Copyright 1997 The Washington Post
The Washington Post
April 02, 1997, Wednesday, Final Edition
SECTION: STYLE; Pg. D01
LENGTH: 4721 words
HEADLINE: The Price Of Perfection; Frances Glendening, Political Wife, Mother, Lawyer -- and Advocate of Peace of Mind
BYLINE: Phil McCombs, Washington Post Staff Writer
Perfectionism is one of the characteristics of addiction. [It] is self-abuse of the highest order.
-- "Meditations for Women Who Do Too Much,"
by Anne Wilson Schaef
The performance seems almost perfect, yet strangely flawed.
Two white-clad dancers have taken the floor at the Ballet Theatre of Annapolis's
black-tie dinner honoring Maryland's first lady, Frances Hughes Glendening. As the room falls silent, they begin moving to the strains of "Wind
Beneath My Wings," Glendening's favorite song. It's the same ballad her husband, Parris, interrupted his 1994 inaugural speech to have sung by
a National Guard sergeant while he embraced his tearful wife at the podium. Now a rapt Francie and Parris watch the pas de deux unfold, full of
passion and even danger as the swirling man raises the woman high above his head. Normally such a performance would be a dreamscape
viewed from afar, but here -- with the tables hugging a smallish dance floor -- the dancers seem shockingly close, straining and sweating and
gritting their teeth through clamped smiles as they push to the seam-popping limits of human physicality.
Minutes before, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend had
noted in her tribute to the state's first lady this uneasy nexus between
life and art --
the artist creating "a vision of order and beauty" from "a chaotic, ugly world." She added that Glendening had done the same in her own life, as
"a great soul, a person of compassion [who] has faced more than her share of pain, and has prevailed. . . . Who knows all too well the ugliness
of life, [yet] has chosen to celebrate and intensify its beauty."
You wouldn't have guessed about the pain, earlier, watching
the first lady across the room working Maryland Senate President Thomas
Miller Jr. and the other penguin-suited pols and pals with her hugs and laughing kisses to the cheek and little tugs to the sleeve. All the while,
"Pifflesniff Parris" -- as she dubbed him for his stuffiness back in their dating days -- stayed seated, as if to hone his bloodless policy-wonk
image lest some glimmer of the warm fuzzy guy inside peek through.
You wouldn't have guessed about the ugliness, either, at
least not from her fairy tale beginnings in life -- soaking up politics
as a child happily
making the county fair circuit with her father, the prominent western Maryland attorney George Raymond Hughes Jr. The tight filial bond
intensified through his glory years in the House of Delegates and the Senate, where by '67 he'd risen to become minority floor leader. The girl
would secretly embroider hearts on his handkerchiefs, and he'd pull them out on the floor of the legislature.
Hughes went downhill after a failed bid for Congress in
'70, slipping into heavy drinking and manic depression. Francie used to
drive up to
Cumberland from the Washington suburbs to urge her dad to seek help, but -- though he was known for promoting mental health programs as a
legislator -- pride prevented him from admitting he was ill. One day in the fall of '78 he locked himself in the garage and started the car. His
wife, Patricia, found the body. Francie, the oldest of five children, assumed the role as the strong supporting figure of the family.
It wasn't long before Patricia was diagnosed with bone
marrow cancer. Francie served as her emotional mainstay through seven excruciating
years, and toward the end Patricia lived with her daughter and Parris in University Park. Less than a year before she died, her youngest child
Raymond -- his life a flailing mess of alcohol and drugs and unsuccessful rehabs -- chugged a bottle of his mother's morphine and choked on his
own vomit. This time Francie rushed west by train through a blinding blizzard, learning on arrival that her brother had died in the hospital.
Now, from this blood-drenched landscape, Glendening strides
to the ballroom podium to speak, a certified modern superwoman -- loving
devoted mother, caring friend; a political whiz in her own right, a full-time Washington lawyer by day and first lady of her state by night, the
official hostess of Government House, defender in a hundred speeches of the arts and women's rights; and, not least, a passionate mental
health advocate who openly shares her story as a self-described "recovering perfectionist."
