Where was his wife?
That was the question on everyone’s lips as Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) confessed, near tears, at his news conference Monday..
Reporters would not drop the subject. “Where is she?,” one journalist repeated, “Where is she? Where is she? Sir, where is she?” Finally, Weiner answered the questions about the whereabouts of his spouse, Huma Abedin. “She is not here,” he said.
Political wives have always been pulled into the scandal “scenarios” starring their voracious husbands. The husband may be guilty of the deed — but the wife pays dearly. She strives to maintain some semblance of order under suffocating media attention and public scrutiny.
These wives literally “stand by their man” at his mea-culpa press events. Consider, just in the past decade, Dina Matos McGreevey, Wendy Vitter, Suzanne Craig, Silda Spitzer and Terry Mahoney.
But Abedin is different. Not because she was absent. We’ve seen that before with Darlene Ensign and Jenny Sanford. But Abedin didn’t even release a statement of support.
Even Sanford did that back in 2009 — prior to her media blitz to take her philandering then-husband to task. Nearly two years ago, Sanford wrote on the day of her husband’s own weepy press conference: “I believe Mark has earned the chance to resurrect our marriage.”
Also in June 2009 – what’s up with this month and political sex scandals? – Ensign chose not to stand next to her husband. But she expressed her support for him nonetheless, post-news conference: “With the help of our family and close friends, our marriage has become stronger. I love my husband.”
Therefore, even though Ensign and Jenny Sanford chose physical absence at their husband’s press conference, they played their roles as the “good wife” in the scandal script. Present, though not physically. Supportive, even with tinges of condescension or desperation. Still “standing by their man.”
So, for this political wife who works for Hillary Clinton (the woman who brought Tammy Wynette’s 1968 song into political play lists), the question remains: Where was she?
But the more important question is: Why do we care?
One major reason is that these scandals tap into our deepest fears: betrayal, infidelity, shame and humiliation on a mass-media scale. Scandals are about us — the public, especially the female public since it’s always the male politician caught philandering — as much as they are about them (the politician and his wife). We talk about what we’d do in their situation. And it terrifies us.
Abedin’s absence becomes something bigger than a personal decision to stay out of the spotlight and sidestep the “good wife” shot of her stricken face next to her husband’s contrite one.
Indeed, her absence is significant to wives and husbands everywhere. The political wife becomes a weathervane about marital relations. About power and gender.
Few can forget Silda Spitzer, though it’s been more than three years since her husband resigned as New York governor. In 2008, the public was both riveted and distraught by her standing next to Client No. 9 – at two press conferences.
Now, the political wife is absent from the event, no statement in sight. But that doesn’t prevent the politician from still using her for his gain.
Lest you doubted it, Weiner affirmed he loves his wife deeply, which he said repeatedly.
While he didn’t say that Abedin forgave him, he did say that she loves him too. So, even absent, this political wife played to her husband’s scandal script. Political wives cannot escape their role.
And there is another big benefit for political wives who are absent. They get a full apology.
It’s an odd quirk that when a political wife stands next to her husband, he rarely apologizes directly to her See James McGreevey, David Vitter, Larry Craig, Eliot Spitzer and Tim Mahoney. It’s as if her presence means that the politician has already apologized.
Yet when the wife is not there, the politician says sorry — as with Ensign, Sanford and now Weiner.
This relationship between apology and absence is not a scientific correlation, but there’s something psychological here. The politician injects his wife into the news conference to position himself as a contrite husband. But when she’s standing next to him, she’s already publicly on his side. So he doesn’t need to grovel – at least not to her.
For Abedin, her absence may prove her safest route. She is disentangling herself from this scandal, protecting herself as best she can not just from the political fallout but from white hot attention.
Because in a political sex scandal, we’re all mesmerized by the wife. We want to know her innermost thoughts.
But that doesn’t mean she has to play by the cultural script. It may even be time for a reverse scandal. To see, for once, a man standing by his woman.
Hinda Mandell wrote her doctoral dissertation on wives caught in political sex scandals. She begins teaching at the Rochester Institute of Technology in the communication department, later this summer.