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Under Political Stress, Turning To Spouses


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, a controversial ballot initiative in Mississippi that is expected to be voted on next week, would make it law in that state that life begins at conception. We'll find out exactly what the measure says and we'll hear from two faith leaders about how their beliefs guided them to opposite conclusions on this matter. That's coming up. But first, we want to talk about the story that has roiled this already tumultuous presidential campaign season.

A third woman said she considered filing a workplace complaint against Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain in the 1990's, this according to The Associated Press. All week Mr. Cain, the former chairman of Godfather's Pizza making his first run for political office, has been confronting questions about his behavior during his time leading the National Restaurant Association.

According to Politico, two women received financial settlements from the association to settle charges of sexual harassment in the 1990's. After first denying any knowledge of the allegations, Mr. Cain then reversed himself and acknowledged this settlement to a former employee. A man who was working as a consultant to the association has also said he witnessed the behavior and it was widely known. And, in what would be another reversal for the Cain campaign, Herman Cain's wife Gloria might soon give an exclusive interview to Fox News.

According to the Washington Post the interview would be her first since the scandal broke. We wanted to talk more about these issues as well as the interesting question of what role the spouses are playing during what is already a very vigorous campaign. So, we've called upon Nia-Malika Henderson. She's a political reporter for The Washington Post. Also with us Lynn Sweet, she's the Washington Bureau Chief for The Chicago-Sun Times. Welcome to you both.


LYNN SWEET: Hey there, good to be here.

MARTIN: Lynn, I'm going to start with you. You're a veteran of many campaigns and you've followed many candidates who've found themselves in embarrassing, you know, awkward situations. Now, of course there's always the media story; who's covering what and why. There's the camp - you know, there's the story of the supporters, the base of what, you know, it turns out that Mr. Cain seems to be doing really well in fundraising. But I'm interested in how you think he's handled this as a candidate?

SWEET: He's handled it miserably as a candidate. He has made a mess more of a mess. He has broken every rule in every public relations handbook and this will be a case study I'm sure on how to botch a bad situation.

MARTIN: How so, and why - why do you say that?

SWEET: Well, because you have to, you know, what is - what happened? He couldn't get the facts out. His story, an explanation evolved as the day (unintelligible) went by, and he has not been able - and the distraction that his campaign is bringing up to try and deflect this, which is the distraction is who is responsible for this story?

MARTIN: He's blaming it on the campaign.

SWEET: Well, he's assuming it came from a leak and not the enterprise of the reporters who broke this story over Politico. And I have no idea how it came from. So, they're trying to create a side issue on that, which still doesn't take away the essential question - what happened to who and when, where, and why?

MARTIN: Nia, just a brief thought if you would on this whole question of how you think that he's handled it, and do you think that are his supporters taking this seriously?

HENDERSON: Well, it seems like they aren't taking it seriously and by that I mean they liked him before and they still like him. They have bought into what the Cain - what Cain's argument has been, which is that these charges, you know, were baseless, that these charges were perhaps cooked up by either the liberal media who, you know, are thinking about Clarence Thomas and don't like to see a black conservative rise. They're also buying into maybe it was the Perry campaign.

You know, and you've seen that he's been able to raise something like a million dollars over these past five days since this has been roiling. I think his saving grace over these last days has been that we don't know what happened. There have been vague revelations that he's made about what happened about a woman in his office and comparing the woman to his wife's height and apparently that made it into the sexual harassment claims that this woman brought about.

So, that has been what's helped him, I think. I talked to Senator Jim DeMint last night who met with Cain yesterday and his sense was if nothing else comes out then he doesn't think it hurts him, and in fact he thinks it helps him. That's a big if, in terms of the details because this has been a rolling disclosure sort of approach that Mr. Cain has made and obviously if more women start to come out or if this confidentiality agreement is broken then we could finally have a sort of smoking gun in this case.

MARTIN: Let me just mention that I misspoke her that I meant to say that he'd never this is his first presidential campaign. Herman Cain did run for office before he ran for the Georgia Senate seat in 2004. You know, I asked her the question of the spouses, which is one of the things we wanted to talk about today. Let me just play a clip of Herman Cain on NBC's "Meet The Press" last month. He was asked about when the public would see more of his wife, Gloria.


MARTIN: You know Lynn that's - what about that? We were talking about this earlier that it has become, you know, an interesting question at a time of scandal when the spouse of a candidate comes forward. You know, during the, you know, Hillary Clinton - when President Clinton faced, you know, numerous questions about his behavior toward women during his time as governor and, you know, Hillary Clinton was, you know, right there. Then of course there was that cringe-inducing moment when New York Governor Elliott Spitzer was called to account for his involvement with prostitutes and then his wife stood with him. But then subsequently you've seen a lot of wives refusing to come forward.

SWEET: Like in the Governor Sanford case.

MARTIN: Governor Sanford case and...

SWEET: Isn't it amazing how many there are just in the last few years?

MARTIN: I don't know if it's amazing. And then of course Anthony Weiner, the (unintelligible) congressman who lost his seat; never saw his wife who was an aide.

SWEET: Never a woman. We never - never a woman.

MARTIN: So, what do you think now the decision to even sort of contemplate having Gloria Cain come forward. What's your analysis for that?

