Political marriages are not regular marriages. When presented for public consumption—in People spreads, convention speeches, and, if someone has done something very wrong, awkward press conferences—they’re meant to show politicians at their most authentic. In convention speeches, for instance, a presidential candidate’s spouse is supposed to do one thing: humanize the candidate. No one knows them like their spouse, the thinking goes, and so the spouse becomes a window into who the candidate really is. Before Melania Trump’s RNC speech was trashed for being plagiarized, it was trashed for not containing enough warm personal anecdotes about Donald Trump.
There is an element of “Politicians, they’re just like us!” to these displays, but they often go beyond simple humanization: They’re always part of a larger narrative. Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech presented her and her husband, who had been the subject of Birther attacks for months, as an all-American family. In 2012, Ann Romney presented her husband, who had been attacked as a rich guy who put thousands out of people out of work, as a loving father who cared deeply about the country. In 2016, Bill Clinton stepped on stage and told a rambling story about falling in love with his wife Hillary Clinton, clearly aiming to make America fall in love with her, too. There’s no reason to believe that any of these accounts were disingenuous, but it’s also silly to present these as purely personal narratives: They were personal speeches deployed for political ends.
One of the many fascinating things about the documentary Weiner, which tracks Anthony Weiner’s 2013 mayoral run in New York, is that it takes the curious melding of the personal and the political and turns it into an authentic-seeming narrative. When the film opens, Weiner is still disgraced; as he plays with his son in his home, his wife, Huma Abedin, sits on the floor, staring at him with an exhausted look on her face that suggests, “How did I end up with this doofus?” But when Weiner’s campaign starts to tick—when he’s leading in the polls with under three months to the Democratic primary—the marriage does as well. Suddenly the estranged couple is laughing together and, for some reason, competitively (and playfully) reading spaghetti sauce ingredients together. But then another sexting scandal emerges, and that look is back on Huma’s face. She distances herself from him as his poll numbers start to crater. In Weiner, it’s hard to tell if the marriage is an avatar for the Weiner campaign or if the Weiner campaign is an avatar for the marriage. In Weiner, there isn’t much of a distinction between Weiner and Abedin’s private lives and their public ones, and that’s no accident: The two are intertwined.
But strangely, Weiner and Abedin’s decision this week to separate has been treated as either entirely personal (by many on the left, who tend to turn up their noses at sex scandals involving others on the left) or entirely political (by many on the right, who will use any excuse to dust off old conspiracy theories) instead of something more complicated: The dissolution of a political marriage that had simply stopped working, personally and politically.
For all the talk in public about the work that she and Weiner did to fix their marriage, she and Weiner also did an enormous amount of work, ahead of his ill-fated mayoral run, to use their marriage to try to fix his political career. Most reports indicate that Abedin, one of Hillary Clinton’s closest advisers, led the way. Baby photos were given to People, interviews were done with The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine, and Abedin wrote an essay titled “The Good Wife” about her decision to stay with her husband. When the second sexting revelations emerged in 2013, she spoke at a press conference and did a much better job than her husband in controlling the damage.
But by the time Sydney Leathers shows up in Weiner, it’s all for naught: Her husband’s reputation is just as tarnished—maybe even more tarnished—than it was at the beginning. Abedin backs away, seeming at once like a wife who has had enough of her idiot husband and a campaign staffer who has had enough of her idiot candidate. Given her husband’s reputation, it’s no surprise when, near the end of the film, a New York magazine report suggested that Hillary Clinton herself had presented Abedin with an ultimatum: You can pick me or Anthony, but not both. Although Clinton adviser Philippe Reines never appears in the film, he plays an important role offstage, if not urging Abedin to dump her loser husband then certainly urging her not to publicly associate with him—not to play the role of the good wife.
Now that Abedin has indeed separated from Weiner, the curious melding of the personal and the political was present again. On the one hand, it was easy to read the decision as Abedin having had enough: This was the last straw, and now she is free of a man who, frankly, is beneath her. On the other, Weiner had become a potential campaign liability, and he was treated as one: He got dumped like a hot potato before he could wreak any more havoc. Even at the end, it became impossible to untangle the personal and political threads of Weiner and Abedin’s marriage.
And yet, despite the fact that Abedin is a top Clinton aide and Weiner is a former congressman and mayoral candidate, the separation has mostly been treated as either a wholly personal affair, or, more absurdly, a wholly political one. On the former end of the spectrum is “Huma Abedin Doesn’t Have To Be ‘The Good Wife’ Anymore,” Doree Shafrir wrote in BuzzFeed that the separation was a victory for “anyone who has ever thought their wonderful female friend was way too good for her ne’er-do-well husband.”
I’m sympathetic to this reading, but this is almost entirely projection: It treats a constructed narrative as a fact. Still, there’s a discomfort with Abedin’s political role that shines through in the piece’s conclusion, citing recent profiles in Vanity Fair and Vogue: “As William Cohan pointed out in a January Vanity Fair piece, it’s a fiction that Abedin is ‘notoriously private’—‘Like many other political operatives, she appears in the media when it suits her agenda’—and Abedin has long turned to Vogue when she needed a story about how she’s both great at her job and looks great doing it,” Shafrir writes. “What the Vogue profile makes more than abundantly clear is just how much more Anthony Weiner needed Huma Abedin than Huma Abedin ever needed Anthony Weiner.” There’s a feint towards acknowledging that political operators are going to operate politically, but it’s quickly pushed aside to return to the personal, which is the only thing that seems to really matter.
