News & Politics

Q&A With Author Connie Schultz: On Politics, Cynicism, and Being the “Lovely Wife”

—By Ruth Samuelson

For years, journalist Connie Schultz was a single mother working at the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. Then her life underwent some dramatic changes: In 2004, she married Democratic Congressman Sherrod Brown of Ohio. The following year, she won a Pulitzer Prize for her newspaper column. By the end of 2005, her husband had announced he was running for the Senate. Several months later, this self-described “ardent feminist” took a leave of absence from her job to join him on the campaign trail. Last year, her first book came out—Life Happens, a collection of her columns. For the rest of that year, Schultz helped her husband in his Senate race, which he won.

Schultz writes about these experiences in her new book, . . . And His Lovely Wife: A Memoir From the Woman Beside the Man. (Read a review here.) She’ll be at DC’s Politics and Prose bookstore (5015 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-202-364-1919) Monday, July 9, at 7 pm. Read below for a conversation with Schultz about her book and her new life in Washington.

Right after you took a leave from your job at the Plain Dealer, you wrote in your notebook: “WHAT’S TO BECOME OF ME?” Now your husband’s a senator and you’ve published another book. At the time, what were you worried about?

When I left my job, I didn’t really know what I’d be coming back to—what and if I would be coming back. I mean, you hope so—that was certainly my plan. But I was in this job I really love. I’m a columnist, and it had taken me a long time to get there. Part of “What’s to become of me?” was based on the misperception that there’s only one way to become a political spouse. I realized fairly quickly into it that I didn’t have to give up who I am.

Think about this: During the middle of the campaign, my first book came out—a collection of my columns, which is a collection of my opinions. No one ever used it against my husband. I say that only to illustrate to all these women—I’ve been getting letters and calls from women who are married to elected officials or whose husbands are about to run for something. They are full of questions about “Why hasn’t someone given us the respect we deserve in terms of just being who we are?”

The stereotype is that you’re supposed to be either a prop or a problem. There had been some memoirs by political wives before, but they always made nice. They always made it sound like “everything’s for the cause” and “no sacrifice is too great.” I don’t believe any of them actually think that.

Were you worried that the campaign and your involvement in your husband’s career would cause you—unintentionally or not—to filter future columns?

No, my age was going for me with that one. I’ve been doing this too long. I got my column when I was 45. When I called my dad to tell him, he said, “Finally, you’re going to get paid for what you’ve been throwing around for free 45 years.” Anyone who knows me knows I am strong-willed and have a lot my own views. I’m an ardent feminist, and that was never going to change.

Most journalists never have the chance to be in the middle of a political campaign. Did you fear that your insider’s view would make you cynical?

I was worried it would make me cynical, but I’m not a cynical person. I’m certainly a skeptic and I challenge people a lot, but I don’t ever want to be a cynic because I think that’s soul-deadening. That isn’t about being a professional. That isn’t about being smart.

So I was paying a lot of attention to make sure I did not become cynical. If you look at our country now, there’s an awful lot of cynicism that allows the current policies to kick in. I don’t want to be a part of that. A lot of people need help, and cynicism is never going to answer that call.

Are you more hopeful after this campaign?

I guess I have to say I am—because of what happened in Ohio. There was some advice very early that Sherrod should move to the center, and we felt very strongly that a progressive could win—and win big—in Ohio. Sherrod ran as a true progressive, and he won. So, yeah, I am hopeful. interviewed you and your husband during the campaign, and the video is posted on YouTube. It’s interesting to watch, because you and your husband really are standing side by side and speaking equally. At what point in the campaign did you realize you could have that role?

The only time I felt I couldn’t literally be next to my husband was when I was still writing my column. But we married in middle age, and you’re very different people when you marry in middle age—at least you’d better be. We wanted to be partners. We had both been longtime single parents. And Sherrod had no interest in the stereotypical wife. He wanted a partner.

So you always felt as though you could have a significant presence in his campaign?

I was not physically onstage with him a lot, but I was on every scheduling call and every strategy call. You know, I’m a writer—I’m not looking to be on TV a lot. I’ve always limited my television appearances because I don’t want to get sucked into that vortex of celebrity. What matters to me is the writing. But I never doubted for a moment the important role I had in his campaign. He was calling me constantly because I’m his sounding board.

