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October 19, 2005
Bush's Brides

In 2002, George W. Bush, president of the United States and part-time wedding planner, decided to cut $300 million from traditional welfare programs to teach poor people how to say "I do." A year later, he celebrated Marriage Protection Week with this heart-warming toast: "Marriage is a sacred institution…a union between a man and a woman, and my Administration is working to support the institution of marriage by helping couples build successful marriages." By 2004, the president's "Healthy Marriage Initiative" had evolved into a $1.5 billion dowry for religious conservatives who were skeptical about his long-term commitment to traditional values. Luckily, Congress has commitment issues too; neither the House nor the Senate have approved his proposal.

Such ambivalence has done little to dampen the president's personal matrimonial impulses, however. For years, it's been common knowledge that along with the First Lady, the President also has a "work wife," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. More recently, we learned that Harriet Miers also answers to that sobriquet.

This is probably the closest our prim, antiseptic President will ever come to a sex scandal, but metaphorical bigamy is only the second-most interesting aspect of the Brides of Bush. The first? The desperate yearning for traditional notions of domesticity on display here. Alas, cute phrases cannot hide the fact that Harriet Miers and Condoleezza Rice are not wives, in any way, shape, or form. Well into middle age, they are congenitally independent women who've forsaken marriage, children, and to a large degree, it seems, romantic relationships of any kind, for busy, high-powered careers.

If you've ever wondered how right-wing car alarms like Rush Limbaugh can remain so disenfranchised even as Republicans control the executive office, Congress, the judiciary, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, look no further than the Bush Administration. At 51, Secretary of Interior Gale Norton is on her second marriage and has no kids. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao waited until she was 41 to get hitched; she also has no children of her own. Margaret Spellings was a divorced mom of two when Bush chose her to be his Secretary of Education. Amongst the Brides of Bush, only Karen Hughes lives up to conservative ideals about female life paths: she's a mom, she's still on her first husband, and best of all, she actually quit her job as Bush's counselor in 2002 after her family grew unhappy in Washington, DC and wanted to move back to Texas.

And when an aggressive workaholic nicknamed Hurricane Karen is your best example of traditional wife and mother, well, feminism's impact on our culture seems pretty clear. Beholden to a base that longs for female deference, however, the Bush Administration is forced to play word games. Somewhat surprisingly, liberals actually buy into this folly by pouncing on the pejorative connotations of the phrase "work wife," attributing the success of women like Miers and Rice largely to their fealty to Bush.

But are such characterizations fair? Leaving aside the question of whether or not Miers' experience qualifies her for the Supreme Court, it's not as if she has no record of achievement beyond her alliance with Bush. In her career as a corporate lawyer, she presided over a firm with 400 attorneys, and represented the likes of Microsoft and Disney. Plus, she's an unusually forceful bowler. Bush, on the other hand, was a law school reject. Condoleezza Rice was a political science professor at Stanford; Bush probably believes politics should be based on intelligent design, not science.

Perhaps it would be more fitting to describe Bush's Brides as "work husbands," while the president himself, having fastidiously maintained his trim college cheerleader figure over the years, is a kind of trophy wife. At photo ops, he looks suitably presidential, and he seems to keep the Oval Office very tidy. But when it's time to venture beyond the Rose Garden or Crawford, Texas, who would you rather have negotiating with other world leaders? It's Bush's Brides, after all, who shop for his issues, launder his policy strategies, and iron his speeches.

And in return for their efforts? They get a shot at personal redemption, a chance to help other women avoid the fate that befell them. Unmarried and childless, they have had to console themselves with prestigious, challenging, lucrative careers. But instead of letting disillusionment overwhelm them, they've aligned themselves with forces that would like to repeal feminism's victories and return to a time when abortion was illegal, birth control scarce, marriage was a cultural imperative rather than an option, and women had a more realistic chance to become life wives, not just work wives.

You know, it's never too late to ask for a divorce...

Posted by Greg Beato at 05:09 PM