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Why do Political Wives Stand by Their Men?

Why do Political Wives Stand by Their Men?

When political husbands cheat, why do their wives consistently stay by their sides, at least in the public eye? Let's find out...
OpinionFront Staff
By Anastacia Mott Austin

It's an increasingly familiar scene―a disgraced politician faces his shocked (some might say ravenous) audience of reporters and television cameras at the required news conference, as his dutiful wife stands stoically beside him.

Why does she do that?

One might think this would be an expected scenario from the 1950s or 1960s, when wives were duty-bound to stick it out, no matter what. Except that back then, politicians didn't face press conferences for indiscretions―because reporters didn't cover stories like that. Personal lives were not political fodder in the good ol' days.

The recent scandal involving former New York governor Elliot Spitzer's involvement in a prostitution ring has spurred discussion on the phenomenon of the wronged political wife. Silda Spitzer stood beside her husband as he faced questions about accusations that he had spent over $80,000 on prostitutes during his term as governor, while he built a reputation as "Mr. Clean" for breaking up rings just like the one he was involved with. It's hard to decide which is worse―Spitzer's betrayal of the people of New York, whose laws he promised to uphold, or that of his wife, to whom he had promised faithfulness.

Why on earth would a betrayed spouse willingly stand in the glare of the media spotlight and share the humiliation of her husband's misdeeds? Experts disagree on the reasons. Some say it's because it's politically expected that the wife stand by. To not do so tells voters that not even the man's wife can forgive him, so why should they?

"What the wife is saying is, 'He may have done something wrong, but I still love him and he's a good man,'" said professor of media studies Paul Levinson of Fordham University, to reporters.

But it doesn't work, says Levinson. The public has so often seen the martyred wife standing off to the side of the shamefaced politician that we're inured to the message it's supposed to convey. "It's a cliché, it's expected," says Levinson. "We're so used to seeing the spouse standing there, she's almost like a microphone or another prop on stage."

How can she just stand there, saying nothing? It's surprising that, with so many of these scenarios arising recently, that we haven't seen one case of a wronged wife hauling off and clubbing her dear husband with that ubiquitous American flag that always seems to be near them on the podium.

Most wives could identify more with Wendy Vitter, wife of a Republican senator, who in 2000, criticized Hillary Clinton for standing by her husband during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. At the time, Vitter said, "I'm a lot more like Lorena Bobbitt than Hillary. If [my husband] does something like that, I'm walking away with one thing, and it's not alimony, trust me."

Yet, there she was herself, seven years later, standing beside her husband, Louisiana Senator David Vitter, as he admitted being a client of Washington, D.C. madam Deborah Palfrey. So what gives? Some say political wives are so conditioned to being in the public eye, that everything they say or do is as part of a public couple―they're just accustomed to acting as part of their husbands' publicity machines. Others say that wives who stay have too much to lose by not standing by their men. They have built up entire lives, they share children, they have financial protection, they may have given up their own careers to support their husbands' political ambitions, and fear that without them, they'd be left with nothing. Still others say that a political wife makes a statement to the public by standing by, and her husband knows he owes her for it, big time.

Psychologist Sally Porter Ross spoke to reporters, saying that a public show of support signals a power shift within the relationship. "From that point on, she's in charge, she's got the power. She is absolutely on top." Dina Matos, formerly Dina McGreevey, who stood by her husband Jim's side as he admitted not only to having an affair while he was in office, but that it had been with a man, explains why she stood beside him. "I thought about it, and I thought, well, I've stood by his side all these years," said Matos on the Oprah show. "We have a daughter together, and one day she's going to hear about this or read about it, and she's going to ask me, 'Mommy, why weren't you at Daddy's side?' So I was there for my daughter's father. And I also had nothing to hide. I had done nothing wrong."

Whether the wives deserve admiration for being strong or criticism over standing up for a jerk, the reasons for choosing to appear next to their politician husbands during his worst moments are varied.

"It's impossible to get inside anyone's marriage and figure out what really goes on," says political consultant Mark Fabiani. "But if you can't immediately persuade your wife to stand with you, you're finished. How they convince them to stand there before cameras and hot lights and angry questions is impossible to know."

Plus, that nearby flag has got to be tempting.