Tammy R. Vigil (“Moms in Chief”) Q&A

Moms in Chief; The Rhetoric of Republican Motherhood and the Spouses of Presidential Nominees, 1992-2016

In 1776, when Abigail Adams implored her husband to “Remember the Ladies,” John Adams scoffed, declaring, “We know better than to repeal our masculine system.” More than two hundred years later, American women continue to struggle against the idea that they are simply vassal extensions of their husbands—a notion that is acutely enacted in presidential campaigns. An examination of how the spouses of recent presidential candidates have presented themselves and been perceived on the campaign trail, Moms in Chief reveals the ways in which the age-old rhetoric of republican motherhood maintains its hold on the public portrayal of womanhood in American politics and constrains American women’s status as empowered, autonomous citizens.

1. What’s your elevator pitch for Moms in Chief? How would you describe the book in two or three sentences?

Moms in Chief provides a comprehensive assessment of the ways the press, the parties, and the candidates’ mates frame spouses during presidential campaigns. The book traces the history of women as political beings in the United States in order to contextualize an analysis of the depictions of some of the most high-profile women in national political contests. The project underscores how judging spouses based on traditional gender roles is problematic for presidential nominees’ consorts and for perceptions of women in the political sphere.

2. What led you to research and write about the spouses of presidential nominees?

While doing research for a chapter on the roles spouses play in presidential conventions for my previous book, Connecting with Constituents: Identification Building and Blocking in Contemporary National Convention Addresses, I became interested in the wives of presidential nominees and perplexed by the lack of research about them. People write a lot about first ladies, but not much about the women who audition for that position throughout a presidential campaign. I discovered that there were surprising similarities in the ways the wives of nominees represented themselves during conventions despite clear differences in their actual biographies, experiences, and political outlooks. That realization made me curious about the broader campaigns. As I explored the treatment of spouses during presidential contests, it became clear that my findings warranted a book-length project. The addition of the first male spouse during the 2016 contest made the comparisons of spousal characterizations even more compelling.

3. What was the most challenging aspect of researching and writing the book?

The most challenging part of writing Moms in Chief was keeping chapter one, the section where I recount women’s political history in the United States, a manageable length. The history of perspectives on women as political actors in the US provides a critical frame of reference for understanding the portrayal of candidates’ spouses, but it is also an extensive topic with myriad dimensions. Deciding how to shape that baseline summary in an informative and engaging manner was difficult. The original draft was almost three times as long as the final version. However, I am proud of how that chapter turned out. It is one that anybody interested in politics, citizenship, and women’s fight for political parity should read.

4. Moms in Chief is the first book to dive deep into the role of “the women” in presidential elections. Have you seen a distinct change from the role spouses have played in the development of campaigns since 1992?

During the span of time this book covers, there has not been a dramatic change in the role the spouses play. Claims of spouses as “secret weapons” preceded the 1992 campaign and continued through 2016. In more contemporary contests, though, the acknowledgment of how nominees’ wives helped develop and execute campaign strategies has become a bit more overt, and certain spouses have been more vocal and visible both with and without their husbands. However, these variations seem to be based on the personalities and talents of the individual spouses. After all, Melania Trump in 2016 was not nearly as active on the campaign trail or behind the scenes as Barbara Bush was in 1992.

5. As more women begin to seek the presidency, can you predict what possible role husbands (not including Bill Clinton) may play in future presidential campaigns as compared to female spouses?

In the short term, the likelihood is that men who are married to presidential nominees will not be viewed in as restrictive a manner as women have been (and likely will continue to be). I doubt that male consorts will be asked for their personal cookie recipes (and be criticized if they don’t have one), or that they will be pressed for parenting advice and to give tours of the family home. Customary sex roles that cast men as independent beings and women as defined by their relationships are still too entrenched in society. Established gender norms, paired with a deep partisan divide, make it difficult for candidates’ spouses to embrace the full complexities of their own identities due to the fear of possibly alienating segments of the population and costing their mate valuable votes. Male spouses will have the advantage of being perceived more expansively than their female counterparts; they will be able to emphasize their roles as husbands and fathers, but they will not be confined by these roles as women have been as wives and mothers.  However, as gender norms continue to shift, it is possible that we will eventually be able to view candidates’ mates as autonomous individuals and full citizens whether they are male or female.

6. Your book suggests that the very definition of women as American citizens and political actors is at stake when they are representing their spouses during an election. Do you foresee more attention being paid to spouses in future elections?

