Women in Need of an Explanation/Married to Reagan

We’ve talked about how much these books echo each other or seem to be written from a set of stock templates before—when Bernie Sanders and Ben Carson had almost identical opening chapters, for a start.  Here’s another set of coincidences that struck me as I worked through Ted Cruz’s book.

Marrying Reagan

Scott Walker is in a chapter about the protest over Act 10 when he mentions that

“Tonette [Walker’s wife] and I host a dinner each year on Reagan’s birthday.  We serve his favorite foods—macaroni and cheese casserole, and red, white, and blue Jelly Belly jelly beans—and have musicians perform patriotic songs and Irish music” (58).

Fair enough—but then he continues.

“It happens to be a dual celebration because President Reagan’s birthday is also our wedding anniversary.  Tonette jokes that I never forget our wedding anniversary because it is Reagan’s birthday” (58).

Okay—I’m curious if the date was a coincidence, because planning to get married on Reagan’s birthday is next-level fandom.

But Walker’s not alone: Ted Cruz also pauses in his extended recollection of his time working for the Bush campaign to mention that it was there where he met his wife, Heidi Cruz.  When the recount was over, they got married—but not just anywhere.

“The day before the ceremony, we took our wedding party to a picnic at Rancho del Cielo, the Reagan Ranch (it’s now a museum).  I think for most of the wedding party, that was their favorite memory of the weekend, but I would be in deep trouble if I were to say it was mine” (129).

Implying, of course, that, winkingly, it was.  Ouch.  In the chaos of his wedding weekend, Ted Cruz continues, calling the trip to Rancho del Cielo was “a moving, even spiritual experience.”  Although he “would not dream of” sitting in Reagan’s chair, he spent

“twenty or thirty minutes behind that chair, looking out that window and soaking up the ambiance of a man I’ve admired my whole life for having the courage to stand by his deep principles and the ability to lay out a vision that transformed this country and the world” (129).

First, Ted Cruz’s prose is atrociously platitude-laden, and I look forward to talking more about this soon.  But second, looking at this like a detective or an English major might, it’s hard to see this as just a coincidence.  Both candidates use their wives—and their weddings—to demonstrate not a deep commitment to the women they’ve convinced to spend their lives with them, but a deep commitment to Ronald Reagan.  Ted Cruz and Scott Walker take the momentary focus on their wives—one of the so very few places they talk about women at all!—and shift it back to a focus on another man.

But this brings up another coincidence, and taken altogether, these raise some questions about the treatment of wives in male political memoirs.

Wives as Ordinary, Uninformed Citizens In Need of an Explanation

Gun control is a huge topic to Ted Cruz.  In Chapter eight, “Into the Beast,” he describes his battles over the second amendment during his first term in the senate.  He’s battling with Dianne Feinstein and Chuck Schumer over proposed bans on assault weapons when, suddenly,

“I recall in the middle of the debate, my wife, Heidi, a native Californian who was raised on the Central Coast in a vegetarian family that does not live and breathe politics every single day, asked quite innocently, “Should people really be carrying machine guns everywhere they go?” She was surprised when I told her that fully automatic machine guns have been effectively illegal in the United States for general possession since 1934…With a confused look, she then asked, “Well, what is an assault weapon then?” I replied that the most accurate definition of an assault weapon under the Democrats’ legislation is “any gun that looks scary”” (246).

This is clearly a chance for Ted Cruz to punctuate his dense procedural-historical discussion with a moment of human interest, but also a way to segue into a discussion of the definition of an assault weapon (deliberately dumbed-down).  But Heidi Cruz functions here to make Ted Cruz’s argument relatable, and to make her questions—and valid questions!—seem kind of silly and misguided.  Heidi Cruz is a stand-in for an ordinary American.  She doesn’t ask because she’s a bad person—she does it innocently, and she’s a little confused, poor dear.*

Walker does the exact same thing, only more explicitly:

“Tonette is an excellent political barometer for me because she is like a lot of Wisconsin voters—smart and well read but focused on things other than politics.  Despite being married to me, her life is centered not on events in Madison but on raising our two sons, her work at the American Lung Association, and her volunteer work with teens and young adults recovering from substance abuse addictions.  She is your typical informed voter… Now here she was, demanding to know: “Why are these protesters in front of our house?…” We talked it over and prayed about it together.  Eventually I convinced her that our reforms were a necessary course of action and worth the pain and grief they were causing our family.  That gave me hope.  If I could convince Tonette, I could probably convince most of our citizens as well” (86).

Scott Walker is a little bit less grating than Ted Cruz here—Ted Cruz implicitly insults his wife’s intelligence, but Scott Walker just emphasizes that he knows more than Tonette Walker.  On the other hand, Walker implies elsewhere that some wives understand his policies more because they’ve been explained to them by their husbands.  In discussing teacher support for his union proposals, Walker says that he could tell when a teacher was going to come up and express support.  But often, a certain kind of teacher:

“Often the teacher was married to someone who ran his own business.  As much as anyone, he understood the real costs of employee benefits and was not put off by our reforms” (186).

Both of these are condescending.  I recognize that this is an implicit reading in the text, but but that doesn’t mean that it’s not there.  Women are not the imagined audience of these books, and the candidates don’t recognize their own partners—let alone women in general—as intellectual equals.

In addition to getting at these candidates’ (and former candidates’) questionable positions on gender, even implicitly, I think this set of coincidences also shows one of the oddities of political memoir—specifically how although all of the events and people described may be true and real, they function as characters, and characters serve specific functions in the narrative and the message.

Wives appear to be particularly malleable characters.  Mrs. Walker and Mrs. Cruz, by occasion of their marriages to Messrs. Walker and Cruz, allow the candidates to demonstrate that even on their wedding day, they dream of the Gipper.  In a way, some factions within literary criticism might go so far as to argue that the wives actually stand in for Reagan: the candidates’ commitment to Reagan is like a kind of political marriage.  But the wives can also stand in for ordinary voters, demonstrating a kind of trusting receptivity to their husbands’ wisdom.  The masculinity of the strong, Reagan-ish contender is clearer against a feminized voter.  There have been enough references to the ‘testosterone levels’ of this campaign cycle so far—especially in the discussions over the presence/absence of Trump at last night’s debate—that talking about the presidency as gendered male is nothing revolutionary (and part of why Hilary is going to have a hard time no matter what happens).  But I think it’s interesting that the attribution of ‘testosterone’ and ‘masculinity’ often creates this gender binary between candidate and voter.  Even though I think both of these books are written with a male audience in mind, the voter is still feminized through this approach to the candidates’ wives.

I should say here, though, that this is not a universal thing.  While most candidates mention their spouses, it was just these two and this odd overlap that really stood out to me.  I think this says something more specific about the mold that these two are trying to fall into, with the strong, Reaganite leader—but that’s still something specific that makes me wary, as a voter, and definitely as a reader.

*While the parallels are clearest with Cruz and Walker, Huckabee also has a moment where he recalls an editor at the AP expressing her view that a ban on semiautomatic weapons made sense because semiautomatic weapons were unnecessary for hunting.  Huckabee expresses himself “stunned at her ignorance” and uses ‘Ma’am’ because “the use of “ma’am” as a way to express contempt in the nicest possible way is another Southern thing” (31).  The editor is definitely portrayed as a bad–though still confused–person here.  Women and guns—amirite, bro?

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