Commentary

That Two-for-One Deal? Hmm…

To a Southerner of a certain age, Bill Clinton’s vigorous campaign to elect his wife to the office he once held brings back memories of George Wallace’s 1966 campaign to elect his wife, Lurleen, governor of Alabama and of their ensuing co-governorship.

Like Clinton, Wallace could not run again because of term limits. Early in Lurleen Wallace’s term, it was reported that when people called the governor’s office and asked to speak to “the governor,” the receptionists would cheerfully ask, “Gov. George or Gov. Lurleen?”

But Hillary Rodham Clinton is no Lurleen Burns Wallace. For much of her life and most of her governorship, Wallace stayed home and baked cookies.

Lurleen took care of the family; George took care of the politics. And that remained largely true during her short term in the governor’s office, which was cut short by her death from cancer.

Early in her term, Lurleen Wallace stepped into a room in the state Capitol and asked, “Where’s the governor?”

“You are the governor,” she was reminded.

One Alabama journalist described it as “something of a Queen-Prime Minister relationship: Mrs. Wallace handles the ceremonial and formal duties of state. Mr. Wallace draws the grand outlines of state policy and sees that it is carried out.”

That doesn’t sound like what we would expect of a Clinton Restoration. A better analogy might be the co-governorship of Ma and Pa Ferguson of Texas, beginning in 1924. Ma’s campaign, like Hillary’s, was not just about restoration but about vindication.

“Farmer Jim” Ferguson dominated Texas politics for a quarter century. He served as governor from 1915 to 1917 but was impeached, convicted and removed from office early in his second two-year term for misapplication of public funds. Under the terms of the conviction, he was not allowed to hold state office again. After trying to fight the ban in court, he came up with the idea of running his wife, Miriam, for governor.

Running as the anti-Ku Klux Klan candidate and offering voters “Two governors for the price of one,” Miriam A. “Ma” Ferguson won a big victory. When the Fergusons once more drove up to the Governor’s Mansion, Ma said: “We departed in disgrace; we now return in glory.” Time magazine called her “the Governess.”

Do we really want White House callers being asked, “President Bill or President Hillary?””

As with the Wallaces (and the Clintons), Jim Ferguson was the orator and the natural campaigner. In those days, there was no hand-wringing about the fact that he overshadowed his wife on the podium. But Ma was no Lurleen Wallace. She had a real interest in politics.

She and Farmer Jim had dual swivel chairs in the governor’s office. One of her great aims as governor was to restore her husband’s name. In her first three months, she signed a bill restoring full political rights to her husband. But it was struck down in court.

She had more success in some of her policy aims. She persuaded the Legislature to pass a bill making it unlawful for any secret society to allow its members to be masked or otherwise disguised in public, marking the end of the KKK’s central place in Texas politics.

However, Ma’s term was most noted for its scandals, especially in the handing out of pardons. She handed out far more pardons than previous Texas governors, including 143 filed just as she prepared to leave office. There were claims that both pardons and government contracts could be bought from the Fergusons.

Miriam A. Ferguson was the quiet backstage partner of her colorful politician husband, forced to take the starring role only after he was barred from running again. After the scandals of his administration, her election was his vindication. Back in the governor’s office, they operated as a team.

But in the 1920s, there was no doubt who was the senior member of the team. The problem facing the Clintons in 2008 is that those old rules no longer apply. Today, “two presidents for the price of one” sounds like a recipe for confusion. Do we really want White House callers being asked, “President Bill or President Hillary?”

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute and author of the upcoming book The Politics of Freedom.