Notes on a Scandal

Silda Wall Spitzer "stands by her man"

Every so often, we in the American public find ourselves locking our eyes, raising our voices and, in a rare spasm of unity, posing a single, searing question: What the hell was [insert powerful politician’s name here] thinking?

Ugh. The Politician Brought Down by His Sexual Impulses. The whole thing is so clichéd, it’s almost—almost—comical. Substitute “Kristen” for “Monica,” “client 9” for “wide stance,” “wire-tapped phone” for “stained dress”…and the revelation of Eliot Spitzer’s apparent involvement in a prostitution ring yesterday afternoon was straight out of the Political Scandal 101 textbook. The news conference. The apologies to the family. The apologies to the public. Overall, one massive case of déjà-screw.

L’Affaire Spitzer feels repetitive for a reason. As Libby Copeland points out in today’s Washington Post, there’s a ritualistic aspect to these events, an agreed-upon procedure of admission, contrition, and redemption that characterizes, to an almost glib degree, the assumed epilogue to the epic tale that is getting caught with one’s hand inside the wrong cookie jar. And the most common feature of the Pageant of the Political Peccadillo—besides the requisite apologies and assurances of regained trust—is the wronged-but-dutiful wife, sad and stoic, who stands at her husband’s side while he plays his part, as Tammy Wynette, ostensibly, smiles upon her from the heaven of Feminine Virtue. (And if you love him, you’ll forgive him…’cause, after all, he’s just a man…)

“Pity the wife,” Reuters had it. “With her husband ensnared in a sex scandal, New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s wife is living through the worst nightmare for any political spouse—the ‘Stand By Your Man’ moment.” It continued:

Silda Wall Spitzer, the mother of the governor’s three daughters, stood by her husband’s side at a news conference on Monday where he admitted he had violated his obligations to his family and his “sense of right and wrong.”

Other outlets echoed Wynette’s warble in reporting on yesterday’s news conference:

Silda Wall Spitzer, looking drawn with her eyes downcast, stood beside her husband of 20 years and the father of their three teenage daughters. (AP)

As the public—and his fellow politicians—reacted with shock and outrage, Spitzer strode to a podium in Manhattan, his arm around his wife, Silda. Both looked deeply shaken, but Spitzer delivered his brief remarks in a crisp, steady tone as Silda stood, stone-faced, at his side. (LA Times)

With his ashen-faced wife at his side, the governor apologized and said his behavior “violates my obligation to my family and violates my or any sense of right or wrong.” (New York Times editorial)

When they aired video a few minutes later, Mr. Spitzer’s wife, Silda, stood by his side, her eyes puffy and visibly shaken….His remarks lasted roughly one minute, then Mr. Spitzer walked off with his wife, briefly putting his hand on her back, but with no other interaction. (New York Times’s City Room)

“Stood by his side.” As phrases go, it’s one of the most loaded there is; indeed, it’s hard to imagine another term whose text and subtext are both so powerful and so wildly divergent. When it comes to the rules of political pageantry, the one enforces the other: to stand next to one’s husband, sharing in the glaring spotlight of scandal, is, of course, to stand by him in the larger sense. “The post-scandal news conference is all about control,” Copeland notes. “The husband and wife must present a united front, which is why the wife has to be there.” And standing by one’s man, of course, is, culturally, consummately feminine: the sublimation of one’s sense of personal betrayal to the greater good of family unity. Family, in Silda Wall Spitzer’s case, being not only the Spitzers’ three teenage daughters, but also the public.

But the Stand-by-Your-Man approach to political scandal also smacks of the twentieth century. The whole “sublimating one’s sense of personal betrayal,” after all, doesn’t fit too well with today’s notions of feminism. It harks back, rather, to Wynette-ism. “Just once, as the husband moves up to the microphone, I’d like to see one of these wronged women just walk offstage behind him, suitcase in hand, exit stage right,” the LA Times’s Patt Morrison declared. “Why,” she asked, “do so many women suck it up and stand grimly by, like a prop for the photo op, as the hubby spills his guilty guts for the cameras?”

