The Presidential Marriage

Fred Thompson's possible liabilities with the religious right


Tennessee's Fred Thompson has been described, albeit resentfully, as the â“Mighty Mouseâ” who will save the day for the Republican Party in 2008. He's cited in particular as the only one who can galvanize the party's socially conservative, family-values wing, those disaffected by Giuliani's ease with the subjects of abortion and gay marriage.

Of course, that same right wing has proven itself to be especially strict on the issue of heterosexual marriage. In the Republican right wing, the nuclear family is idealized, and sacrosanct. Irregularities once considered a private matter, and none of your business, are now laid open for public criticism.

The conservatives did give a pass to Ronald Reaganâ"who, perhaps ironically considering his position as the founding father of the New Right, was also our country's first, and to date only, divorced president. It may have helped that all that transpired more than three decades before his first election. They were not forgiving towards Bill Clinton's embarrassing attempts to cover his infidelities, which some regarded as an impeachable offense.

Whether rightly or wrongly, consistently regarded or not, marital status is enormous in American politics, and sometimes emerges in unpredictable ways. In last year's U.S. Senate contest between Bob Corker and Harold Ford, race was much talked about nationally as the election's major issue. Ford would have been Tennessee's first black senator, sure enough. Much less discussed was the fact that he would have been Tennessee's first bachelor senator in half a century. That fact, though never addressed very directly, was central to the Corker campaign, in both the officially approved TV spots, where he introduced his wife and daughters (â“because I want you to meet m'girlsâ”) and in the more notorious ad where Ford is presented as a promiscuous partier, the consummate bachelor. The subtext was that Corker was normal, part of the dutifully married majority, like you and me.

In the last century or so, wives have emerged as de-facto running mates. Some voters, especially conservative women voters, tell us they voted for a candidate because they like his wife.

The inevitable question is what will the right-thinking, family-values folks of the American right think of Fred Thompson? Having divorced his first wife in his early 40s, Thompson developed a much-envied reputation as a ladies' man, reportedly dating a string of much-younger women. Among them was Nashville starlet Lorrie Morgan, who described him in complimentary if superficial terms, in her autobiography (â“He could charm voters. He could also charm meâ. He wined and dined me and brought me presentsâ"furs, earrings, Chanel shoes with real high heelsâ.â”) After about 17 years of dating around, just before his 60th birthday, Thompson settled down and married a much-younger buxom blonde named Jeri Kehn. And though ex-girlfriend Morgan said Thompson's rule while they dated was â“no cleavage baby,â” the few photos of Kehn on the Internet, which depict her attending formal functions with Thompson, suggest the former senator has adjusted that rule for his younger bride.

By modern secular American standards, there's nothing illegal or immoral about any of that. If Thompson were a liberal, he'd have little to worry about. And Kehn, no bimbo, is a successful attorney. Some true fundamentalists still do condemn marriage after divorce as a sin. There's a troublesome statute in Matthew equating remarriage with adultery, but in this day and age when so many of us are divorced, even fundamentalists seem happy to overlook it. Reagan surely won't be the last divorced man to be elected to the presidency .

The wild card for the American conservative may be the demographics of this particular remarriage. Thompson's current wife, born in 1967, is 25 years younger than Thompson, and younger than any of his previous children.

Maybe there's nothing innately unconservative about that. Such an arrangement was probably more common in previous generations, and it does have a practical side. In some ways, a wide gap between husband and wife is ideal. Women's capacity for childbearing peaks in the 20s and 30s. Men's breadwinning potential tends to peak after 50, which is also a time when men may be more appreciative of parenthood, not to mention monogamy. Thompson's wife immediately began having babies. And Thompson, being wealthier than he was when he was a young man living in public housing, is now best able to provide a young family with everything they need.

And it's not unprecedented. One president did have a wife with a similar age difference: Democrat Grover Cleveland who, still a bachelor at 49, married a woman not quite 22, the daughter of a former law partner. (In 1886, it was not the age difference so much as the fact that the bride had been Cleveland's legal ward that was cause for controversy.)

So far, Thompson's unusual marriage been the subject of a few jokes, but not much scrutiny from the religious right, nor analysis of its effect on voters' sympathies. The unspoken reaction may be the GOP's biggest concern.

Thompson, who is a 65-year-old man, has never been married to any woman who is as old as 45. How will conservative female voters his age or even a decade or two younger respond to that? Those who know a single middle-aged woman who's been dating lately may have some idea. And will conservative men also grumble inwardly that their right-thinking contemporary is not playing by the rules?

Maybe, this time, the religious right will decide a man's personal life is none of our business, that he should marry whom he wants to, when he wants to, regardless of what the Bible says, or how many Americans get the heebie-jeebies about it. That might be refreshing. But then, for some on the social right, that leaves the door open for other heresies.


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