Spend some time chatting with Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist Connie Schultz, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and it’s soon apparent that this is a woman who’s used to asking the questions.
“Are you married?” ”Do you consider yourself a feminist?” “I’d love to hear your theory on …” At times, it’s unclear who’s interviewing whom.
So one can imagine the struggle it must have been for Schultz to briefly give up her job during the successful Senate campaign of her husband, then-Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), last year against then-Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio). [IMGCAP(1)]
“What’s to become of me?” Schultz, who admits to being the “holdout” when it came to giving the nod for Brown to run, wrote in her journal after she went on leave so her paper could avoid conflict-of-interest questions and she could spend more time with Brown on the hustings.
Schultz dealt with the situation the best way she knew how. She started scribbling.
During the course of the campaign, the 49-year-old writer filled a stack of Moleskine notebooks “more than a foot high,” the contents of which ended up in “… and His Lovely Wife: A Memoir from the Woman Beside the Man,” Schultz’s chatty new book about life as a campaign spouse.
The title is a play on the the standard introduction Schultz says she received more times than she’d care to remember. “Past 50 or 60 I stopped counting,” she says of being referred to as the “lovely wife.” “I realized it was driving me slowly insane.”
Schultz’s transition to campaign wife wasn’t easy in other ways.
Aside from an increasing sense of personal anonymity — “I … began to feel as if I were married to Cher,” she writes — there were the political dirty tricks to contend with.
She got a rude awakening when, a couple of weeks into the campaign, she watched as two men in suits jumped out of a van and attempted to steal garbage from their driveway. Schultz and her dog, Gracie, successfully scared the men off, but it left her shaken. She started to cry.
Later, she describes the experience of filming a campaign ad, which was never used, with Brown’s ex-wife, Larke, as a possible rebuttal should DeWine have decided to bring up Larke’s allegations of mistreatment during her and Brown’s 1986 divorce. “Larke could not have been more gracious. Not one of us wanted to do this, but we wanted Mike DeWine to win even less,” she writes. (Larke, who had remarried, and her husband even supported Brown’s bid.)
Schultz, a self-described “feminist” (who once named her daughter’s Cabbage Patch doll Gloria Steinem), also had to contend with questions about why, when she wed Brown in 2004, she hadn’t changed her last name. It was the second marriage for both Schultz and Brown, and she’d had her own identity as a successful journalist for years before she met him in 2003. But as she relays it, it was often an issue on the campaign trail.
This doesn’t mean she shuns traditional gender roles, however. “When you called I was just getting ready to vacuum my house. I clean house. I iron my husband’s shirts. I love to cook.”
If occasionally the book comes across as a bit forced —“I was stunned by DeWine’s trafficking in national tragedy for political gain,” she writes of the DeWine attack ad later discovered to feature doctored photos of the twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001 — for the most part Schultz’s memoir does a good job of capturing the all-consumingness of a campaign.
She offers a revealing look at how it can threaten to encroach on everything from one’s health (Brown suffered a double hernia) to a second anniversary celebration (staff had scheduled an out-of-town fundraiser) to one’s role as parent (Schultz missed her son’s engagement party because she was scheduled to deliver speeches). “Every day, we told ourselves this race could help change the direction of the country,” she writes. “Most days, that was enough.”
Schultz, who admits in the book to being named after a character on the soap opera “Peyton Place,” is adept at finding humor in all sorts of situations. Noting that Fox News referred to her husband as a woman, and that Rush Limbaugh had reported that Brown was black, she good-naturedly titles one chapter, “My Husband, the African American Woman.” In another section, she describes how after she bought Brown a ping pong table to work off campaign stress, he became “one hustling hunk of he-man as he Ping-Ponged his hapless wife into table tennis oblivion.”
Her book also recounts a campaign with its share of tragedy. The sudden death of her father, a man who (to paraphrase Schultz) had wore his body out at a factory job so she and her siblings wouldn’t have to, was excruciating, she says. And even victory wasn’t without its bittersweetness. Just weeks after Brown’s election, they got the news that one of the Ohio lawmaker’s oldest friends, John Kleshinski, who had campaigned with him, had died of a heart attack at age 55.
Since January, Schultz, who splits her time between Ohio and Washington, D.C., has been back penning her biweekly column but says she’s careful not to write about bills or amendments her husband is introducing.
“To me the question is always: Does this give even the appearance of promoting something Sherrod is involved in?” she notes.
As for her memoir, which officially hits bookstores next week, Schultz, who earlier released a collection of her columns, says her husband “didn’t ask me to change anything.”
For the record, Schultz’s portrait of Brown (as presented in the book) is mostly glowing. He’s a guy that plays “Let It Be” for her on the piano, leaves love notes written on recycled paper on her pillow and even wakes her up in the middle of the night to say “I love you.” He’s quirkily endearing, insisting they fill out complaint cards urging the return of vegetable stir-fry at every Bob Evans they visited. He always wears a canary pin on his lapel as a symbol of his support for “economic and social justice.” (Coalminers used to take canaries into mines to “alert them to the presence of dangerous gases,” she explains in the book.) This is a man who, just before his final debate with DeWine, fights back tears because he’s so worried he might let down the people counting on him. (In typical Schultz fashion, she jokingly chides him: “If you don’t stop crying, you’re going to smear your makeup.”)
But suggest that Schultz has painted a picture of an ideal man, and she bristles immediately.
“I would object to that. He’s not perfect. He’s pretty darn human,” she asserts, pointing to, among other things, his affinity for wearing colored T-shirts sporting slogans from constituents under his dress shirts. Still, she concedes: “Is it clear I love my husband in the book? You betcha. … I’m not the New Jersey governor’s ex-wife.”
Schultz will read and sign copies of “… and His Lovely Wife: A Memoir from the Woman Beside the Man” at 7 p.m. July 9 at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.