The recent tabloid politics tactics of Ted Cruz and Donald Trump whereby they were “attacking” each other’s spouses in the press have received a lot of media coverage. The mudslinging all started when an anti-Trump PAC published an ad targeted to the Mormon community which included Trump’s wife Melania posing nude in a photo which was taken for GQ magazine sixteen years ago. The ad caption was “Meet Melania Trump. Your next first lady.” While the Cruz campaign insisted that they had no involvement with the ad, Trump didn’t believe them. Trump responded by tweeting “Lyin’ Ted Cruz just used a picture of Melania from a G.Q. shoot in his ad. Be careful, Lyin’ Ted, or I will spill the beans on your wife!”
Trump also retweeted an unflattering photo of Heidi Cruz accompanied by a glamor pose of Melania with the caption “no need to ‘spill the beans’ the images are worth a thousand words.” Cruz countered by retweeting “Donald, real men don’t attack women. Your wife is lovely, and Heidi is the love of my life.” If this wasn’t enough, a few days later a National Enquirer article surfaced which included allegations that Cruz had at least five extramarital affairs, including one with Katrina Pierson, a Trump spokesperson and Amanda Carpenter, a former Cruz aide and current CNN contributor. Trump has denied any involvement with the article or otherwise perpetrating the scandal, which has been dubbed the “Cuban Mistress Crisis”.
While the media is making a big deal about the mean-spirited lowness of the Cruz/Trump wife wars, political smear campaigns involving the spouses of candidates are hardly a new phenomenon. In his recent article in The New York Post “Smearing presidential candidates’ wives is totally normal” Reed Tucker states that the National First Ladies’ Library historian Carl Anthony traces the first smear campaign against a first lady back to 1808 when “ the Federalist candidate Charles C. Pinckney circulated the tale that the Democratic-Republican candidate James Madison had made wife Dolly Madison sexually available to the widowed incumbent President Thomas Jefferson for his endorsement, turning her into, well, a political whore.” The 1828 election involving Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams was another smear fest where the Quincy Adams campaign accused Jackson’s wife of bigamy because she was not officially divorced from her first husband at the time of her 1791 marriage to Jackson. Her physical appearance was also attacked. “She was criticized for being fat and uneducated,” says “America’s First Ladies” author Betty Caroli. More recently, Cindy McCain, the wife of Arizona Senator John McCain came under attack during both McCain’s run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, which he lost to George W. Bush and during his run as the Republican presidential nominee in 2008 where he lost to Barack Obama. Mrs. McCain came under criticism for past problems with drug addiction. In addition, the McCain’s, who had adopted their daughter Bridget from an orphanage in Bangladesh, were subjected to tabloid rumors that Bridget was actually McCain’s illegitimate child.
So why is this Cruz/Trump spouse smear fest happening? Well, there are a number of reasons. The most obvious is that tabloid journalism works. While we all like to believe that we are all focused on evaluating political candidates based on their policy platforms, the reality is that the masses become more engaged by scandals than they do by legislation or budgets. There is also the catfight element. Remember the knock down drag out fights between Alexis and Krystle, the first and second wives of the Blake Carrington character in the 80’s series Dynasty? These feline battles between two designer clad big-haired women respectfully played by Joan Collins and Linda Evans made Dynasty “must see TV” during that programming era. In fact, while Carly Fiorina was still a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, the media was constantly boxing her into dialogues where she was forced to position herself against the front-runner Hillary Clinton. While obviously Ms. Fiorina was trying to make the case that she was the candidate to beat Clinton, there was still the phenomenon of let’s watch two female candidates tear each other’s hair out. And the public eats this stuff up.
So, in lieu of Trump and Cruz mud wrestling each other, a situation is established where their wives are competing against each other. What’s the contest? The ladies are in the battle for who is the most appropriate choice for first lady or more cynically said the spouse with the fewest skeletons in her closet. Furthermore, when the media or the Super-PACs pit one candidate’s spouse against another’s, a scenario is created where the candidates are forced to defend their spouses. Now, the new contest revolves around which candidate is the more gallant defender of his beloved lady’s honor. As they say, in political races, almost nothing is sacred. Every data point or anecdote becomes a potential source for competition.
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