Politics & Policy

Presidential divorce, &c.

Reagan and Wyman at the Academy Awards in 1947 (Getty Images)

I was sad to read an obit of Happy Rockefeller. I met her once, when Bill and Pat Buckley invited her to dinner. She came with a British fellow, Sir John. She was very pleasant. And she seemed happy, à la her name.

Let me quote from the obit, published in the New York Times:

Happy Rockefeller, the socialite whose 1963 marriage to Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller of New York, soon after both had been divorced, raised a political storm in a more genteel time and may have cost him the Republican presidential nomination in 1964, died on Tuesday at her home in Tarrytown, N.Y. She was 88.

Some more:

In an era when marital infidelity and divorce were toxic for presidential candidates, many Americans were shocked when Margaretta Fitler Murphy, called Happy, and Mr. Rockefeller, who was nearly 18 years older than she, married on May 4, 1963. He was in the second of his four terms as governor and a leading contender for the presidency at the time.

Some more:

As the couple left for a honeymoon in Venezuela, exposés retailed gossip of their extramarital affair and detailed their out-of-state divorces — Mr. Rockefeller’s in 1962 from Mary Todhunter Clark Rockefeller, his wife of 31 years and the mother of his five children; Mrs. Murphy’s from Dr. James Slater Murphy, to whom she surrendered custody of their four children five weeks before marrying Mr. Rockefeller.

Another paragraph:

Many Republican leaders and voters were scandalized. Former Senator Prescott S. Bush, a Connecticut Republican and a longtime Rockefeller supporter (and the father of one future president and the grandfather of another), declared: “Have we come to the point where a governor can desert his wife and children, and persuade a young woman to abandon her four children and husband? Have we come to the point where one of the two great parties will confer its greatest honor on such a one? I venture to hope not.”

You know, I like Prescott Bush.

I’m going to do a little more quoting of the obit, then say a couple more things:

No divorced man had ever won the presidency. Former Gov. Adlai E. Stevenson of Illinois, a Democrat who divorced in 1949, had been the most recent to try. He won his party’s nomination in 1952 and 1956 but lost to Dwight D. Eisenhower in back-to-back landslides. . . .

A year after Mr. Rockefeller died, in 1979, Ronald Reagan became the only divorced man elected to the presidency. His 1949 divorce from the actress Jane Wyman was not a major campaign issue in 1980, largely because it had occurred three decades earlier and because divorce, in a nation where it had become commonplace, no longer seemed a serious blemish on a candidate’s character.

Let me tell you something about Reagan and that divorce. He was furious when anyone suggested that he had divorced someone. “She divorced me,” he made clear. (Bill Buckley witnessed such a reaction personally.)

Jane Wyman, of course, had an affair with an actor named Lew Ayres on the set of a movie called “Johnny Belinda.” Reagan was sidelined for a long while, knocked for a loop. Later, Jane married a bandleader, twice.

To her credit, she was gracious about Reagan when he was president. The press tried to get her to badmouth him. She wouldn’t. There were bumper stickers that said, “Jane Wyman Was Right.” Charming people, who put that sticker on their cars. Jane Wyman was many things, but hardly right.

A final note: I have a dear friend who met Reagan once. She sat next to him at a dinner, when he was working for GE. (This was after his movie career and before his political career.) They got along famously. My friend helped him with a problem he was encountering.

Later, Reagan told a mutual friend, “She looks like Jane [which she does, to a remarkable degree] and acts like Nancy [which from RR, who adored his wife, was a high, high compliment].”

‐In a recent interview, someone asked Senator Rand Paul about abortion: What role would it play in his presidential campaign? Would it be a big issue?

Paul said, “I will answer the question as honestly as I can. I didn’t run for office because of this issue. It wasn’t what got me to leave my practice [medical practice]. And I ran for office mainly because I became concerned that we’re going to destroy the country with debt. That we would borrow so much money that we would just destroy the currency.”

(For an article on this interview, go here.)

I appreciate the senator’s honesty — or any politician’s honesty, or any person’s. I now wish to make a point about abortion.