It’s a fair question. Especially because, among the high-profile analogues to Wall Spitzer’s situation—Wendy Vitter, Suzanne Craig, Dina McGreevey, and, of course, Hillary Clinton—each wife has, literally and figuratively, stood by her man. Each has endured what one can only assume must be among the worst moments of her life under the blaring lights and eternal-image-capturing capabilities of the media. It’s certainly valid to wonder why they do it—why they put themselves through it, and why, ultimately, they choose to weave themselves into the public context of their husbands’ disgrace. But that fair question easily ventures into the precarious terrain of unfair judgment. Here’s more from Morrison:

Today Silda Spitzer looked like she might have had a gun at her back—or she might have had one in Eliot’s back—but there she was nonetheless, ‘at his side,’ as they say. Stick with the marriage if that’s what you want, by all means—but let him twist in the wind alone.

Morrison’s take on “at his side” fairly drips with mockery—mockery that, strangely, ironically, is aimed at the person who most agree is one of the victims in all this. Seems a bit harsh, no? And here are Joe Scarborough and Mike Barnicle, speaking about Kristengate on MSNBC this morning:

SCARBOROUGH: Let me ask you. Would your wife follow you out if you were client number 9? Because I think if I did that there would be a knife in my back.

BARNICLE: ….She couldn’t follow me, because she would have pushed me out of a fifty-story window, she would’ve been so outraged. No, she wouldn’t be there on the stage with me. Nor would I ask her.

In other words: My wife wouldn’t stand up there with me. My wife would stand up for herself. (The other side of that, of course, is: I wouldn’t give my wife cause to stand up for me in the first place.) My wife is, you know, strong. There was an unmistakable note of pride in the men’s voices as they spoke.

Client 9 forced his wife into women’s classic Catch-22: how do you untangle the often knotted threads of feminism and family? In those rare situations when you can’t have it both ways—in situations like Wall Spitzer’s stand-with-Eliot-or-don’t decision yesterday—where do you draw that line between loyalty to yourself and loyalty to your spouse…particularly given marriage’s tendency, as Meghan O’Rourke observed, to blur the line between the two? How, after all, do you stand up for yourself when twenty years of marriage make it difficult to determine where you end and your spouse begins?

Hillary Clinton, of course, met widespread criticism for her own decision in that regard in the wake of Monicagate (and Flowersgate). But Wall Spitzer makes for a somewhat different case, in that she seems to have no political considerations of her own—the chief complaint against HRC in 1998—and, as a Harvard-educated lawyer, might have been more likely than her fellow Wronged Women to, well, not stand by her man. And yet. When Wall Spitzer’s hand was forced, she chose, superficially at least, the same thing her fellow political wives have chosen. “We saw his wife standing by his side yesterday at the press conference,” Kiran Chetry said today on CNN’s American Morning, referring to Wall Spitzer. “We’ve seen it with Senator Larry Craig as well as Governor McGreevey’s wife, Dina. What is it about these women that, I guess, makes them stand by their man in extraordinary circumstances?”

Again: “what is it about these women?” Which implies, of course, What’s wrong with these women? Why don’t they stand up for themselves?

Far be it from us—myself, the media in general—to assume or even speculate about Wall Spitzer’s motivations in her decision to stand next to Spitzer onstage yesterday. Those motivations, as far as I’m concerned, are beside the point. But the media’s somewhat schizophrenic takes on Wall Spitzer—wronged by her husband, supporting her family, noble in her stoicism, selling herself a bit short—are most interesting, to me, in that they’re each correct. Wall Spitzer is each of those things. Yet her press portrayals are also specimens of reflected light: they mirror a society that can’t seem to make up its own mind about what, exactly, it wanted Wall Spitzer to do yesterday. And what, for that matter, it wanted her to be, to her husband, to her children—and to us, the public. Proud matriarch? Stoic sufferer? Independent? Loyal? There’s standing by your man and standing up for yourself; it’s worth considering why, exactly, we assume the two are separate propositions.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.