At what point did you realize you wanted to write this memoir?

It wasn’t my idea. Anna Quindlen has been very supportive of my career, and she and I have the same editor at Random House. My first book was still in production when Sherrod announced he was going to run for the Senate. Anna called my editor and said, “Sherrod Brown is running for the Senate. I know whose book I want to read, and it’s not the candidate’s.” My editor said to me—even before my first book came out—“We want you to write this book.” I kind of laughed and said, “Aside from Sherrod and me, I’m not sure who thinks he can win.”

So by February 2006, I had already signed with Random House. I started taking lots and lots of notes. It was helpful because, to be honest, it helped me take my leave of absence at the paper when I did. I had a book deal, so I wasn’t as worried about money. But I also felt like I had somewhere I could put my thoughts by the end.

The book sometimes reads like a well-edited journal entry. Did you plan for it to be so open and personal?

I don’t know any other way to do this except to be honest. To Sherrod’s everlasting credit, he read the book three times before it went to press and never asked to take anything out. I didn’t realize how extraordinary that was until I heard from other journalists who said, “Wow, that’s really honest.” One guy said, “Well, Sherrod doesn’t have to run for six years anyway,” and I thought, “What did I write?”

I find it very amusing that a couple of reviewers say the book is very upbeat: I mean, my dad dies. Sherrod’s best friend dies. We have incredible setbacks in the campaign.

Did you sit down to write the book right after he won?

Yeah, I outlined for about three weeks. That took away the anxiety and panic. I had incredible deadlines looming. I know I made Random House nervous because I said, “I’ve got to outline first.” Once I had everything organized, I had four cartons of files, which I took everywhere I went. I just wrote, wrote, wrote like crazy. I wrote two pieces of the book when Sherrod had a bunch of stuff to do with the Senate the week after the election. I would hole myself up in the hotel during the day. I would get room service and wouldn’t let myself go out. I stayed in pajamas a lot.

What’s your life like in Washington?

I’m back and forth. We’re still renovating our apartment. I want those little things that Sherrod thought really didn’t matter—like electricity in the bathroom.

But part of the reason we’re renovating is so I can stay here more. When I’m in Washington, life’s different. I’m syndicated by Creators Syndicate, so almost anywhere else in the country I go, I’m a columnist first, then Sherrod’s wife—except in Washington. That’s changing slowly. I’m doing some events, and I’m starting to make more friends with women journalists in town, which helps a lot.

I understand that when I’m on the Hill and in the Capitol, I’ll be seen first and foremost as Sherrod’s wife. Except now that the book’s out, a lot of women, including Senate staff, are coming up to me. They want to talk about what it’s like to be a woman working on the Hill. This book is about way more than just women married to politicians. I am so heartened when young women call and send e-mails.

It seems you learned some broader truths about women in all arenas.

I have felt what it’s like to be marginalized by some people because of whom you married. I am so aware now, at a visceral level, how so many women feel this way every day. They don’t have what I know I’ve got: my big megaphone, my column, my book. When women come up to me at book signings, I say, “Tell me about yourself.” I want to insert it into their inscription. I have lost count of how many women say, “I’m just . . . .” It starts with “I’m just married to . . . .” but goes to “I’m just a nurse” or “I’m just a doctor” or “I’m just a lawyer.” No matter what they’re doing, they disqualify themselves as someone who really matters in the world. I think that’s cultural training.

Did being on the campaign attract you to certain subjects that you wouldn’t have considered before?

I have more expertise now. When I was younger as a journalist, some things were just hard on the brain. They would require so much research, so much study. I find I’m more willing to do that now because we’ve got to help the average person understand the complicated issues. It’s so important that people understand why they need to vote. Voting matters more to me now than ever.

Are you in Washington now more that your husband’s a senator?

Yeah, because he’s here more. I miss my husband. I like to see him. I don’t really want to become part of the Washington culture because I like being a progressive writer in the Midwest. I wouldn’t want to lose that. I love the Midwest, and I love Cleveland. But of course I want to be in Washington because this is an exciting time for my husband, and I want to share it with him. I want to be a wife, you know?