There will be some additional attention paid to spouses during elections when the consort is novel in some way. For example, Michelle Obama and Bill Clinton received more scrutiny than Tipper Gore, Cindy McCain, and Ann Romney. The first husband of a nominee that is not a well-known past president will likely receive a bit more notice than most female spouses, but how much commentary he inspires will depend largely on his role in the campaign and his personality. It is important to note that a male spouse of a president will never serve as the model of American masculinity in the same way first ladies act as icons of American womanhood. The secondary status of a “first gentleman” will be incongruous with the historic standing of males as the dominant sex; the president’s husband will be considered an anomaly rather than an ideal.

Unless reporters and campaign strategists expand their perceptions of the spouses (particularly wives), the coverage of candidates’ mates will likely remain as it has for the past several decades—wives will be expected to conform to traditional gender norms and will be evaluated based on their ability and willingness to meet these conventional expectations. There will be some progressive movement in how women are viewed, but it will likely be incremental and slow to develop.

7. What is one thing you would like readers to take from your work?

I would like readers to understand that all women, even spouses of presidential nominees, are autonomous individuals who should not be narrowly defined by the relational roles they fulfill. Interpreting women based primarily on their relationships with others does a disservice to female citizens by making their value contingent on their familial associations. If women are to achieve political parity and be perceived as more than helpmates for their husbands and caretakers for their children, we as a society need to move beyond conflating the terms “woman,” “wife,” and “mother” when we talk about women.

Being a wife or a mother is a personally fulfilling and socially useful role for many females, but judging the political value of all women solely through these connections prevents us from establishing a political order in which women are allowed and even encouraged to voice their own needs, and not just the needs of those they care about, in the public arena. In this way, women can come to be treated as individuals and full citizens in the same way men are.

8. If you could have any one person read your book, who would it be and why?

If I could have any one person read Moms in Chief, it would be Abigail Adams. She had the foresight to understand the implications of the dismissal of women as autonomous citizens; she pled for the rights of women to be included in the founding documents of the nation and her entreaties went largely unheeded even by her own husband. As the second first lady of the United States, she understood both the importance of that role and the socially-imposed limitations political wives face. After reading Moms in Chief, Adams would likely be both excited by the gains in political power women have achieved since her day and disheartened by how much more remains to be done. She would be pleased that nominees’ spouses can participate openly in campaigns, yet she would be disappointed by the persistent barriers women still face as political actors.

Stephen W. Campbell (“The Bank War and the Partisan Press”) Q & A

The Bank War and the Partisan Press; Newspapers, Financial Institutions, and the Post Office in Jacksonian America

President Andrew Jackson’s conflict with the Second Bank of the United States was one of the most consequential political struggles in the early nineteenth century. A fight over the bank’s reauthorization, the Bank War, provoked fundamental disagreements over the role of money in politics, competing constitutional interpretations, equal opportunity in the face of a state-sanctioned monopoly, and the importance of financial regulation—all of which cemented emerging differences between Jacksonian Democrats and Whigs. As Stephen W. Campbell argues here, both sides in the Bank War engaged interregional communications networks funded by public and private money. The first reappraisal of this political turning point in US history in almost fifty years, The Bank War and the Partisan Press advances a new interpretation by focusing on the funding and dissemination of the party press.

1. What’s your elevator pitch forThe Bank War and the Partisan Press? How would you describe the book in two or three sentences?

This book explores one of the most important political conflicts in the nation’s history prior to the Civil War. My unique take is to put newspaper editors front and center. As I show, both sides in this drama engaged interregional communications networks funded by public and private money in order to propagate ideas and sustain their livelihoods.

2. What led you to research and write about the Bank War?

During the first semester of my master’s program at CSU Sacramento, my advisor had me read Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s The Age of Jackson. I walked into the library, opened up the table of contents, and recalled how much I loved the Bank War from an AP US History class I took in high school. I suspect this is somewhat unusual in that despite the efforts of various mentors along the way who encouraged me to take this project in directions that were more marketable, flashier, and sexier, I pretty much stuck with the same topic for well over a decade. As for why I was attracted to the political and economic history of the antebellum era in the first place, I have always found that question difficult to answer. It’s kind of like rationalizing one’s aesthetic tastes and preferences. You may know that you like strawberry ice cream over vanilla, or reggae music rather than classical, but you have a hard time explaining why.