The intense, thin, striking woman in her tailored flame-red
business suit takes the podium. There's just a suggestion of the famously
abrasive quality that set political tongues wagging across the state after Parris tapped her to lead his statehouse transition and she eclipsed
the lieutenant governor at a news conference.
For an instant, Glendening does seem all jagged edge and
brittle line, like a Picasso you've seen somewhere -- a slash of red lipstick
pale face, mandarin collar high and tight, jet-black hair falling to one side in a precise geometric cut.
But is she "a mystery," as someone in the tony audience
whispers -- or simply a deeply wounded person struggling with her fears
vulnerability? When Glendening speaks, there's an almost childlike quaver in her voice.
"Life shrinks or expands," she begins, quoting Anais Nin, "in proportion to one's courage."
It must have been cold there in my shadow,
To never have sunlight on your face . . .
A beautiful face without a name . . .
A beautiful smile to hide the pain.
-- "Wind Beneath My Wings,"
by Larry Henley and Jeff Silbar
Early one morning in their University Park home, Francie
and Parris sit on the sofa together for an interview before blasting off
incredibly busy daily schedules. What's amazing, and a little unexpected, is what a hot, sexy couple they seem. There's definite electricity.
She's sort of all over him, touching, hugging, laying her head on his shoulder, laughing gaily. Energy flows. They finish each other's sentences.
"I'm very demonstrative," she says brightly. "I need those
hugs, I need that! You know, he's sitting there holding that cup [but]
I like to keep
putting my arm through him, his. I need that. My mom was very much like that. I get that from her. She was the best hugger! In fact, some of
my friends tease me -- I always need a hug, whether it's a male or female friend. And whenever, if I walk up to a friend, I will put my arm
through theirs, my friend, and give them a hug . . . 'cause that's the way I am!"
Reticent she's not.
Glendening, 46, often talks so fast it's hard to keep up
with her. She's full of charm and fun this morning, no harsh hints. The
Guv maintains his
reserve, smiling demurely.
"Parris and I are very affectionate with one another,"
she continues, "and Raymond [their 17-year-old son] thinks that's too much.
And I say,
'Raymond, your parents have been married for 20 years and they're still affectionate with one another, and we really love one another -- it's a
good thing! You should hope that happens to you.' "
Parris likes it that his wife is "a passionate person;
she lives her life with great passion about everything, and I tend to be
much more quiet and
reserved." He gives an example: He'll come down in the morning and quietly quaff his one cup of skim milk and two cups of coffee while perusing
his four newspapers.
"Now Frances Anne comes down, she likes immediately to
turn on the television," he says. "She gets involved in the news, and I
hear her yelling
about different things."
She mimics herself, laughing, yelling: "I can't believe this guy!"
"I'm surprised that she doesn't end up throwing things at the television set," he says.
They laugh together, tickled.
They met at the University of Maryland in the early '70s.
He was her poli sci professor, nine years older, raised poor in Florida
in a house without
plumbing by his mom and a father (also named Raymond) who -- speaking of pain -- "worked himself to death," as Parris puts it, by age 50.
There was a brother who would later die of AIDS, and a father-in-law from Parris's first marriage who, like his second father-in-law, would also
commit suicide in the late '70s.
Parris may have been stuffy (they visited a sewage treatment
plant on their first date), but the Political Princess of the West had
gem in the rough, and set about polishing. Winfield M. Kelly Jr., an old Prince George's County political hand, remembers how "carefree" Francie
seemed back then, before "the tenseness set in, and the driven quality."
Francie and Parris, a Democrat, set out to live a golden
dream, based on their shared ideals of public service. (She remained a
Republican, like her dad, until last year when she finally found GOP efforts to cut social programs too "negative and vitriolic" and joined her
From the start, she had the nitty-gritty, door-to-door
political experience Parris needed as he rose from the Hyattsville City
Council, to the
county council, through an extraordinary span of 12 years as county executive, and on to Annapolis. Francie -- with her "very keen political
senses," as Parris's former top aide John P. Davey puts it -- was always deeply involved in her husband's campaigns, always in charge of his
transitions, always his closest political adviser and confidant.
