“Political Savvy. I don’t have it.”
So claims Andrea White, whose husband is the Democratic candidate for governor, in the introduction to her book, P.S.: Passionate Supporter and Political Spouse.
Don’t believe her. While she originally “didn’t really want Bill to go into politics,” after six years as the Houston mayor’s wife, the young-adult novelist and former attorney has learned how to deflect unwelcome questions like the savviest of pols. And as you’ll see at the end of this post, she’s also not afraid to defend her husband against outrageous media attacks.
I interviewed White on Thursday evening in Austin, where she’d come for a reception with Republican and independent supporters of her husband. I should say “we” interviewed her, since Reeve Hamilton, former Observer intern and current Texas Tribune reporter, had just begun grilling her in his merciless way when I arrived.
While she jokes freely about her least-favorite political spouse activities in P.S. (which is also a blog right here), White has clearly adapted to the role. She has the kind of relaxed poise and easy, unforced sense of humor that go over nice on the campaign trail. She knows how to humanize her husband, and herself. Of becoming a political spouse, she says, “The best part was the worst part. Because I didn’t like public speaking. I was terrified of public speaking. To make great strides against a fear—personal growth is the best part about it.”
Thus far, her role is mainly to campaign in small towns where, despite the Republicanism of most, she says folks are invariably polite. “I just got back from Cedarville, Witchita Falls … Let’s see … I don’t know where my next trip is. I’m sorry, I seem to be able to keep my calendar in my head for one day,” she says.
“I go where I’m invited, a lot. I sent out an email early on that said, ‘Political Spouse, Will Travel.’ I’m still following up on those emails. And they will be, you know, somebody’s Aunt Betty lives in Paris, Texas. But Aunt Betty’s house isn’t going to be ready, so she gives me to Emily, but Emily’s going to be out of town.”
As first lady of Texas, White says she’d want to work to combat dropout rates, as she did in Houston. But she hasn’t mapped out any grand policy goals. “The role is so flexibile you can make it whatever you want to make it,” she says. “But you want to make it to where you don’t look back with regret, you know, that you could have accomplished something good. For me, you have that goal, but you also have the goal of keeping one foot in a completely normal life. It’s a role that you take off and put on, and you just have to be sure that you’re grounded in your life.”
White brought her campaign-spouse role model with her to Austin: B.A. Bentsen, widow of Sen. Lloyd Bentsen. Bentsen, who’s 88, still professes to love campaigning, and has traveled along a bit with White. “We’ve been on a trip or two, and loving every minute of it,” said Bentsen, who has surely said these very things 5,000 times. “We’re just so proud of our candidate and what he’s doing. It’s just seems that every day is just a little bit better than the day before.”
“You see? What did I tell you? She’s the best of anybody I’ve ever seen!” White says. “It’s very neat to hear someone who did it as long as she did and enjoyed every minute of it. Except for those tired days when you were talking to the TV at the end of a long day.”
“Well, you get to the point where you just smile and smile,” Bentsen said, “and here I was sitting all by myself, and there was something on the screen and I realized I was just enjoying it so much that I was just smiling—all by myself.”
“Can’t even relax in her own hotel room,” White said.
“I’ve had two tired moments on the campaign in the last several weeks,” White says. One was a “brain freeze” on a radio show in Wichita Falls, when she said she’d just had a great time in … and couldn’t come up with the name Cedarville.
The other tired moment: “I go into a campaign event and I see the guy behind the bar and his name is Charles Grassney. And I look down and fill out my name tag and I put it on and he looks and me and he goes, ‘I can’t let you go in there like that.’ And I looked down and I’d written, ‘Charles Grassney.’”
It’s a measure of how well Andrea White is inhabiting her “P.S.” role that you could come away from an interview having imbibed nothing but sweetness and light. But not if you were me, and your magazine just published a profile of her husband that started out by cataloguing the virtues (smooth banter, wit, folksly anecdotes, good hair, charm) that Texas politicians traditionally have. Dave Mann concluded: “Bill White possesses none of these traits.”
So I got to see Andrea White’s genteel-but-tough side—by stepping right into it when I asked, “What misconceptions of your husband bother you the most?”
“You know, I think he’s kind of charming.”
There was a certain playful edge to her voice at this point.
“You know, you hear that he’s not charismatic and he’s wonky and all that. But I think he’s really kind of funny and charming. I don’t see him that way. I mean, I definitely see the policy part.” She laughs.
“But I do seem him as kind of charming … What’s this week’s Observer article lead-in about that, to be a Texas politician you have to be—and he has none of them? I see him as charming. So.”
I ask her what she tells audiences to make sure they know her husband better (better than, say, the Observer‘s Dave Mann!). She skims over the three stories she usually uses—White, as befits a novelist, prefers stories to “lists of accomplishments”—and then mentions one that she doesn’t tell. “And there are more stories. Some of them, like the time he took us camping and ran out of food, are not exactly the kinds of stories you want for a campaign.” She laughs, and explains. Her husband had been “counting on catching fish, and the fish weren’t there.”