Politics and divorce

I had forgotten about this story, but I found it deep in my clips file. I remember being assigned this story and not really wanting to do it. I didn’t like the idea of calling up these politicians and asking them to talk about their divorces. Sure enough, none of them wanted to talk. I do remember that this story got pretty good play around the country — this clip came from the Tampa Tribune. 

Divorce no bar in Maine politics

AUGUSTA, Maine (UPI) — Top-level politics is no family matter in Maine, where the state’s two U.S. senators recently filed for divorce and the last two governors are among the ranks of the formerly married.

At a time when the public has focused on Gary Hart’s marital situation, the old adage that one must be stably married to succeed in politics has been thrown out the window in the Pine Tree State.

Gov. John McKernan has been divorced since 1978.  Democratic Rep. Joseph Brennan, who swapped jobs in January with former GOP congressman McKernan, was divorced in 1976. And when GOP Sen. William S. Cohen and Democratic Sen. George Mitchell announced within the past six months they were seeking divorces after marriages of 25 and 28 years, respectively, it raised more eyebrows in Washington than in Bangor or Portland.

Rep. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, the state’s other member of Congress, has been a widow since 1973. She and McKernan are good friends and say they have dated.

“The people in Maine think nothing of it,” said James Russell Wiggins, former editor of the Washington Post, who moved to coastal Maine in 1969 to publish the weekly Ellsworth American newspaper. “I don’t think anybody ever raised divorce as an issue with Brennan’s election or McKernan’s, and you don’t hear about it with Cohen or Mitchell, either.”

Some political analysts say the state may have so many divorced politicians because Maine voters stress Yankee independence over conventional morals.

Other say Maine politics reflect a national acceptance — in a country where nearly 50 percent of marriages are expected to end in divorce — that even politicians and their spouses should not endure miserable marriages until death do them part.

“I suppose there isn’t a family in the country that hasn’t been affected  directly or indirectly by divorce,” said Professor Gary Orren of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.”Divorce has become so widespread, it doesn’t have the impact it once had.”

President Reagan’s 1948 divorce from actress Jane Wyman was a non-issue in his 1980 and 1984 elections to the White House, in contrast to the clouds of controversy surrounding the divorces of Adlai Stevenson and Nelson Rockefeller in their unsuccessful presidential bids in the 1950s and 1960s.

“Ronald Reagan is the first president to have been divorced, and it has been seven years since he was elected,” said Robert Rose, a Washington consultant who worked as press aide to Maine Sen. Edmund S. Muskie. “He is also the first president in my memory who openly doesn’t go to church. I think much of that stuff has been buried in the 1980s.”

All five of Maine’s top elected officials declined to discuss their marriages or the pressures public life can place on a marital relationship.

“He considers that personal, and he won’t talk about his personal life,” said Willis Lyford, McKernan’s press secretary.

Political analysts, however, say marriage and politics are incompatible for many people, even those with the strongest of relationships.

“I don’t know whether or not it can be compatible,” said Larry Berg, head of the Institute of Politics and Government at the University of California. “Politics is so much an ego-power kind of thing.”

“The other thing that is intriguing is the aura of sex that surrounds the way people follow members (of Congress) who are viewed as being influential,” he said. “It reminds me of the groupie thing.”

But politics is possible without families today, Berg said, because people have altered their views on divorce.

Orren, of the Kennedy School’s Press and Politics Center, said television has played an important role in altering voters’ views on politicians and divorce.

“The technology alone has added to seeing them more as people and less as executives,” he said. “They’re more proximate, less distant. By seeing them more daily in lots of different settings on TV, I think their image as ordinary people has been enhanced.”


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