The Wendy Card

Wendy Gramm's all-American success story is a centerpiece of her husband's fledgling presidential bid. But there's more to the story than what's being packaged and sold by the Phil Gramm campaign.

Phil Gramm, the senior senator from Texas, is known as a deft opportunist, a man who instinctively sniffs out television cameras and fashions headlines out of molehills. So no less than perfect choreography -- all the ruffles and flourishes, including the requisite saber-crossing Aggies -- was expected when Gramm returned to College Station in late February to formally announce his long-telegraphed bid for the presidency.

Gramm's speech had already been pretested, delivered a week earlier to lukewarm response before the Republican elite of New Hampshire at a banquet and beauty contest featuring Gramm and other early GOP hopefuls. Even so, the 1996 campaign season's first formal announcement drew a clutch of reporters from across the country to Texas -- along with throngs of cheering supporters from the campus of Texas A&M, where Gramm had taught economics before being elected to Congress.

For his audience, Gramm indulged the tendency of presidential aspirants to spin out a vision of the ever-elusive American Dream. But it wasn't his story he told.

"My wife's grandfather came to this country as a contract laborer to work in the sugar cane fields of Hawaii. Her father became the first Asian-American ever to become an officer of a sugar company in the history of Hawaii," Gramm explained in the nasal drone that hearkens to his Georgia roots.

"And my wife, Wendy, under President Reagan and President Bush, served as chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, where she regulated the trading of all commodities and commodity futures in America, including the same cane sugar that her grandfather came to this country to harvest.

"That's America in action."
And that story is Phil Gramm in action, duly noted by the Texas reporters present who have watched Gramm campaign many times before. It was an unmistakable signal that Gramm, taking his first plunge into a national campaign, believes it is time to play the Wendy card. When he was just a candidate for office in Texas, including his two successful Senate bids, Gramm's Asian-American wife was relatively invisible during his campaigns. Longtime state politicos, aides of past Gramm opponents and reporters who have covered him for years cannot remember Gramm ever showcasing Wendy as he did in his announcement speech.

Wendy Lee Gramm's consistently low profile in the past has fueled murmurs that Gramm, in a tactical move, made a conscious effort to keep her far in the background, fearing his wife's ethnic background would not play well with Texas voters. Why, after all, would his successful wife's immigrant roots not have epitomized the American Dream equally well in 1978, when he first ran for the U.S. House -- or in 1984 when he vied for the Senate?

In the Gramm television ads aired during his first Senate race against Democrat Lloyd Doggett -- the ones that usually show the candidate romping with his family -- the Gramms and their two sons were seen fishing, but Wendy Gramm's face was never shown. The ads drew criticism from Asian-American groups, who charged that Gramm was hiding his wife because of her Korean ancestry.

Several reporters who covered Gramm's first Senate race say they rarely saw Wendy Gramm during the campaign, although her husband had already been elected several times to the House from East Texas. Asked then if he were purposely keeping his wife in the background, Gramm denied any such intent and accused others of trying to inject race into the campaign. In Gramm's next Senate race, against Democratic sacrificial lamb Hugh Parmer, Wendy Gramm appeared more often with her husband, though no special attention was drawn to her, or her life story.

But one thing is now clear -- in his first nationwide bid, Phil Gramm has decided that Wendy's time as a valuable political commodity has come. The packaging and sale of Wendy Lee Gramm by her husband's campaign has already begun.

Wendy Gramm is being made available for select interviews with major national publications. (We didn't make the cut. "Isn't going to happen. Lotta people ahead of you in line," explained Howard Opinsky, a newly hired Gramm campaign minion.)

She is a novelty. If her husband wins, the nation would see double firsts -- the first Asian-American first lady, and the first pair of economists to take up residence in the White House.

The story of Phil and Wendy's initial meeting has been spun out with huge success, sucked up as a warm and fuzzy anecdote by virtually every newspaper publishing a Gramm profile recently, although it seems the story has been embellished a tad. Politics being marketing, it is perhaps understandable that the tale has evolved, changing in one small but critical detail that, perhaps coincidentally, makes it play better in the press.

The Gramms first met in 1969 when Wendy Lee was interviewing for a job in the economics department at Texas A&M, where Phil Gramm was already on the economics faculty. After her job interview, held during an industry conference in New York, Gramm walked the applicant to the door and helped her with her coat. As Phil Gramm now tells the story, "I said, 'As a single member of the faculty, I'm especially interested in your coming to Texas A&M.' And she looked up at me and said, 'Yuck.'"

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