Of Presidents and Trophy Wives

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I am not a
regular reader of the New York Times, in part because of
its non-functioning log-in software, which has not worked predictably
from day one. I have described this problem before. I was never
a reader of the “Style and Fashion” section, a politically correct
way of describing what in most papers was once called the Women’s
Section.

In a political
blog, I came across a reference to a cattier-than-thou column by
Susan Saulny, “Will Her Face Determine His Fortune?
It was a column of Fred Thompson’s wife, age 40. Here, we read:

Now, with
the possible candidacy of Fred D. Thompson, the grandfatherly
actor and former Republican senator from Tennessee, whose second
wife is almost a quarter-century his junior, comes a less palatable
inquiry that is spurring debate in Internet chat rooms, on cable
television and on talk radio: Is America ready for a president
with a trophy wife?

The question
may seem sexist, even crass, but serious people — as well as
Mr. Thompson’s supporters — have been wrestling with the public
reaction to Jeri Kehn Thompson, whose youthfulness, permanent
tan and bleached blond hair present a contrast to the 64-year-old
man who hopes to win the hearts of the conservative core of the
Republican party. Will the so-called values voters accept this
union?

The accompanying
photo of Mr. and Mrs. Thompson is of such a nature that neither
her face nor her hair color are what caught my attention. (And age
40? Are you kidding me?)

In any case,
the question of presidents and trophy wives reminded me of the original
trophy-wife example in American presidential history. Ms. Saulny
is apparently unaware of it.

THE CONSOLATION
PRIZE

In September,
1842, the wife of President John Tyler died.

On February
28, 1844, President Tyler, his Secretary of State, and a group of
friends took a tour on the U.S.S. Princeton. The President
went below decks. Secretary Upshur and other guests remained above.
During a demonstration of a canon, it exploded, killing Upshur and
several guests. One of them was a New York State Senator, David
Gardiner.

His daughter
had accompanied her father on board. She survived the accident.
For over a year, Julia Gardiner had been the belle of Washington,
D.C. This pretty, witty young woman had caught the eye of many eligible
bachelors, possibly even President Tyler.

Tyler decided
to comfort her in her grief. He continued to comfort her. But she
needed more than comforting. She needed true consolation. So, on
June 26, 1844, he married her. He was 54. She was 24. She became
the first First Lady to gain the unofficial office by marrying a
President, mid-term.

There was the
usual chatter regarding their three-decade difference in age —
and, I suspect, a great deal of masculine jealousy. This did not
appear to bother the Tylers.

John Tyler
was not a popular President. In 1841, he had been expelled from
the Whig Party for vetoing a series of boondoggles proposed by the
Whig-controlled Congress, including the chartering of a Third Bank
of the United States, which he vetoed twice. He had no political
base. He did not gain the nomination in 1844.

So, in 1845,
three days after he signed a bill annexing Texas into the Union,
he took his wife and returned to the family plantation in Virginia,
where he fathered seven children, adding to his existing seven.
He died in 1862. She died in 1889.

His grandson,
Harrison Ruffin Tyler, is still alive. He resides on the family
land that was occupied long ago by his grandparents. (It must be
something to be the grandson of a man born in George Washington’s
Presidency, let alone his first term.)

When it comes
to trophy wives, few have ever matched Julia Tyler. But an incumbent
President is something of a trophy himself, even one without a political
party. I would say especially one without a political party.

CONCLUSION

The
case of the Tylers neither supports nor refutes Ms. Saulny’s suggestion
that Mrs. Thompson may be a political liability. All I can add is
this: If Mr. Thompson fails to gain the high office he seeks, he
can console himself in the same way that ex-President Tyler consoled
himself after 1845.

There is nothing
like a little consoling when you’re in your sixties, I always say,
or at least have been saying ever since I turned 60.

July
9, 2007

Gary
North [send him mail]
is the author of Mises
on Money
. Visit http://www.garynorth.com.
He is also the author of a free 19-volume series, An
Economic Commentary on the Bible
.

Gary
North Archives

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