Nothing unusual here, interviews with a score of political
observers and close friends indicate. The best political couples have this
synergy. Sure Francie is vigorous, they say, but nobody doubts Parris is calling the shots. Far from resenting her, Townsend -- Maryland's first
female lieutenant governor -- considers Francie "a wonderful friend" who helped get her the job by suggesting her name to Parris.
"Francie's his best asset," confirms Emily J. Smith, the
political consultant who managed Glendening's squeaker of a victory in
race over Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey. "She provided what's incredibly unusual in a political family -- stability. She understands the importance
of having him home a couple of nights a week. She helped create a really good environment, a family atmosphere, in the campaign."
Also remarkable, friends say, is that Francie managed to
maintain over the years her separate career as a public administrator.
She got a law
degree in '86 and now pulls down $ 98,714 as a GS-15 legal and policy adviser at the Federal Election Commission. Her boss, Commissioner
Danny Lee McDonald, affectionately describes her as "a workaholic . . . the most thorough individual I've ever dealt with . . . exceedingly
precise . . . intense. . . . If she had a failing, [it's that] she's almost too conscientious."
In terms of the Glendenings' political life together, their
claiming a popular romantic ballad as their mantra -- "Did you ever know
that you're my
hero? . . . I would be nothing without you" -- seems to send a simple message: Parris is paying tribute to his secret hero -- Francie, the wind
beneath his wings. Indeed, he's fond of telling people flat-out he'd never have been elected without her.
There are subtle twists to the theme, however, woven into
the emotional tapestry of their marriage. For one thing, as Francie notes,
supported her when the dream suddenly seemed to veer off course and "I had all those problems with my family." There were times, friends
recall, when they wondered if she would ever smile again. Peggy Zink, her old sidekick and maid of honor, says that while Francie was busy
being "the real source of strength" for her distraught mother and siblings, Parris remained "tender to her through all."
Through the tough years, Francie never tried to go it alone.
Unlike her dad, she reached out for help, had therapy, avoided isolating
family and friends, and refused to consider herself a victim. As she healed, she began sharing her story, mainly before mental health groups.
"My father was driven to succeed," she recalled in a 1996
speech, "and . . . I wanted to follow in his footsteps. . . . I can remember
the fun my
three sisters and I had, adorned in matching red, white and blue dresses as we hit the campaign trail with him. He lost the  election by a
few thousand votes, and after that he was never the same. . . .
"I adored my dad. His suicide . . . shook my family's very
foundation. It made me realize that one can strive to be the best daughter,
career woman, the best person -- and things still can turn out to be tragic." Helping others helped her work through her own pain, and she
became actively involved in organizations like the Prince George's Suicide Prevention Center and Hotline, the Mental Health Association of
Maryland, and the Hospice of Prince George's County, which serves the terminally ill.
"She's one of those unique people who can translate her
tragic experiences to help others," says Betty McGarvie Crowley, now working
on a state program that encourages people to seek help for youngsters in mental and emotional distress. Other friends note that Glendening's
experiences deepened her as a person, and everyone describes her as extraordinarily warm and caring.
Murt Foos, CEO of the hospice and a self-described "soul
mate" of Francie's, recalls an awards dinner for hospice workers statewide
in which a
9-year-old boy, seated at the dais with his father, began weeping for his dead mother. Most of the workers began crying too. "Francie was the
one, out of all of us," Foos says, "who jumped up and went over to hug the little guy. She asked him what he missed about his mom and he
said, 'She used to make me chocolate chip cookies.' She invited him to Government House for Christmas, and made him chocolate chip cookies."
Glendening's own agony "brings her to a level others can
understand," says Peggy Schiff, a college sorority sister and now controller
Washington Post. "She's a real person."
