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Wives for wives' sake


I'VE been thinking about the speeches Barbara Bush and Marilyn Quayle are scheduled to give at the Republican National Convention. The women behind the men, out front and on their own at the podium -- can you imagine the uproar if Hillary Clinton had done the same?

There's lots to look forward to before the wives take the stage in Houston on the third night. There are the right-wing Pats, retro White House wannabes: Pat Robertson, who says he has no in tention of turning America over to radical homosexuals, in case that was keeping you up nights, and Pat Buchanan, who has said that women are "less equipped psychologically" to handle the big bad world of business.

There are your former presidents, Gerald Ford of the Nixon pardon Fords and Ronald Reagan, whose attorney said he absolutely, positively was not going to be indicted in the Iran-contra affair.

And with all this talk of the year of the woman, there's the distaff side of the party.

Carla Hills, the United States trade representative, will be speaking, and Commerce Secretary Barbara Franklin, too. Lynn Martin, the secretary of labor, will be nominating Mr. Bush. Maybe party leaders believe her support of abortion rights will send a tacit message that the party has room for all.

That may be too little too late. Polls in the California Senate races, in which Democrats Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein are a double threat, show three out of 10 Republican women crossing party lines to support them. For George Bush, those kinds of numbers could be the difference between a second term and a contract for his memoirs.

Mary Dent Crisp, former co-chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, now heading the National Republican Coalition for Choice, says she hears many moderate Republicans saying they will support Bill Clinton.

"It's because of abortion, but for some of them that's the straw that breaks the camel's back," she said sadly.

"Many of the women feel they're not being heard."

Which makes the unusually prominent convention role for Mrs. Bush and Mrs. Quayle curious.

Does the party mean to communicate, in a year in which women are seeking their own power, that the way to the podium is to marry well? Both women have done volunteer work of considerable moment. But that's not why they've been asked to speak. They've been asked because they are the wives.

Oh, people will tell you it's more than that. They'll cite the missing gene theory of political marriages, that she provides something he lacks. Nancy Reagan was said to carry Ronnie's retribution gene. Mrs. Bush is said to carry George's compassion gene.

Mrs. Quayle has more to do; it's said she carries the brain for the couple. The idea is that spliced together the husband and wife form a much more perfect political union. On the ballot the union happens to bear only the man's name.

Hillary Clinton was said to prefer the notion that two individuals together equaled two individuals. Folks said that made her an unnatural wife. To mitigate, she gave up her headbands and her speechifying. She couldn't give a speech at the Democratic convention; people would have said she was ambitious and power mad, carrying not her husband's genes, but her own agenda.

But Mrs. Bush and Mrs. Quayle can afford to give convention speeches in prime time with no Madame Nhu spin because it's assumed they are there solely for their men, altruism still considered more attractive than ambition in a woman in some circles.

Altruism may not be the best way to speak to disenchanted women in the party who have wearied of being the power behind instead of the power itself. Ms. Crisp says she can't persuade party poobahs that such women exist. They tell her polling numbers don't support her concerns.

And so they will seek the support of women, and of men, too, with the wives. Not average American wives, the kind who are making rations for two feed a family of four. But the wives who burnish the men who must shine in November.

They won't be up there because of the women they've become. They'll be there because of the men they married. Female without being threatening, prominent without having power. They may carry the missing genes. But carrying California may require something very different.

Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.

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