Suzanne Fields / May 27, 2011

An Unhappy Landing for Daniels

In his campaign mode running for governor of Indiana, Mitch Daniels referred to his marriage as something of a romantic comedy, in the tradition of Shakespeare’s “All’s Well That Ends Well.” He referred to an earlier time in his life when his wife Cheri left him, moved to California, divorced him and married an old sweetheart. Their four daughters, ages 8 to 14, remained with their father.

Cheri’s second marriage was short and apparently not so sweet, and four years later she was back home again in Indiana to marry Mitch again and raise their daughters together.

In his campaign mode running for governor of Indiana, Mitch Daniels referred to his marriage as something of a romantic comedy, in the tradition of Shakespeare’s “All’s Well That Ends Well.” He referred to an earlier time in his life when his wife Cheri left him, moved to California, divorced him and married an old sweetheart. Their four daughters, ages 8 to 14, remained with their father.

Cheri’s second marriage was short and apparently not so sweet, and four years later she was back home again in Indiana to marry Mitch again and raise their daughters together.

“If you like happy endings,” he said, “you’ll love our story.” Living happily ever is the stuff of fairy tales, but not in politics. The tawdry media will pursue gossipy factoids, no matter how old, irrelevant, unfair or untrue. Ugly rumors just below the surface suggested that Cheri had “abandoned” her children, though Mitch insisted that joint custody had worked just fine.

Politicians who retire, willingly or otherwise, invariably say they need to spend more time with their families, and no doubt some of them actually do. Daniels is one who does, citing the cliche as his reason to withdraw his name from consideration for the Republican presidential nomination next year.

In the fiercely competitive 24-7 world of twitters and tabloids, he didn’t want to expose his family to the often mean-spirited scrutiny of a national campaign. His two marriages to Cheri would be an irresistible target for the media mucksters. He was marketed as the man who could put America’s fiscal house in order, but he ultimately decided the order of his own household was more important.

He gallantly bowed to female power. “On matters affecting us all, our family constitution gives a veto to the women’s caucus, and there is no override provision,” he said. “Simply put, I find myself caught between two duties. I love my country; I love my family more.”

In the half-century since Betty Friedan warned that second phase feminism should not ignore family life, the Daniels episode is an example of heeding that lesson. We’ll never know what kind of president he would have made. But his story shows how the political culture is going through yet another phase.

The Daniels children are grown-ups now and show no desire to dance with the stars; their mother showed no appetite for a confession on “Sixty Minutes,” like Hillary telling about her bad days in Arkansas with Bubba in the governor’s mansion while Jennifer Flowers blossomed across town. Cheri Daniels wanted none of that.

The unforgiving focus on private lives is even more intense now. The lens is ubiquitous and far more powerful than it was two decades ago. A president’s wife can’t remain a private person no matter how hard she tries.

Moving on is not an option, as Hillary learned when she ran for president herself. She had to carry the burden of an impeached husband. The requirements of the first lady change with the culture, but are dependent on the status of her husband.

The first first lady who made a public difference was Dolley Madison, whose husband confronted a Congress as acrimonious and divided as the Congress today. But she gave wonderful soirees for her husband’s friends and foes, who cordially argued politics over bowls of ice cream, the new capital’s new taste sensation. (And there was no Rocky Road, Chunky Monkey or Cherry Garcia in those days.) Her letters reflect that she enjoyed every minute of the Washington social limelight, even when she was privately grieved by her son, who went to debtors’ prison twice and whose extravagance left her a poor widow.

Children of presidents confront the best and the worst of all possible worlds, enjoying attention but subject to merciless criticism. When music critic Paul Hume criticized the concert voice of first daughter Margaret Truman as “flat a good deal of the time,” her father reacted as Harry Truman, not President Truman. He wrote a famous note to the critic promising that if they ever met he would “need a new nose, a lot of beef steak for black eyes and perhaps a supporter below!” Margaret was amused, or said she was (“it sold tickets”).

Few presidents have been as robust as Harry Truman in their defense of family – those were clearly different times – and it would probably not occur to Mitch Daniels to threaten pugilism to defend familial honor. He bowed out of presidential politics gracefully.

Americans,“ he said, "are ready to summon the discipline to pay down our collective debts … to put the future before the present, their children’s interests before their own.” He did that for family. Let’s hope he’s right about the rest of us.

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