Election Coverage Increasingly Focused on Presidential Candidates’ Wives, MU Researcher Finds

By Jessica Pollard

Columbia, Mo. (April 27, 2004) — Twenty-first century media coverage of presidential and vice presidential candidates and their lives now encompasses another facet — their wives. A new study by a Missouri School of Journalism researcher found that these women are becoming increasingly noticed among journalists during the election campaign.

Betty Houchin Winfield
Betty Houchin Winfield

Betty Winfield, professor of journalism, and journalism doctoral candidate Barbara Friedman studied the 2000 election coverage of Laura Bush, Tipper Gore, Lynne Cheney and Hadassah Lieberman. The wives in that election presented a challenge to the media, Winfield said, as they did not easily fit the mold of traditional first or second ladies. The media noticed their unique educational and life experiences that prepared them to serve in their public and political roles.

Coverage of Lynne Cheney stressed respect gained through experience in politics and public life. She was said to have “an unusually high profile for a would-be second lady,” and a Washington Post article stated that she “held several important jobs of her own before she became her husband’s official introducer.” Hadassah Lieberman’s status as the daughter of Holocaust survivors could only be connected to symbolic worthiness and humanity.

One campaign theme stressed by media was the sacrifice of personal ambitions, interests and public opinions for their husbands’ political careers, Winfield said. Laura Bush consistently declined to present opinions countering her husband. She told a CBS reporter “When I differ with my husband, I’m not going to tell you.” In addition, George magazine wrote “Laura Bush may not have much to say on her own behalf, but when it comes to defending her husband, she’ll brave any crowd.”

Tipper Gore and Bush also were cited on their ability to put public life before their own. A New York Times article called them “ambivalent recruits, as content in the backyard as in the foreground, yanked by their husbands’ desires into races and places they might never have chosen for themselves.”

During the 2000 presidential campaign, a persistent anti-Hillary Clinton theme appeared, as news coverage framed the four candidates’ wives as primarily quiet supporters, Winfield found. George Bush told a journalist “my wife is not Hillary Clinton. She’s not going to hog the spotlight. She’s not going to push forward her own political agenda at my expense.”

Winfield’s study was published in a recent edition of Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly.

Updated: December 13, 2019

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