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?”

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