Wife-Abandonment: A GOP Nominee Tradition

Despite the heavy lift among evangelical leaders hoping to convince their flocks that Newt Gingrich’s adultery-based serial divorces aren’t misaligned with Family Values and that Newt has earned forgiveness for his bad behavior, GOP primary voters actually have a long modern tradition of nominating wife-abandoners for the Presidency.

As GOP voters weigh the stylistic differences between Mitt and Newt, it’s important for them to understand their own party’s recent tradition, as well. Mitt Romney would break the party’s pattern of presidential picks’ — those not named Bush, at least — multiple marriages. The two Presidents Bush aside, all GOP nominees since 1980 had previously shed a spouse.

1976: The GOP experimented with putting divorce on the ticket; Appointed President Gerald Ford replaced Appointed Vice President Nelson Rockefeller (of whom, more later) with Kansas Senator Bob Dole as his Veep running mate. Four years previously, Dole had disposed of his first wife, the occupational therapist who nursed him back to health in a military hospital after his severe WW2 wounds, during the Senate recess in the summer of 1972. He arrived back in Washington a single man.

By 1975, Senator Dole had acquired a Watergate apartment that came fully equipped, including new wife Elizabeth Dole, whom he’d met spring 1972. Dole’s personal history wasn’t viewed as contributory to Ford’s loss, although his discussion of “Democrat Wars” — one of which he served and was wounded in — lent him the reputation, never shed, of a partisan bomb-thrower.

Practically unknown at the time, but an intriguing footnote, was that Gerald Ford had delayed his marriage to wife Betty when he first sought his Congressional seat because he didn’t know how voters would react to his marrying a divorced ex-dancer. That year, both GOP ticket-holders’ families had divorce in their past, one recent and one distant.

1980: Ronald Reagan, he of the dysfunctional family values, had been previously married to actress Jane Wyman before he locked in the special skills of the ambitious Nancy Davis.

Reagan’s tax-cut religion, grandfatherly befuddlement and nasty hippie-bashing charmed the GOP base, who have subsequently elevated him to undeserved small-government tax-cutter sainthood. He is now the icon of the party who wouldn’t ever nominate him. But Ronald Reagan also set the trend of nominees with colorful marital histories, embraced by the base.

1984: Reagan Redux

1988: GHWBush, whose wife Barbara Pierce tolerated peccadilloes but wasn’t about to be replaced, lending as she did a certain presidential sheen, albeit drenched in melancholia, to his ambitions.

1992: Bush Redux

1996: Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole topped the ticket. See 1976, above.

2000: Little Bush becomes the country’s first SCOTUS-selected occupant of the Oval Office.

2004: Shrub Redux

2008: Vietnam War Hero John McCain defeats marital-fidelity exemplars Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee for the GOP’s nomination. McCain had returned from his Hanoi war prison only to quickly dispose of his disfigured accident-victim first wife, who in his unplanned absence had raised their children, been through painful physical rehab, gained some weight and lost six inches in height after painful operations to repair her legs.

His history was spotlighted every time chic beer heiress and Wife Number Two Cindy Hensley appeared with him, dripping with money that financed his rise in GOP circles. The GOP base mumbled about having a RINO atop the ticket, but ignored his adulterous marital history as unimportant and, critically, forgiven in some unexplained way.

Let’s reflect, though, shall we? GOP voters now find themselves almost 48 years from the GOP nominating convention at the San Francisco Cow Palace. There, wealthy divorce’ and Governor of New York Nelson Rockefeller, having lost the presidential nomination to Barry Goldwater, insisted on his right to speak to the delegates who then booed and hissed (and, by some reports, spat at) him for 16 minutes. Rockefeller was reviled by the Goldwater Family Values Party because of his divorce from the mother of his five children and quick remarriage to a just-divorced staffer named, unhappily, “Happy.” The Rockefellers put the spotlight on the two-suddenly-broken-homes issue by giving birth shortly before the hotly contested California primary, which Rockefeller narrowly lost.

Additionally, Rocky had been publicly denounced by Connecticut Senator Prescott Bush, Hitler-backer and self-appointed marital moral arbiter, father and grandfather of the later Presidents Bush.

That was the last time the re-marital history of a potential nominee hurt his chances, though. It was, coincidentally, the last public paroxysm the GOP displayed at its nominating convention. I remember it, and the reaction across America to it. Rockefeller’s treatment at the hands of his party’s delegates was an ugly episode. It has never been equaled.

And, apparently, the Family Values that animated it have been turned upside down.

Now, divorce is a requirement to be nominated for president by the GOP — if your last name isn’t Bush. I wonder: can Mitt Romney successfully buck his party’s penchant for men who’ve disposed of their wives? Or will the GOP go with what they know, and double-down (if you’ll pardon the expression) with the twice-divorced former Speaker?

Don’t be fooled by anguished Villager pundits and cable news talking heads who despair over whether the GOP base will accept Newt Gingrich’s “colorful marital history.” Far from a disqualification, it’s a prerequisite.

It’s not a bug; it’s a feature.

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