Fred Thompson, would-be presidential candidate, is 64 years old and looks it. His wife, Jeri, is two years younger than one of his daughters and looks even younger than her 40 years. They have had two babies together since they married in 2002.
Does it matter?
Imagine if Hillary Clinton were married to a 36-year-old stud. She'd be laughed out of town. Imagine, at 60, if she decided she wanted two more children. Too old, we'd all be screaming.
So, does anyone care when Fred Thompson does it?
There have been pictures of the buxom and beautiful Jeri Thompson circulating on the web for months. Last weekend, the story broke into the mainstream media when The New York Times asked whether the country was ready for a president with a "trophy wife" — a term generally used to refer to women who are substantially younger, less wrinkled and sometimes, but not always, more accomplished than the old model, who was there when the guy was nobody and they were supporting him, cleaning the house themselves and giving birth to the children who are now older than the new edition.
Thompson supporters, and even some who aren't, went slightly nuts at the audacity of The New York Times for even asking the question. Imagine, the mainstream media descending to discuss what bloggers have been talking about for months. Are there no standards?
Putting aside that little piece of hypocrisy, as well as the one about how all of us would react if the genders were switched, the question remains whether voters will actually care. Will men be jealous, or impressed? Will women say "ick" and be turned off?
The conventional wisdom, which is that because it has been proven true for so long, is that wives matter even less than running mates in determining votes for the presidency. The most likeable candidate may have a determinative advantage, the old "who would you rather have a beer, alcoholic or not, with?" But likeable wives don't move votes.
Betty Ford was widely admired, more so than her husband, and more so than Rosalynn Carter, but that didn't save President Ford from defeat. Nancy Reagan didn't become beloved, if she even is, until long after her husband left the White House and people changed their view of her from astrology aficionado and fan of expensive china to loving caretaker of her sick husband. Hillary Clinton was not exactly the poster girl for popular First Ladies, as opposed to everyone's grandmother Barbara Bush, or the Southern charm and less threatening smarts of Liddy Dole. But that didn't save Bob Dole from ending up selling Viagra instead of running the White House.
Most recently, even Democrats wrung their hands at Teresa Heinz, a different kind of trophy wife (the kind who could afford to buy a whole case of them), and wondered what it said about the Senator that he had managed to fall in love with one of the richest women in Washington (love may be blind, but it sure ain't dumb). Yet, I don't think anyone who studied the race closely would blame Kerry's loss on his wife's perceived arrogance or pronounced accent. And, certainly, Judith Giuliani has a long way to go before shedding the image of the "other woman" and adulterous stepmother, but I'm not the least bit certain Rudy would be faring any differently if the mother of his children, and his children for that matter, were by his side.
There's even greater evidence that running mates don't matter, and if the guy who is a heartbeat away from the presidency doesn't influence votes, why would the woman who is on the other side of the bed? I will never forget waiting for the returns from our pollster the night Lloyd Bentsen absolutely trumped Dan Quayle in the vice presidential debate ("I knew John Kennedy. He was a friend of mine. And Senator, you're no John Kennedy."), only to get the word that while Bentsen's own reputation had soared, support for the Dukakis-Bentsen ticket had barely budged. You know when you hear those heartbeat ads that desperate candidates ask — who do you want a heartbeat away from the president — it's because the guy at the top of the ticket is in big trouble.
All of this should support the view that Jeri Thompson's assets are irrelevant to her husband's prospects. But I don't buy it for a moment — at least not among women of a certain age, both married and single, who are liable to play a decisive role in this campaign, particularly if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic candidate. The reaction I hear from every woman I know, those who have gotten sick to their stomachs over seeing middle-aged men cavorting with girls barely beyond their teen years, is a giant "yuck."
What does it say about a man who's busy having babies only two years after being diagnosed with lymphoma? What does it say that he'd rather be with someone who wasn't even alive when JFK was shot, or at least was too young to remember where she was? What does it say that he doesn't care that she doesn't remember the songs and the history and the fears we grew up with? Where does it leave those of us who do?
Dateless is where. And maybe voting no. I can't help it. It makes me like Fred Thompson less. And I can't believe I'm the only one.
To find out more about Susan Estrich and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.