Some people can’t understand why the issue means so much to pro-lifers. I don’t understand their failure to understand. I have sometimes said to them, “Say that you considered abortion tantamount to murder. A great stain on our national escutcheon, similar to slavery. I know that’s not your view at all, but just say. Wouldn’t you consider abortion an urgent matter? Wouldn’t it disturb your sleep? Wouldn’t it be, to you, an issue that overshadowed practically everything else?”

Years ago, a thought occurred to me. I think I have given voice to it, publicly, a few times. It’s half serious. More than half? Anyway, I’ve been known to observe, “Tell me where a man stands on abortion and Israel, and you’ve told me all I need to know.”

To be expounded on someday, perhaps . . .

‐I saw a headline that began, “SC High School Folds On Flag Ban . . .” I thought, “Yup, read stories like this all my life: about Confederate-flag controversies in the South.”

This story, however, turned out to be about the American flag. It began,

Protesters lined the street in front of a South Carolina school Thursday morning after administrators had forced a student at the school to remove an American flag from his truck the previous day.

Strange times.

‐Want to see a beautiful house? There is a drawing on this webpage. The house is the Casa Italiana at New York University (W. 12th St., Manhattan). It is the home of Italian studies, of course, at NYU. It was given by a friend of mine, a real live baroness: la Baronessa Mariuccia Zerilli-Marimò. She is also a patroness of the Salzburg Festival. She is a fount of learning, experience, kindness, and joy. Her eyes twinkle.

When I was growing up, aristocrats, in TV shows and movies and so on, were portrayed as airheads. I’m sure some are. But I have found this to be an utterly stupid stereotype.

I introduced an event at the Casa Italiana the other night: the screening of an opera. I wish I could enroll, right now, as a freshman. It would a pleasure, I think, to study Italian and matters Italian at the Casa Italiana, given by Mariuccia.

‐This is sort of related: I read an obit of Robert Rietti, the actor known as “the man with a thousand voices.” He was born in London in 1923. “During the early part of World War II, because of his Italian heritage, he was confined in an internment camp, but upon his release he joined the British Army and served in its entertainment corps.”

You know, I’ve heard all my life about Japanese internment (in America). About Italian internment, I know very little.

‐I thought the world of Calvin Peete: as a golfer, as a “story,” and as a man. He was one of my favorite people. I read his obit, too.

Jack Nicklaus was quoted, for he had eulogized Peete on his website (Nicklaus.com). The thing about Jack is: He’s totally honest. He will not manipulate the truth even when eulogizing.

He spoke about Peete in both personal and professional terms. When it came to the professional, he said,

“I thought Calvin Peete was a remarkable golfer. He overcame a lot of adversity, including a physical limitation, to become a very, very good golfer. . . . Over the years, we played a lot of golf together, and I was amazed at what he could get out of his game. He was an extremely straight driver of the golf ball; a very smart golfer; and, you might say, he was very much an overachiever.”

That is exactly right. A perfect assessment. And totally Jack.

‐I had a memory of my days as a pro-shop rat, many years ago. What prompted the memory? This article. I’ll quote the headline and the subheading, which are long:

“Gala Bingo blasted for saying show must go on — even if a player dies: Gala, Britain’s biggest chain of bingo halls, says after an 86-year-old player collapsed during a game that company policy is to carry on calling.”

Okay. At my muni (i.e., municipal golf course), we had a senior league, of course. One morning, just before the guys were to begin teeing off, a man had a heart attack. He was taken away by ambulance.

When our supervisor entered the clubhouse, we told him about it. He was a tremendously amusing guy. He looked around shiftily and said, “We didn’t give him a raincheck, did we?”

(Trust me, this is not only a specimen of macabre humor, it will be hilarious to those who have worked at golf courses — where rainchecks are a touchy and vexing issue.)

(The customer — the player who was taken away by ambulance — was fine, returning not long after for his regular round.)

This story put me in mind of a joke. First, the story — the news story: A man in Britain, 103, popped the question to his girlfriend, 91. He’s to be “Britain’s oldest groom.”

Okay, the joke. It’s a Jewish joke, for some reason. Doesn’t have to be, I guess.

A man and woman go to divorce court. They’re in their mid-nineties. The judge says, “I’ll grant you a divorce, because the law entitles you to it. But why, why? Why after all this time?”

The wife says, “Well, we figured we’d wait until the children were dead.”

Bye!

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