3. What was the most challenging aspect of researching and writing the book?

Understanding the banking system during the antebellum era, which was very different from our current system. At that time, there were hundreds of different state-chartered banks, each circulating their own currencies of differing qualities and values backed by gold and silver. Contemporary financiers corresponded with one another in ways that appear to modern readers as dense, technical, and borderline unintelligible. Moreover, bank balance sheets and bank-related commentary from financiers and politicians did not use a standard terminology. In my view, most historians and economists have not done a very good job explaining this intricate system in simple terms to the average reader. It took me several years to fully understand the credit system (keep in mind that most professors spend most of their time teaching). But all of that work had to be condensed down to a few pages in the appendix. Sometimes there is a tremendous amount of research that goes into the writing of just a few sentences or paragraphs.

4. Your book advances a new interpretation of Andrew Jackson’s conflict with the Second Bank by focusing on the funding and dissemination of the party press. How is your interpretation different from previous conclusions?

Most accounts of the Bank War rely on a relatively narrow range of sources. They quote a few famous letters from the chief antagonists, Jackson and Biddle, and recapitulate received wisdom. My book, in contrast, covers a wider array of sources in order to bring a group of semi-elite and middling actors to the fore—the newspaper editors, postmasters, and financiers who took orders from Jackson and Biddle and at the same time found subtle ways to shape the manner in which the Bank War unfolded. When one gets into the finer details of some of these episodes, one discovers that the received wisdom is either misleading or simplistic. In addition to offering a somewhat different periodization, I argue that Biddle developed a complex, interregional corporate lobbying campaign and that the president’s decision to remove the Bank’s public deposits was tied into a little-known scandal involving the Post Office.

5. Your book contextualizes the Bank War within larger political and economic developments at the national and international levels. Can you draw any parallels between the events in Jacksonian America and the current political climate?

While I do believe that making connections between past and present is one of the most common and effective ways to make history meaningful for students in the classroom, I have been hesitant to do this in my scholarship. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not some sort of purist who believes that it’s even possible to narrate an “objective” history. But the 190-year period that has transpired between Jackson’s presidency and today renders tenuous any direct connections. At the time, the size of the US economy was about $1 billion, but it is approximately $20 trillion today (20,000 times bigger). Agriculture accounted for almost 80% of the workforce, but it is less than 5% today. And of course, slavery was fundamental to not just the political, economic, and social structures of the South, but the entire nation, too. I almost wish that it was easier to make those direct connections since so many people, both within and outside of the academy, think that history can only be “relevant” if there’s a direct application to our own lives today. But you also can’t force it because doing so would sacrifice the complexity of our own times and back then.

So with all of those caveats in mind, there are some very broad themes and questions that come up in my book that are still with us today: the problem of state-sanctioned monopolies, especially in the financial sector; an overbearing president who disregards norms; corruption of the public trust; checks and balances; prioritizing political loyalty rather than meritocratic competence in the appointment process; media bias; and especially, how corporate money can corrupt the press and our elections. I also hope readers pick up on the complex interplay between individual agency and larger structures, which holds true for any period of study. Despite our national mythology, Americans’ success or failure in life is rarely determined by hard work alone. A lot of white men in the Jacksonian era experienced social advancement merely by having the right friends and political allies while conversely, a lot of hard-working and talented people could soon find themselves unemployed through no fault of their own when those periodic financial panics hit.

6. What is one thing you would like readers to take from your work?

Some books make a big splash by covering an understudied topic or by overturning conventional wisdom and taking the historiography in new directions. Others are founded on deep research and contain a variety of sub-arguments that provide new insights on long-studied topics. Without selling myself short, I do believe my book falls into the latter category. It may take some patience, but if readers consider the work as a whole, they will, I hope, see it as a valuable contribution to our understanding of the politics and economics of the Jacksonian era.

7. If you could have any one person read your book, who would it be and why?

Besides my parents, for whom this book is dedicated, I’d probably gear this book toward the hypothetical person who sympathizes with Nicholas Biddle and believes that Andrew Jackson was an insane, ignorant fool for destroying the nation’s central bank. It’s not my place to say whether that view is right or wrong, but it is a common view to have, and indeed, I maintained something approximating this view upon starting this project. Further research, however, compelled me to take the Jacksonian position seriously, even if I did not always agree with it. I hope this perspective—that of explaining why something happened rather than taking a side—comes across clearly to readers.

Stephen W. Campbell is a lecturer in the History Department at Cal Poly Pomona

Goldstein Grades “Vice”

When VICE, the new Dick Cheney biopic, was released we couldn’t wait to get Joel Goldstein’s opinion of the film. Goldstein is the preeminent expert on the vice presidency and wrote extensively about how Cheney worked to transform the role and influence of the office in his book The White House Vice Presidency.