Parris is respectful of all this emotion, if a bit wary.
When his wife gives a speech on her experiences, he says
this morning in their living room, "she talks candidly [and] people come
back to me
and there are tears in their eyes. . . . Mental illness, dealing with emotional problems, dealing with death is something that in our society people
don't grapple with very well. . . . The reaction [is], 'Well, maybe it's all right to be emotionally distressed . . . to have pain . . . to cry.' "
"And to get help!" she adds. "That's the main thing."
"I don't go to many of those with her," he admits, "because
it's a very emotional thing, and she wants to be able to talk just as a
is her empathy, he adds, that people in distress often telephone her, "talking extensively, repeatedly. It's almost as if she's recognized as
someone who really, truly understands . . . what the grief can do."
Still, it seems to puzzle him. While marveling at her passion
-- he's interested to learn that the word's ancient roots denote the suffering
martyr -- he admits, "It's a part of my life and my emotions that probably would never have been there without Frances Anne -- the
understanding, the ability, I guess, to relate emotionally."
Which is precisely what he's famous for not doing -- publicly,
at least, which is where it counts in politics. Polls in all 50 states
last fall found no
governor less popular, and analysts have surmised it's not so much his flubs and foibles -- over pensions, fund-raising, stadiums and the like --
as some perceived glitch in his personality.
A lack of political passion?
"Frances Anne would argue," he answers, retreating quickly into humor, "that it's still not very developed."
If the crucial relationship between politics and passion
remains elusive territory for her husband, Francie is there to urge him
-- as she says --
to "stick to your basic instinct very strongly. . . . Go with your gut!" ("Glendening Goes for Broke in Gambling Fight," yells a recent headline,
suggesting he may be heeding her advice in the current image refurbishment effort.)
She's there to remind him, too, to keep family life their
top priority, which is admirable enough in purely human terms and also
"stability" for political life that campaign manager Smith noticed. It's the main reason the Glendenings continue living in their Prince George's
County home (though some nights are spent in the Governor's Mansion in Annapolis) -- at least until Raymond finishes high school this year.
"After all those things happened in my family," she'd explained
in an earlier interview, "I looked up and said to the sky, 'God, I've got
message!' What's most important in life are your personal relationships with the people you care about."
The insight helps them make important choices.
"Interestingly," Parris says now, "most of the time we
don't come home and talk about politics or government activities. . . .
You've got to have
time when you just turn things off. . . . We make the family life almost like a structured part of our calendar. . . . I was glancing at it today, and
we have it right on there starting at 6:30 p.m.: Reserved for family time. We all try to be home by that time, [though] Raymond often will
disappear for a number of hours."
"He checks in," she adds quickly.
"It means no meetings, no business phone calls," he continues,
"and we try to do this about two nights a week, and every other weekend."
Once they even turned down a White House invitation because they'd promised to watch a football game with Raymond. "The Clintons
understood," she says.
The frequent "checking in" has become family ritual: "Our
lives are so very hectic," she'd said earlier, "that's why I like to check
in with my
husband, my son, my friends. I do it on a daily basis . . . try and make the rounds: 'Just checking!' . . . I make my list of people and just check
She wants Raymond to call her every day when he comes home
from school. Recently, she says, he was happy about a test grade and "actually
called me from school, which scared me to death, just because I thought, 'What's happened?"
Even Parris freaked: "I was in a meeting in the conference
room and they said, 'Raymond's on the phone,' and I walked right out screaming,
'What's wrong! What's wrong!' "
Nothing, as it happened -- but the Glendenings are acutely aware of life's fragility.
Indeed, this morning they're grieving an old friend, Judith
P. Hoyer, the wife of Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), who'd died the day before
from stomach cancer. "Steny served with my dad," Francie says sadly. "You just don't know . . . how long you're going to be here -- so we're
glad we've taken that time for family."