Writing in The Daily Beast, Michael Daly also referenced Abedin’s “Good Wife” article—which, it’s worth pointing out, was intended partly to repair her husband’s political reputation—and trips over his shoelaces showing how woke he is. “Maybe Weiner imagined that her being such a Good Wife meant she would stand by him no matter what his compulsions prompted him to do. But a true Good Wife is not a sap. And she is no less a Good Wife if she decides that staying is no longer in the best interests of herself and her family,” he writes. Abedin “surely has other options. One of them is to leave her e-w-w-w husband and concentrate on helping another Good Wife become the first woman president.”
As in Shafrir’s piece, Abedin’s decision to leave Weiner is presented as self-actualization, despite the fact that there is no evidence to suggest that this is true. Even more absurdly, politics only presents itself so that Abedin can help Clinton self-actualize, as well, in the form of becoming president. Well-earned sympathy for Abedin is transformed into something more significant: Abedin is an apolitical hero for leaving her scummy husband, and yet, because of doing the apolitical right thing, she is somehow an even more potent political force.
On the other end of the spectrum was the incoherent response on the right, which treated the separation as entirely political. Abedin, a longtime feature in alt-right fantasies, saw nearly every story that had circulated about her over the past decade resurrected. There were renewed allegations that Abedin is a Muslim Brotherhood agent; that Clinton and Abedin were lovers; Roger Stone and Alex Jones alleged that her mother may have mutilated her genitals. But mostly, Republicans tried to tie the separation to something it had nothing to do with: Hillary Clinton’s untrustworthiness. Here’s Donald Trump, speaking to a Seattle radio station:
By the way—check, take a look at where [Abedin] worked, by the way, and take a look at where her mother worked, and works. You take a look at the whole event. But in the case of Anthony Weiner, she’s married to a guy that’s uncontrolled, and uncontrollable. He’s a sick person. And you know she has access to classified information. Huma Abedin has access to classified information. How Hillary got away with that one, nobody will ever know.
This is nutty and (obviously) unfounded. Weiner sending pictures of himself to strangers did not endanger national security and it has nothing to do with Hillary Clinton, even if it is an echo of her husband’s infidelities. Trump here is trying to thread an impossible needle and simultaneously remind voters of those infidelities and the questions surrounding Clinton’s trustworthiness. It doesn’t work because it doesn’t have anything to do with anything: None of the threads connect.
So why do both of these narratives fail? A big reason is that the separation is a big, important story that doesn’t actually resonate with very much outside of itself; for all of the proximity to power, it’s a strangely self-contained (if fascinating) story. As New York’s Rebecca Traister argues in the sharpest argument for why Weiner’s sexting is not political news, “It’s pathetic. It’s sad. It’s funny. And it totally counts as diverting entertainment news.”
Whether or not it has anything to do with the election is an open question, but the strangest response to the story was the repeated insistence that the political element of the story—which involved a major political operative and a disgraced political figure—was out of bounds. The Hill’s Joanne Bamberger argued that it was a familiar—and sexist—story in American politics and one worth letting go. “[Abedin and Weiner’s separation is] the second verse of the Hillary/Monica/Bill story. That somehow, the victim is to blame for the perpetrator’s conduct. And that victim is suspect as both as a woman and a politician, because she stayed with her husband when so many of us claim we would never do that in our own marriages.” Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall whistled that there was nothing to see here and moved along to something more important.
Writing for U.S. News and World Report, Peter Roff, blamed the media, arguing that the whole thing wasn’t worth covering because Weiner and Abedin weren’t real political figures and their separation wasn’t a big important issue, like NATO. Instead, he sighed, and said that he couldn’t wait until the fall, when “there will be a lot more talk of issues like taxes and national defense and fixing health care and education reform and a lot less nonsensical garbage about the personal lives of the candidates.” (This attitude was brilliantly sent up on Tuesday by Jezebel’s Kelly Stout.)
But even before Donald Trump turned it into a political story by claiming that Weiner’s sexting presented a security risk, the separation was obviously a story with political resonance, whether or not you think it has merit. Abedin has been one of Hillary Clinton’s closest advisers and confidantes for a decade and Weiner was a seven-term congressman and mayoral candidate. During Weiner’s mayoral campaign, moreover, Weiner and Abedin chose to turn their marriage into a political issue in the first place, using it to attempt to rehabilitate Weiner’s political career. Just because it didn’t work and Weiner isn’t currently running for office doesn’t mean that their marriage is suddenly free of political resonance.
But I think there’s also a discomfort with Abedin’s role—she’s simultaneously a skilled political operator and a scorned woman, two cliched and resonant narratives—and no one knows how to deal with both at the same time. The personal and political are intertwined in her marriage, and no one has really been able to untangle them, instead as many have done, treating an obviously political union as a wholly personal one.
In Weiner, the filmmakers know who Anthony Weiner is. He’s needy and narcissistic, but also impassioned; simultaneously self-righteous and insecure. They do a great job of capturing and framing his contradictions. But Huma Abedin is presented without the same clarity. There is no synthesis, as there is with Weiner, between her role as an operative and her role as a wife. In the film, there are really three Humas: The one who is sick of her pathetic husband; the one who thinks things may, at long last, be going right; and the one who gets shit done. The last is the most appealing, but it’s the one seen only fleetingly, in the film’s best scene, in which Huma butters up a donor over the phone, hangs up, and then coolly informs Weiner that the couple will max out their donation to him.
That uncertainty works for the film, because it mirrors Huma’s very apparent uncertainty about her own decisions. But it also mirrors a larger anxiety about political marriages themselves. Abedin and Weiner clearly continued their marriage for (partly) political reasons and ended it for (partly) political ones as well. That’s thorny, but it’s much closer to the truth than what’s being peddled by pundits and politicians.