• Marc Johnson

Politics Still Ain’t Beanbag


Finley Peter Dunne was an Irish-American writer and humorist and the creator of a once-popular character – Mr. Dooley – who Dunne famously had say in the 1890’s that, “politics ain’t beanbag.”

Mr. Dooley’s full quote, even more appropriate perhaps to the latest news out of a heavily contested congressional race in Idaho, was a bit more expansive. “Politics ain’t bean bag,” he said. “Tis a man’s game; an’ women, childher, an’ pro-hybitionists’d do well to keep out iv it.”

Idaho Republican Congressional candidate Vaughn Ward, the perceived front runner to take on Democrat Walt Minnick in the sprawling 1st District of Idaho, has been dealing with the enduring truth of Mr. Dooley’s famous quip the last couple of days.

The Idaho Statesman’s Dan Popkey wrote a long takeout on Ward’s family situation this week that centered on the fact that the candidate’s wife is a decade-long employee of the mortgage giant Fannie Mae. The relevance of that fact to Ward’s candidacy is that he has made a centerpiece of his campaign his opposition to federal bailouts of the big financial institutions that helped cause the mortgage meltdown. By inference, one of those financial institutions is the employer of Ward’s wife whose salary has allowed him to campaign full-time for high public office.

Ward blasted back at the story, saying he “never thought” his wife would be attacked. A careful reading of Popkey’s piece, played with up most prominence on page one under a headline stating that Ward’s family is supported by the bailout he opposes, indicates more emphasis on what some might see as Ward’s effort to have it both ways – attack the bailouts that arguably preserved his wife’s job – than any real attack on his wife. The newspaper, meanwhile, pushed back saying that the story was entirely appropriate, in part, because Ward had himself created the issue.

Still, the story begs the question: just what is fair and what is off limits when it comes to a political spouse? The simple answer: there aren’t any rules.

Was Michelle Obama’s comment during the last presidential campaign that for the first time she was “proud to be an American” relevant? Were Hillary Clinton’s long ago trades in cattle futures relevant? Montana Senator Max Baucus’ ex-wife had a run in at a garden store some years back that made headlines. Was that relevant?

Politics is a fish bowl where the water gets changed every day and it sure ain’t beanbag and never has been.

In 1989, Dan Popkey wrote a series of very tough articles focused on the nomination of then-Idaho first lady Carol Andrus to the board of then-Boise based Morrison-Knudsen Corporation. The allegations, at their core, were about integrity and struck at the potential for a conflict of interest. I know first-hand how tough the pieces were because I was serving as then-Gov. Cecil Andrus’ press secretary and had the unwelcome responsibility of fielding Popkey’s questions. When a prominent GOP legislator jumped on the story, it went quickly from personal to very political and Mrs. Andrus, a highly intelligent, thoughtful and very private person, alone made the decision to withdraw from consideration for the corporate board.

Obviously, 20 years later, I remember many of the details of that story with a certain pit in the middle of my stomach. Was it uncomfortable to deal with? Absolutely. Were the stories inherently unfair? Given the day, I can argue it either way. I do know that it is not realistic to think of any governor’s wife as anything other than a public person. Same goes for a congressman’s wife, or the wife of a congressional hopeful.

I also know, and Andrus says as much in his memoir, that it was a darn painful experience for a close family that knew the rules of the political game and above all valued personal integrity. He adds the observation in his book – with Bill and Hillary Clinton in mind – that “attacking the family has become a kind of blood sport nowadays.”

It is the rare public person who can for any length of time keep the political separate from the familial. True fact: stories like the Ward story have become an expected part of suiting up and climbing in the political ring. Perhaps in a more genteel world it wouldn’t be so, but in that make believe world genuine bipartisanship would exist, as well. What often matters most with such stories is how the politician deals with the adversity, particularly when the adversity involves a family member. In that case, it is not just politics, but very, very personal and in my experience one of the touchiest of all political issues to manage.

So, politics sure ain’t beanbag, but tis surely a game for grownups and it helps as a candidate to have a very thick hide. Helps if the spouse does, too.

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©2019 by Marc C Johnson