Then she brightens, recalling a story about Judy from years ago -- a political tale, to be sure, but a cautionary one:
Steny was running for Congress, and "we were at the Hyattsville
parade and we were sitting in the grandstand. The Hoyers were sitting with
us, and Steny hadn't been in Congress yet, and Judy leaned over to Steny -- we'd been there for at least an hour or so, and . . . you know,
the little school bands and everybody were performing -- and she said, 'Just think, Hoyer, if you win this thing, you get to do this for the rest of
your life!' "
Francie dissolves in laughter.
"I remember it as if it were yesterday!" she exclaims. "I will never forget that, as long as I live!"
Workaholism is an addiction. It is a progressive, fatal disease that rules our lives.
-- Schaef, "Meditations for
Women Who Do Too Much"
On a sunny Saturday afternoon in a drawing room at Government
House -- the red brick Georgian-style mansion in Annapolis that serves
Glendenings' official residence -- Francie sits alone. She sips a glass of watered-down tea brought by a servant, Emory Koch. Parris is at some
official function, and will take Raymond to a game later; Francie usually goes with them, but today she's not feeling well so she's skipping it.
"Yesterday I started losing my voice," she explains. "Between my job downtown and here, I was talking for three solid hours."
Her hair is in a bun; she's wearing a pale patterned silk
tunic and red lipstick; her fingernails are bright red. She's been answering
She proudly shows off the manse -- the art collection she's
borrowed from museums (she discusses several of the paintings in detail),
dining room where she hosts state dinners (silverware is counted after each feast), the grand staircase in the foyer where she ordered portraits
of Maryland's former first ladies prominently hung after rescuing them from a dusty archive.
"We couldn't even get a list of them to begin with," she
says. "It was ridiculous!" She's also initiated a search for artworks by
Maryland women; is preparing a book, "Women of Achievement in Maryland History" (she published a similar tome about Prince George's County
women after Raymond had trouble finding exemplars for a school report); and almost always quotes women in her speeches -- not men.
Like no first lady in recent memory, Glendening has opened
Government House to the public, holding gala Christmas receptions and other
Seeking to do things right, she led her 11-member staff on a working tour of the White House. "We saw the kitchen, the laundry," she says. "It
gave us a good idea of how to convert [public] rooms to different uses. . . . Of course, they have somebody who does nothing but take care of
the light fixtures."
She pauses wistfully in a private living room she and Parris
use on their Annapolis nights, pointing out a large painting over the fireplace
young woman in white, sitting on a rock and gazing at the water.
"It captivated me," Glendening says. "She's in deep thought. It's called 'Remembrance.' She's thinking back on important things."
Adjacent is her small official office. On the wall, next
to family pictures and other mementos, she's hung a poem, "Prayer," by
Laureate Roland Flint.
"Any day's writing," one line says, "may be the last."
Just as she settles down for the interview, the phone rings.
It's Raymond, who's been sick, checking in. They talk. His mother focuses
on the myriad details of his life.
"Your tickets are on the table, sweetie," she says. "Honey,
also, what time do you need to go to work tomorrow? . . . The Governors'
Association starts this weekend. . . . It's no problem, I just need to know. . . . Did you eat something healthy today? . . . We've got an event
tonight. . . . I'll be along later on. . . . I'm a little snuffly, but I'm doing okay. . . . I'd be happy to fix you a sandwich or soup."
She's on the edge of the sofa now, concentrating. "He'll
love that, Dad will like that!" she continues, laughing. "Did you see your
vitamins I left out on the table? Try to take them with a glass of O.J. . . . Just be safe. . . . Okay. . . . Turkey and roast beef, and you take a
bag of those low-fat chips. . . . Remember? He had to go to Baltimore; you'll see him at the game. . . . I love you, son!"
She hangs up. "See?" she says. "The little connections!"
Is it possible, she is asked, that she's trying to do too
much? Can it be that three full-time jobs, an endless parade of 15-hour
working breakfasts at dawn and political events most nights is not a healthy way to live?
"I've had a lot of people, family and friends, tell me,
'How come you're not totally falling apart?' " she answers thoughtfully.