“Cheney established an unprecedented level of vice-presidential influence during Bush’s first term,” he wrote in his 2017 book. “Cheney functioned primarily as an adviser who could become involved in any issue and attend any meeting.” His take on the film follows…

VICE by Joel Goldstein

The vice presidency is not usually the subject of December box office movie sensations. Long before Vice President John Nance Garner said that the vice presidency wasn’t worth a bucket of warm whatever-liquid- he-really-said, his predecessor, Thomas Marshall, joked about the parents who had two sons, one who went to sea, one became vice president, neither was ever heard from again.

Dick Cheney, the 46th vice president, thought the nation’s second office was worth giving up a bucket of dollars and incentives as Halliburton’s CEO, and has been heard from since, again and again.  And now, a decade after he left office, his political life is the subject of the smash movie, “Vice.”

Cheney might have preferred that the movie be called “Vice President,” rather than “Vice,” but the choice of title was not inadvertent.  Moviemaker Adam McKay is clearly not a Cheney fan.  Cheney was an architect of the Bush administration’s war against Iraq, authorization of interrogation techniques many considered torture, and the warrantless surveillance program, and the title speaks to the conclusion that these and other initiatives were neither virtuous nor wise.

The movie also rests on familiar, yet exaggerated or mistaken, premises, about Cheney’s vice presidency. For instance, the movie disparages the pre-Cheney vice presidency as a nothing job.  After Cheney initially declined to be Governor George W. Bush’s running mate but agreed to head the vice-presidential search (which did actually happen), the Dick and Lynne Cheney characters (Christian Bale, Amy Adams) trash the office during a private exchange.  We don’t know whether the conversation took place but it totally mischaracterized the office as of 2000 when the events allegedly occurred. Under President Jimmy Carter, Walter F. Mondale had invented and implemented the White House vice presidency almost a quarter century earlier, George H.W. Bush and Dan Quayle had basically followed Mondale’s model in their vice presidencies, and Al Gore was nearing the end of what was at that point the most engaged two-term vice presidency in history.

“Vice” implies that Cheney’s initial refusal to run with Bush was part of a Machiavellian plot  whereby Cheney would escape the scrutiny vice-presidential contenders usually get (what Joe Lieberman once analogized to “a colonoscopy without anesthesia”), control the search, and ultimately land the spot in a stronger position nonetheless.  Perhaps, but I doubt it.   More likely, Cheney was reluctant to leave his high-paying CEO gig at Haliburton for an uncertain run for vice president but, as he became comfortable working with Bush and saw the possibilities of life as the number two to a president who liked to delegate and as he saw the limited alternative options available to Bush, warmed to the idea of accepting the second spot.

The movie advances the familiar premise that in the Bush White House Cheney was the power behind the curtain, the ventriloquist pulling the strings that generated Bush’s words and acts.  Indeed, a familiar joke suggested that Bush was a heartbeat from the presidency.  Yes, Cheney was very powerful, especially in the first term, but Bush, not Cheney, was always president, and Cheney, though influential, was never co-president.  Cheney had used his role directing the 2000-2001 transition to place allies throughout the administration but Cheney generally needed to persuade Bush on important matters.  Although he often succeeded, Cheney lost some battles in the first term and many more in the second term after Bush began to see some of Cheney’s limitations and biases and recognized that some of Cheney’s assurances, including about the war in Iraq, had not been borne out, and that Cheney’s penchant for secrecy often had negative political consequences.

“Vice” does not present this aspect, but Bush believed that Cheney’s lack of presidential ambition would commit him to Bush’s agenda and mitigate the tensions that sometimes develop between the two top officers and their teams.  In fact, Cheney’s lack of presidential ambition made him less democratically accountable.  This characteristic manifested itself most clearly in spring 2004 when Cheney did not let Bush know until the last moment that the justice department was resisting reauthorizing the secret warrantless surveillance program and that some high-level members were prepared to resign over the issue.  Bush recognized that such an event would make the blowback from Richard M. Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre look like back page news by comparison, would expose the program, and would make him a one term president.  He must also have realized that Cheney was not as wise as he had thought.  In any event, Cheney had less influence during the second term than the first and left office with his approval rating under water.

This warrantless surveillance episode is not presented in “Vice” but it is discussed, as are these other points, in The White House Vice Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden.  After you watch “Vice,” I hope you’ll pursue them there.

Joel K. Goldstein is the Vincent C. Immel Professor of Law, Saint Louis University School of Law. He is the author of numerous works on the vice presidency, presidential succession, and constitutional law.