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Whispers about wives nothing new in presidential politics

| Saturday, March 26, 2016, 11:00 p.m.
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DANE, WI - MARCH 24: With his wife Heidi by his side, Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) tours the Dane Manufacturing facility before speaking to workers on March 24, 2016 in Dane, Wisconsin. Wisconsin voters go to the polls for the state's primary on April 5. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Donald Trump's social media attacks on Ted Cruz's wife, Heidi, and the Texas senator's furious response — though tawdry — are nothing new. Dragging private lives of candidates' spouses into presidential campaigns is almost as old as the country.

On Thursday, Cruz angrily pledged to keep Trump from securing the Republican nomination after Trump, blaming Cruz for being behind an attack ad that featured a nude Melania Trump, threatened to “spill the beans” on Cruz's wife.

Trump then retweeted a photo of Mrs. Trump, a professional model, looking stunning beside a very unflattering photo of Mrs. Cruz with the caption: “The images are worth a thousand words.”

Cruz shot back at a press gaggle Thursday: “It's not easy to tick me off. I don't get angry often, but you mess with my wife, you mess with my kids, that'll do it every time. Donald, you're a sniveling coward and leave Heidi the hell alone.”

The events were ugly, self-serving and cringe-worthy in a campaign cycle filled with cringe-worthy moments, said Bruce Haynes, a Washington-based, conservative media consultant. “But it is certainly nothing new in our history,” Haynes said.

The precedent of spouses being fair game in presidential campaigns was set in 1828 with Rachel Jackson, wife of Andrew Jackson.

At issue was her controversial marital history and the timing of her divorce from her first husband and subsequent marriage to Jackson, Haynes said.

Newspapers of the time show that Jackson's wife faced daily assaults on her character, with newspapers sympathetic to Jackson's rivals making charges of adultery and polygamy against her.

The assaults took a terrible toll. Weakened by stress, Rachel Jackson died of heart failure soon after the election, before Jackson was sworn in to office.

Attacking candidates' spouses has been an American political tradition since, said Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University.

Eldon Eisenach, professor of political science, emeritus, at the University of Tulsa, said while Mrs. Jackson's example is the most notorious, whisper campaigns about other candidates' wives have been common. He said there were insinuations that Kitty Dukakis, wife of the 1988 Democratic nominee, participated in radical activities such as burning the American flag and that Betty Ford had a substance abuse problem.

“The latter turned out to be true,” Eisenach said.

There were whispers that Mamie Eisenhower was always drunk, he said, because Eisenhower's rivals “misinterpreted her inner ear problem as too much drinking.”

Perhaps closest to the Jackson example was Rockefeller.

“Happy Rockefeller was accused of adultery,” Zelizer said of the second wife of Nelson Rockefeller. Their divorces from their first spouses and immediate marriage to each other in May 1963 occurred when he was in the second of his four terms as governor of New York and a leading contender for the Republican nomination for the presidency.

The Republican establishment was stunned when longtime supporter and Rockefeller friend Connecticut Sen. Prescott S. Bush fired the first shot: “Have we come to the point where a governor can desert his wife and children and persuade a young woman to abandon her four children and husband? Have we come to the point where one of the two great parties will confer its greatest honor on such a one? I venture to hope not.”

Rockefeller did not give up without a fight. Campaigning vigorously, he came within striking distance of becoming the nominee the next year, but in June, weeks before the July nominating convention, Happy gave birth to a baby boy, and according to news reports at the time, Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater took advantage of his opponent's brief absence from the campaign trail to flood the airwaves with ads that questioned the New York governor's morals.

In 1972, Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie was leading his rivals in his attempt to secure the Democratic Party's nomination for that year's election. Early head-to-head national polls showed him beating incumbent Republican President Richard Nixon in a hypothetical battle. News reports at the time show that his campaign began to falter after a series of “dirty tricks” orchestrated by the Nixon White House began before the New Hampshire primary. It collapsed after he defended his wife Jane's honor with what appeared to be tears in his eyes in front of the conservative Union Leader in Manchester.

The paper had run an unsavory editorial saying his wife liked to tell raunchy jokes, drink and smoke cigarettes. It was the same paper that days earlier ran the infamous “Canuck Letter,” an anonymous letter planted by Nixon's team that accused Muskie of slurring French Americans.

Muskie held an impassioned news conference in front of the paper, but a snow storm gave the impression he was in tears, which was reported the next day and ruined his reputation as a calm and reasonable statesman. His campaign never recovered, and Sen. George McGovern went on to win the Democratic nomination and lose in the general to Nixon.

“Politicians have done this as a way to undermine public perceptions of their opponent and to raise doubts about who was really in charge — or would be — of the White House,” Zelizer said.

The difference this year is that the attacks are amplified across social media and cable and network news, Haynes said.

What makes this fight interesting, Haynes said, is that it was started — with an ad featuring the half-nude photo of Trump's wife — by an outside group with no official ties to any candidate, whose main mission is to stop Trump's march to the nomination.

“It shows the power and influence that outside groups can have on the direction and agenda of a presidential campaign,” Haynes said.

By Friday, Cruz accused “Donald Trump and his henchmen” of having something to do with a National Enquirer story alleging that Cruz had engaged in extramarital affairs.

Trump responded with a statement saying, “I have nothing to do with the National Enquirer, and unlike Lyin' Ted Cruz, I do not surround myself with political hacks and henchman (sic) and then pretend total innocence.”

Trump went on to say the National Enquirer was right about O.J. Simpson, John Edwards and many others: “I certainly hope they are not right about Lyin' Ted Cruz.”

Salena Zito is a Tribune-Review staff writer.

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