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Stand By Your Man?

After sitting through a YouTube double-header of both Governor Mark Sanford’s and Senator John Ensign’s I’m-so-terribly-sorry-I-screwed-around-on-my-wife solos, I’m persuaded that the absence of said wives dramatically boosted the men’s sympathy quotient--so much so that I’m prepared to recommend this as the new model for politicians delivering similar mea culpas in the future.

As a piece up on Politico this week noted, the expected course of action for elected officials caught catting around is to drag the missus up there in front of the cameras with you when you confess your sins before God, CNN, and the voting public. Senator David Vitter did it. So did Senator Larry Craig and Governor Eliot Spitzer. Blame it on Hillary if you like. It is an article of faith among political types that, without her aggressive Stand-By-Your Man performance of 1992, Slick Willie would have never weaseled his way out of that whole Gennifer Flowers mess. Message: If the woman he so grossly betrayed can forgive and retain faith in him, who the hell are you to judge?

But increasingly these days, we do judge (at least we women do)--and not just the cheating dirtbag who couldn’t keep his pants zipped, but also the red-eyed wife allowing herself to be trotted out as a prop in his little redemption play. Yes, we feel sorry for her, but many of us also want to know why in the bejeezus she’s letting herself be used like that. What kind of message is she really sending by enduring such raw humiliation for a man who is at that very moment telling the world how he behaved like a faithless dog? Certainly, this was a question that plagued Hillary (So why doesn’t she leave his sorry ass already?) any number of times during the overlong run of The Bill Clinton Sexual Follies--and beyond. More recently, poor Silda Wall Spitzer looked so shell-shocked that she only highlighted what an incredibly disloyal, degrading thing her hooker-happy husband had done. But even the wives who better manage to keep a stiff upper lip evoke in many observers not just pity but also annoyance--and, worse still from a damage-control perspective, outright rage at the men for subjecting these gals to further indignity.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was the pathologically spunky Elizabeth Edwards who broke form by refusing to appear with her man for his maiden guilt-fest with Oprah earlier this year. In doing so, Elizabeth not only preserved some shred of self-respect, she kept from adding one more item to many women’s list of reasons that we now consider John to be a total asshole. I still like to believe that John’s career in national politics is over. But at least he didn’t expect Elizabeth to hold his hand while he begged the nation for forgiveness.

Similarly, facing the wolves by themselves, Ensign and Sanford looked small and sad and beaten and helpless and lonely--which is how they should look, by god. Sanford in particular, with his weird stream-of-consciousness rambling, seemed a man in desperate need of a hug (which I kinda hope his wife gives him, right after she slugs him in the nose.) But even Ensign, with that disturbingly precise hairdo, seemed deflated and lost. Both pols seemed more vulnerable and yet less wussy for not hiding behind their wives’ skirts.

Better still, the men could go on and on about how sorry they were to have failed their wives without our eyes being irresistibly drawn to the women’s stoic faces, which would normally be hovering by their sides. Hearing the name of someone who has been wronged is not the same as seeing her in all her ashen, tear-stained glory. Standing wifeless, both men had the chance to keep the spotlight focused on their words of contrition rather than having it drift again and again to the women they wronged.

Who knows if these go-it-alone apologies were isolated instances of the mens’ wives telling them to shove off or evidence of a deliberate shift in how damage-control gurus are approaching sex scandals. Either way, they strike me as potentially more politically effective than the old model--and vastly less morally repugnant.

These men made their beds. The least they can do is not ask their wives to publicly wallow in the soiled sheets with them.

Michelle Cottle is a senior editor of The New Republic.