Earlier this summer, my colleague Isaac Chotiner wrote an impassioned plea for political watchers to stop paying so much attention to political wives. "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," he argued. "That’s how the wife, smiling and coiffed, becomes the symbolic shorthand for her husband’s authentic character." The obsession with them, he says "is depressingly retrograde: The wife is an extension of her husband, not a person in her own right." He goes on to blame the press for "turning them into avatars of feminism, working motherhood, or modern marriage," at the expense of their actual humanity. But there are two stories today in the Times that I'd say serve as a nice rebuttal to Isaac's complaint.
The first is a deep investigation into whether Huma Abedin's work at the State Department—while simultaneously collecting paychecks from both the Clinton Foundation and a private consulting group—was ethical. Abedin, a political force in her own right, has largely been painted as the angel to her husband Anthony Weiner's devil. The ambition, acquisitiveness, and willingness to trade on connections that such career juggling implies tells us more far about Abedin than her impeccable clothing choices and carefully-doled out public appearances to date have. And that, in turn, tells us something about Weiner. When a couple shares goals as clearly as the Weiner-Abedins do, it's almost insulting to ignore the non-candidate spouse. They are a very particular case, but in general, the person you choose to marry says more about you than anything else. As often as not, the wife is not "an extension" of her husband these days, she is his partner.
But what about a less public spouse? Conveniently, there's another case study available in Kim Catullo, the wife of another mayoral candidate, Christine Quinn's. The corporate attorney, who does not like being a political spouse, has largely avoided press until now, but "[i]n something of an official rollout, the Quinn campaign approached several outlets late last week to offer brief interviews with Ms. Catullo over the weekend." (Surely this had nothing to do with the recent surge in the polls that her rival Bill deBlasio got after his picture-perfect progressive family was featured in the Times!) Though Quinn and Catullo have, by definition, one of the most modern marriages of them all, in one way it seems to be a somewhat traditional political union. Catullo doesn't appear interested in politics, though she's willing to step into the spotlight if it will help Quinn, who apparently decided to run against the wishes of her wife. That steamrollering jibes with Quinn's reputation as council speaker. Or—and maybe I'm being too Machiavellian with this—the idea of a wife who is less interested in power and instead dreams of escaping to Vermont, as Catullo says she does to the Times reporter, helps soften the public image of such a hard-charging woman. It also helps that she reminds progressive voters, many of whom are inclining DeBlasio, of the historic nature of Quinn's candidacy. "“I knew that being a woman and being a lesbian and being different — and then all the other reasons — she was going to be a target,” says Catullo. Maybe she's a full, behind-the-scenes partner in the candidacy; maybe she's more of an old-fashioned political wife. Either one says something about Quinn, and why shouldn't voters be interested in that?