why Women Are the Secret to Changing this World and How to Reach Them."

"Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton were an example of that. These women who took on political personas themselves."

Many candidates have been hurt politically by the absence of their wives at their side on the campaign trail, including Sen. John McCain in 2008, whose wife jumped on the bandwagon much later than her counterparts, and Howard Dean in 2004, whose physician wife chose not to leave her daily practice to be on the road.

"When Howard Dean ran and his wife totally stayed out, people just couldn't wrap their head around that," Witter said. "They just hadn't seen that model before. The public sort of expects the wives to be on the team in a big way."

Political wives didn't always wield as much influence on their husbands' campaign.

Pat Nixon, for example, never even received any confirmation from her husband, President Richard Nixon, that he was going to run for office, historians recall, an anomaly in modern-day politics.

But there were also exceptions to such cases.

"Probably their influence today is greater but I don't want to downplay their predecessors because their predecessors were also strong in certain areas," said Myra Gutin, professor of communication at Rider University and author of "The President's Partner: The First Lady in the Twentieth Century," and "Barbara Bush: First Lady of Literacy."

Lady Bird Johnson, for example, played a strong support role in Lyndon Johnson's presidency and his campaign, and she didn't hesitate from expressing her views.

Though she repeatedly said she was not influential, Eleanor Roosevelt also quietly played a significant role in helping shape her husband's policy decisions.

"I always thought that that might've been one of the most ironic statements in history," Gutin said. "Maybe you weren't publicly but privately, we know she was talking to him about everything -- maybe not foreign policy -- but certainly the domestic agenda. She was very influential."

In more contemporary times, Hillary Clinton "was like another member of the campaign staff" in 1992, Gutin said, helping craft policy proposals both during the campaign and during Bill Clinton's presidency.