SWEET: If this well, the clip we heard was perfectly reasonable, that if she doesn't want to be involved she won't until she wants to be. Howard Dean's wife was not on the campaign trail when he ran for president. So, it's a perfectly reasonable thing to not if a wife chooses not to be involved in the campaign. Now, if she just happens to roll out in this next week or two, it isn't - I would say it will be a launch of problematic timing.

I don't know. Until he settles down and says - and we find out what happened, her role in making things better for him I think is difficult. She can be 200 percent behind him. Yeah, two or three things could be true. She's 200 percent behind him and there was something that happened, which we really don't know for sure yet, though Politico's reporting so far seems solid.

MARTIN: Nia, quickly. What do you think about the decision to contemplate having Gloria Cain come out right now? What role would she play? What would she say?

HENDERSON: You know, I think we don't we obviously don't know. They're in talks now with Greta Van Susteren to have this interview and possibly as early as next week. You know, and I think the spouse there next to the husband sitting there probably holding his hand could serve as a validator, could serve as someone who humanizes Herman Cain, and in some ways subtly signal that she's OK with it so, the viewing audience should be OK with it too.

MARTIN: OK, but Fox News - well, let's just - just to say it. You know, Fox News is viewed as a friendly - friendly way for a Republican candidate, isn't it?

HENDERSON: But this is...

MARTIN: I mean, this is not like going on "60 minutes."

HENDERSON: Hold on, (Unintelligible). Her interview with Cain was pretty tough and she revealed some of the flip-flops about the settlement, and his interview I think also on "Special Report with Bret Baier" - pretty, pretty tough - and Chris Wallace, too. They've been pretty tough on these guys from what I see.

SWEET: Absolutely, because this is - Fox's work in this primary is pretty darn good because it's a Republican primary. It's a fight within the family, and I have no issue with their reporting because this is the turf they know the best and Greta Van Susteren is a terrific interviewer when it comes to stories like this.

HENDERSON: Yeah, and she has a lot of push-back from...


HENDERSON: ...viewers for that interview, in fact.

MARTIN: We're talking about the political news of the week with Lynn Sweet of The Chicago-Sun Times and Nia-Malika Henderson of The Washington Post. We've been talking about Herman Cain's troubles.

Now let's switch gears and just talk a little bit about - in the couple of minutes that we have left - about other political spouses who have made news on the campaign trail. Anita Perry, wife of Texas Governor Rick Perry...

SWEET: She's been very active.

MARTIN: ...has been one of the more visible wives.

SWEET: Very active. One of the most. Yes.

MARTIN: Can we talk about that? I mean, she's come under fire for her comments last month when she said her husband had been, quote, "brutalized" by the campaign.

SWEET: Oh, and she's active out there. (Unintelligible) political spouse and the presidential campaign has - the major role she chooses to take on - or he, except we don't have any he's.

MARTIN: Yes, we do. Michele Bachmann's husband.

HENDERSON: Bachmann. Yeah.

SWEET: Oh, yes. Sorry, everyone.

HENDERSON: Yeah. I don't think he's out there very much, though.

SWEET: He's not out there. They could be terrific fundraising surrogates and top spokesmen for the candidate when the candidate can't make it. Anita Perry has taken on that role. Others haven't.


HENDERSON: And they can also talk about things that the candidate can't talk about. Rick Perry, you've seen, has had a real problem with this HPV vaccine, supporting that, and Anita Perry, of course, is a nurse and I think she might be able to connect with women voters and explain to them what her husband was thinking around this.

That's something you've seen Michelle Obama do with issues over race, for instance. She was seen on the campaign trail as a kind of ambassador to black America and in some ways, she's done that in the White House.

So I think we'll see these folks out there, be it Anita Perry, Ann Romney, and we're going to hear for the first time probably from Gloria Cain. I don't even know what her voice sounds like.

MARTIN: But, as you know, it can be problematic. Many people will remember, during the 2008 campaign, when Michelle Obama created a firestorm for these remarks, saying that this was - for the first time - and we've seen the reaction that her husband was getting on the campaign trail - said this is the first time in my adult lifetime I'm really proud of my country.


MARTIN: So that could cause a huge (unintelligible)...

SWEET: It caused her to be militantly non-controversial ever since then, which has served her well.

MARTIN: You think it's served her well?

SWEET: Oh, absolutely. But what we don't get is her voice on anything remotely topical, except for her carefully chosen soundbites.

MARTIN: And Nia-Malika, a final thought from you. Is there anything that political spouses can learn from what Michelle Obama went through?

HENDERSON: Yes. I think the way to go, in some ways, is to be militantly non-controversial, which is, you know, I think the hard lesson that she learned on the campaign trail. She's got approval ratings, something like 63, 65 percent, so I think, you know, keep it as - you know, stay away from the bitter partisanship, I think, is the thing that she learned.

MARTIN: You know, one question we didn't get to, which we'll hopefully get to the next time we see you both and I hope that we will - is are the rules different for wives of Democratic candidates and Republican candidates? That's one of the questions...

HENDERSON: Oh, baby. Yes.

MARTIN: ...I think we should talk about.

HENDERSON: Stay tuned.

MARTIN: All right.

HENDERSON: Have us back.

MARTIN: Lynn Sweet is Washington Bureau Chief for The Chicago-Sun Times. She was nice enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Nia-Malika Henderson is a political reporter for The Washington Post. She's also the author of Election 2012 blog on PostPolitics.com. She was with us from The Washington Post studios. Thank you both.

SWEET: Thank you.

HENDERSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.