We’ve obsessed over political wives for years—searching for meaning and drama in the ambition of Hillary Clinton, the privilege of Cindy McCain, and the travails of Elizabeth Edwards—but the press conference that Anthony Weiner and Huma Abedin gave on the state of their union felt like the moment when our obsession officially went overboard. “I love him, I have forgiven him, I believe in him,” Abedin said in heartfelt, halting tones, following her husband’s confession that he’d continued to sext with strangers after resigning from Congress two years ago in disgrace. “It took a lot of work and a whole lot of therapy to get to a place where I could forgive Anthony,” she went on. “But I do very strongly believe that that is between us and our marriage.”
The absurdity of an accomplished woman explaining her marriage to the world—while also declaring her marriage to be private territory—was lost in the torrent of overanalysis that gushed forth. Was Abedin a victim, an opportunist, or an empowered woman? “Huma comes from the Clinton school of forgiveness—power is more important than dignity,” a media strategist, that most dignified of professionals, told The New York Post. In The New York Times, Maureen Dowd suggested that Abedin’s loyalty to her husband could be attributed to her upbringing in patriarchal Saudi Arabia. Even her attire was mined for clues to her psychological state. “Her nondescript black sweater over a throwaway floral sundress was the outfit of someone who had been through a lot and someone who was beginning to come undone,” a New York magazine blogger opined.
By now this phenomenon has become a dreary cliché: As a politician apologizes for his particular combination of sexual dysfunction and arrogance with practiced, lip-biting “sincerity,” we can’t seem to take our eyes off his wife, standing to one side and looking a little shell-shocked. It’s her reaction that largely determines whether her husband is perceived to have a shot at redemption. As an added bonus, she is graded on her contribution to feminism: Has she single-handedly advanced the cause of women or dealt it a mortal blow? After Silda Wall Spitzer endured one of these ordeals several years ago, an ABC newscaster called her decision to do so a “syndrome,” comparing her unfavorably with Jenny Sanford, who had refused to attend her husband Mark’s public admission of adultery and had thus “[kept] her dignity.” In The Washington Post, Sally Quinn described Abedin’s press conference as “a setback for women everywhere.” But the truth is that we know almost nothing about these women or the decisions they’ve made in their marriages. And the fact that we even pretend to understand them exposes an ugly fallacy at the heart of the political process.
One reason we’re so captivated by political spouses is that we—that is, voters—don’t really know what we’re doing. Americans want to elect competent, morally upstanding people to high office but are unsure of how to do so. Politicians tend to mouth the same bromides about faith, country, and honor; policy-making can be an impenetrable business. So voters take an intuitive shortcut: We look to candidates’ families and especially—since most politicians are men—their wives. Michael Douglas recently observed that one of the hardest parts of being an actor is doing sex scenes, since “everyone has had sex ... which means everyone has an opinion on how it should be done.” In politics, everyone has an opinion on marriage, because it’s something we understand, or at least we understand it better than Obamacare’s application of medical loss ratios. That’s how the wife, smiling and coiffed, becomes the symbolic shorthand for her husband’s authentic character.
But it’s not just the voters’ fault. Ever since politics entered the TV age, campaigns have exploited our fascination with the spouses relentlessly. When Al Gore planted a long kiss on his (now estranged) wife, Tipper, at the 2000 Democratic National Convention, the show of affection was thought to have done wonders for his starchy reputation. Last year, Romney campaign staffers repeatedly boasted of their plans to deploy Ann Romney to battleground states in order to “humanize” Mitt. In 2007, after much chatter that Michelle Obama’s jokes at her husband’s expense were, as Dowd put it, “emasculating,” her public persona became less outspoken and more “relatable.” The underlying logic at work here is depressingly retrograde: The wife is an extension of her husband, not a person in her own right. And when the rosy picture of a politician’s marriage gets shattered, who is used to tell the narrative of his redemption? The political wife, again.
The final culprit is—no surprise here—the media, which loves to dissect political spouses as avatars of feminism, working motherhood, or modern marriage, but almost never as real people. The press coverage of wronged wives can be downright fawning. Abedin was described in a recent New York magazine profile as “quite possibl[y] ... the most cosmopolitan human being on Earth.” The New York Times devoted a front-page story to Silda Spitzer last month, presenting her as almost supernaturally devoted to long workweeks and charitable endeavors. After the news of Mark Sanford’s affair broke, Jenny released a statement saying she loved her husband and wanted to reconcile. A Newsweek editor gushed: “It’s loving. It’s forgiving. It is pious. And she really kicks some butt.” These portraits of noble victims may be sympathetic, but they also reek of condescension. Their subjects are not complicated human beings who make difficult, sometimes messy decisions, but reassuring cardboard cutouts: If the man is a scoundrel, then the woman must be a saint.
What’s most grating about the fixation on the wives, by practically everyone involved in politics, is that it’s based on a fundamentally misguided assumption. No matter how often the connection between effective public service and family values is disproved, we insist on seeing one. (The irony is that we do so while simultaneously regarding politicians as only slightly more ethical than gangsters.) The three great exemplars of moral leadership over the past century are generally considered to be Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela, none of whom were models for marital best practices. Gandhi loftily informed his wife after two decades of marriage that he would henceforth be celibate and periodically tested his resolve by sleeping nude with his 18-year-old grandniece. King had numerous extramarital affairs, causing his wife great pain. During his first marriage, Mandela conducted a brazen affair with his secretary. As for American politicians, Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy remain the two most popular, respected presidents of the last 100 years, and both were legendary philanderers.
Some say that, when wives choose to fund-raise or lobby for their husbands’ campaigns, as Abedin did, they are opening themselves up to scrutiny, just like any other surrogate. And of course, if a wife’s involvement raises questions of conflicts of interest, it’s a legitimate area of inquiry. But Abedin is not running for office, and her personal life is just not that relevant to the future of New York City. There was once a time when a woman’s only role in society was thought to be as a complement to her husband or, at best, a useful accessory. That time is long gone, and yet in the realm of politics, we cling to it. In many countries, the families of politicians are barely even public figures, let alone stars in a neverending national morality tale.
So here’s an idea. Let’s try and get through the 2016 campaign cycle without focusing on spouses. If politicians bandy them around, let’s refuse to participate in the charade. If a candidate is caught with his pants down in a Starbucks restroom, let’s skip the mass mind-reading of his wife. It’s time for this gruesome ritual to end.
Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at The New Republic.