September 17, 1990 12:00 PM

by Ann Grimes

No one is elected to the position of First Lady, but with each presidential election the role of the candidate’s wife has become more important. And more difficult.

Betty Ford challenged her husband’s position on the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion; Rosalynn Carter was her husband’s chief political adviser and sat in on Cabinet meetings; Nancy Reagan spent eight years covertly interfering with the staff and schedules of the White House. All of them drew criticism for their activism.

If the American public isn’t sure what it wants in its First Ladies, though, one thing is certain: Marriage and mates are now a major factor in American politics, often overshadowing a campaign’s real issues.

Grimes, a Washington-based free-lancer, uses the very relevant 1988 campaign to look at the role of candidates” spouses, especially as the media zero in on the hated A question (A for adultery), precipitated by the Gary Hart-Donna Rice escapade.

After 319 pages, Grimes has offered lots of anecdotes but little in the way of insight. There are intriguing snapshot glimpses of Barbara Bush—her anger at an aide, her influence with the President, even her delight at being complimented on her chic appearance during inaugural week. She broke into a dance “a bit like a twist.” and chanted in honor of her designer, “Scaasi! Scaasi! Scaasi! All Scaasi clothes!”

In general, however, even when the running mates were candid with Grimes, their comments just hang there. “We were feeling our way,” Jane Gephardt confessed to the author. “We really didn’t know. There was so much press saying. ‘This is the new age of presidential candidates’ wives. It’s not the way it was before.” We didn’t have any idea of what the role was. The stories were different this time. You thought, ‘Gee whiz, how visible am I? How far do I go? This is the new age, yet I don’t know what the new age or the new role is.’ ” (Morrow, $21.95)

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