"My mom . . . so
strong and so courageous . . . I remember, six weeks before her death -- she'd worry about my health because I always had a lot of things
going on -- she looked at me and said, 'Hey, I worry about you. Promise me you'll take care of yourself, because you're always taking care of
"And I said, 'I promise!' "
Her voice is picking up speed now.
"That's why I'm adamant about watching what I eat, about
exercise, about time with my husband and friends -- it's an important part
health. . . . Otherwise, you're too fragmented."
Yet now, her manner is fervent, almost hyper.
"I got my organizational skills from my mother," she continues,
talking fast. "I watched all those tragedies in the family, so I try to
be on the
preventive end. I joke with Parris: 'I'm watching what I eat, I do NordicTrack. . . . I'll probably be the one, after all this, to get something!' . . .
"Raymond says, 'Mom, why do you exercise so much?' I say,
'I want to be around to give you guidance and instruction for many years
in good health!' "
She repeats herself: She wants to be around! Sometimes she punctuates the point with a nervous little laugh.
"I really do want to be around," she insists once more, as if arguing with some contrary stranger.
Then, more reflectively: "I miss Mom and Dad so much. I
know how it feels not to have my mom and dad. I want to be there for a
long time. I
want to be there for my grandchildren. I want to be there to give my son support."
Yet she knows -- with visceral certainty -- that "there
are no guarantees. . . . At some point, it's beyond your control. No matter
what I did, I
could not save my mother and father and brother. That was hard for me to accept."
She's summing up now: "I don't feel like some tragic figure.
I got real good values from my parents, [and] I've tried to learn even
from the tragic
things . . . not to let things accumulate and overwhelm you; to understand and accept the bad things that happen, but not to dwell on them."
She's learned to find "joy from the things in life -- a
beautiful sunset, or the quiet that comes when it's snowing; there's a
special kind of quiet
about that. When I can't enjoy these things anymore, that will scare me. I never want to get to that point, ever. . . .
"I tell my friends, 'If you see me getting that overwhelmed, tell me I need to pull back . . . because I want to be around for a while!' "
"Emory, could I have a cup of tea?"
We forget that when push comes to shove the only standard of perfection we have to meet is to be perfectly ourselves.
-- Schaef, "Meditations"
Four friends have given her copies of the Schaef meditation
book, a collection of daily readings for workaholics and perfectionists
trying to ease
into more normal lives. The popular tome is part of a growing literature resulting from psychological studies of, among other things, the damaging
roles people often assume -- "scapegoat," "lost child," "hero" and the like -- in families where substance abuse or mental and emotional illness
has been present.
"Everybody worries about her," says Francie's pal Foos.
"She's prone to migraine headaches. She doesn't have the luxury to slow
"I do worry," Parris says, "and in fact the biggest message I have for her, all the time, is I think she tries to take on too much."
She knows it.
"Believe me," she told a group of professional women in
a speech last year, "there are days when I have too many balls in the air
successfully." To counter this, she said in an interview, she often pauses for meditation: "I make quiet time for myself. . . . I listen to myself . .
. to that little voice that says, 'Wait a minute.' "
One of her sisters, Mary Lou Burton, says Francie's father
was often hyperactive, too. "Everyone thought of him as being so strong,
can only take so much," Burton recalls. "He was trying to handle too much. . . . He tried to take everything on himself. He had a personality
that was . . . kind of authoritarian -- that traditional mindset of, 'I'm the father, the husband, the provider. The buck stops here.' He was the
kind of personality that didn't know how to let somebody else take the reins."
Burton doesn't think so. She says her sister's secret is "she has a good working staff. . . . She knows how to delegate."
She knows how, in any case, to talk the talk.
"As a wise but anonymous woman once said," she'd told the woman's group, " 'Saying no is the ultimate self-care.' "
Her friends hope she means it.
"As a woman, she's still a work-in-progress," Foos says.
"Her life will change when Raymond goes away to college. That will be a
turning point. I
think she's [already] starting to take time for herself."