Former ‘House Spouse’ Ballenger Tells All
According to Donna Ballenger, life is “very dull until you take the trip,” and in her case, she’s taken many.
In fact, she wonders how many miles she has traveled over the years, especially during the 18 years her husband, former Rep. Cass Ballenger (R-N.C.), spent in Congress.
“He never took me any place there wasn’t a war, he really didn’t,” Donna Ballenger said.
When Cass and Donna Ballenger came to Washington, D.C., from Hickory, N.C., Cass Ballenger served on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Donna Ballenger said she told Cass that she would be happier if he got on Foreign Affairs (now International Relations) so they could travel, and the rest is history.
Donna Ballenger has been to numerous countries: Guatemala, Colombia, El Salvador, Peru, Venezuela and Nicaragua, to name a few. But she also spent her fair share of time commuting between North Carolina and the District, and in her first book, “Diary of a House Spouse,” she allows readers a glimpse into what her life was like as a Congressman’s wife.
The title of the book might be misleading, as Donna Ballenger said she never kept an actual diary. However, she did have a handful of pocket calendars to help jog her memory about places she has been, people she has met and things she has done. She also had Cass Ballenger, the driving force behind convincing her to write the book, to help her remember specific details.
The book chronicles 16 of Cass Ballenger’s 18 years in Congress, and it is a nonstop express ride through the eyes of Donna Ballenger from age 56 to 73. From the search for a townhouse in a “safe area” to organizing Congressional delegations to barbecues on the grill that Donna Ballenger paid a “legitimate” gas installer to hook up, the book keeps the reader turning page after page, because there’s no telling what Donna Ballenger might say next.
The Early Years
Don’t be fooled by the numerous stories of people and places in Donna Ballenger’s book. In addition to all the traveling, she said she “sat on my butt or scrubbed kitchen floors part of the time, too.”
The Ballengers had two residences, one in Hickory and one on Capitol Hill. In the beginning, “adjusting to life in Washington was not an easy task,” and Donna Ballenger recalls many humorous tales, her “D.C. woes,” throughout the chapters of the book.
“This city is a disaster and it just seems to keep getting worse,” Ballenger wrote at the beginning of the second chapter, in which she describes the problems with their home on New Jersey Avenue Southeast, such as snow in their kitchen, freezing pipes, roof repairs and lead-contaminated water.
Keeping two houses is not an easy task, and Donna Ballenger said the frequent back-and-forth was “awful.”
“I know I got a white belt, but where is it? I know I put a roast in the fridge, but where?” Ballenger said. “It’s real confusing.”
The confusion and the on-the-go lifestyle kept things interesting if nothing else. Around 1987, Donna Ballenger discovered what became her “passion,” setting up disaster field hospitals in countries lacking medical and emergency care. She said she has packed up and delivered about $9 million in hospital equipment.
In addition to traveling with the hospitals, Donna Ballenger went on countless other trips and has made friends with the people and presidents of many countries — there’s even a photograph in the book of Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela, hugging a Venezuelan flag in the hallway of the Ballengers’ home.
Donna Ballenger said she and Cass traveled about three to four times per year, which allowed for her to keep up on her high school Spanish skills.
“I learned enough to understand and I can speak it,” Ballenger said. “Give me a cocktail and I can really speak it.”
One of Donna Ballenger’s only problems with traveling so much was that she always had to pay her own way.
“The staff got their way paid, but the wives didn’t,” she said. “Fortunately, I had the means. We were really put upon.”
At the end of the book, she wrote that wives “are not paid to work as hard as we do,” and she hopes someone will “realize wives should receive perks at least as good as the staff.”
When the Ballengers were not traveling, they were attending events in the District or back in North Carolina. In the book, she recalls Cass Ballenger making friends with former Indiana Sen. and Vice President Dan Quayle (whose grandfather invented Lincoln Logs, which Donna Ballenger said she played with as a child), utilizing the assistance of former Rep. Porter Goss (R-Fla.), now head of the CIA, to obtain visas and going to events at the White House, such as Christmas parties and picnics.
Despite the great trips and friendships, eventually, all good things must come to an end.
Life After Washington
The years in Washington began to take a toll on Donna Ballenger.
“It became a horror for me,” Ballenger said about living in the District. “I didn’t like anything. I love my friends and I loved our trips, but other than that it was really 16 years of wear and tear.”
It took an “Oprah” episode one afternoon to make Donna Ballenger think about herself.
“I’m not glued to ‘Oprah,’ but one afternoon she said, ‘Where are you on your list of things to do today? Where are your priorities?’ and I said, ‘Well, at the bottom, where they always are,’” Ballenger said. “All of a sudden I said, ‘Let’s think about Donna for a change.’”
Instead of celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, Cass and Donna Ballenger decided to legally separate.
“We’re very good friends, but I’m a lot happier,” Donna Ballenger said of the situation. Donna Ballenger bought the couples’ home in Hickory from Cass Ballenger, and she lives there with her high school beau, Don Albright. However, Cass Ballenger still comes to the house for meals and pops in throughout the day. In fact, he stopped by about 40 minutes into the phone interview for this story, letting Donna Ballenger know that he’d be back for dinner.
At the time, Cass Ballenger stated that the couple’s home’s proximity to the Council on American Islamic Relations headquarters contributed to the breakup of their marriage. A libel lawsuit based on his statements is pending.
For financial reasons, Cass and Donna Ballenger opted for legal separation rather than a divorce. “That was probably the hardest thing for me to accept for myself, that I couldn’t get divorced and remarried,” Donna Ballenger said.
Although sometimes Donna Ballenger has to tell her husband to “back off” because she and Don like some time to themselves, the three of them get along quite well. In fact, they recently played bingo together (none won anything), and at times they’ll go on double dates.
“He feels comfortable because he knows that I’m here for him,” Donna Ballenger said about Cass Ballenger. “He can’t cook, so I just cook a little more every night.”
No More Politics
When asked if she misses anything about Washington, Donna Ballenger laughed and said, “I think I got enough, thank you very much.”
Even so, she might be returning to the Hill at some point to promote her book, as she said she wants to get it going in Washington.
“I would like the people who are in it to understand that they were part of my life,” she said. “I’m going to send a copy to the Republican Congressional spouse group and see if I can get it started there.”
A portion of the book’s sales will go to the Ballenger Foundation, which was started in 1990 and is run by both Cass and Donna Ballenger. The foundation aims to aid health and education in third-world countries.
Donna Ballenger said she wanted the book to be honest, but she does admit that she “cleaned it up” and tried not to be “too harsh” at times.
“It’s me, pretty much,” she said about the book, which ultimately shows that the political lifestyle in Washington is not as glamorous as it might seem.
“I don’t think anyone knows what Congress is like until you’re in it,” she said. “Never get into politics if you can avoid it, you get really partisan there.”