In the cringe-inducing annals of stand-by-your-man political redemption, Huma Abedin’s defence of Anthony Weiner on Monday set a new low bar—one that served, paradoxically, to make him look even worse. Weiner, the current front-runner in the New York City mayoralty race, had hastily convened a press conference to address new accusations that he’d exchanged sexually explicit online messages and pictures with at least one woman using the ridiculous nom de plume “Carlos Danger” more than a year after he’d been forced to resign from U.S. Congress in 2011 for similar antics. The tawdry details had been exposed on gossip site The Dirty.
Clearly, Weiner and his accomplished wife, a former top aide to Hillary Clinton who now serves as a Clinton adviser, assumed that a show of marital unity would deflect the new scandal—the old “if my wife forgives me, the public will too” that has served politicians for decades. Abedin, who was pregnant and nowhere to be seen when Weiner resigned in 2011, stood smiling by his side as he told the assembled he’d apologized to her and was “blessed” she’d given him a “second chance,” something he was also asking of the people of New York. She looked considerably less pleased when he tried to brush off his most recent behaviour, giving the fact that they were still sorting out marital problems.
Abedin spoke as well, a new twist in the “wronged wife” script, which only underlined the situation’s urgency. Certainly she’s got a lot in the game. She married Weiner when he was a up-and-coming congressman, a phrase now freighted with double entendre. Pregnant when his Twitter scandal erupted, she was presented as a shell-shocked victim. Projecting far more sincerity than her husband, Abedin said it took a “lot of work and a whole lot of therapy to get to a place where I could forgive him,” a detail recounted in the various puff pieces written about the couple as Weiner tried to resurrect his political career. In June 2012, a year after he left Congress and vowed to seek treatment, People ran a gushy profile of the couple and the newborn son. Weiner waxed on about his rehabilitation and his work to repair the family; Abedin showered praise on her husband, sharing that he did all of the laundry. We now know that was a facade: after he separated the whites, Weiner was still busy online, firing off overheated messages under a cornball alias.
Abedin acknowledged her husband “made some horrible mistakes, both before he resigned from Congress and after,” but they were all behind them: “I love him. I forgive him. I believe in him.” She tried to contain the problem to the domestic realm, “between us and our marriage.” Were Weiner’s lack of impulse control and genital exhibitionism merely a household problem, of course, there would be no need for a press conference. But her husband’s problems are clearly bigger than his penchant for flashing his junk on social media: he’s an exhibitionist, a liar, a punchline and potential landmine. People used to joke about Bill Clinton’s “bimbo eruptions” disrupting his political agenda; Weiner has already seen his much-vaunted legislative prowess eclipsed by his “crotch eruptions,” and he even hinted that there could be more out there. As it turns out, there was.
Watching Abedin, touted as a possible candidate herself, it’s evident the script for the supportive wronged political wife hasn’t changed since her mentor Hillary Clinton tried to reframe the convention when dealing with accounts of her husband’s infidelity during the 1992 campaign: “You know I’m not sitting here—some little woman standing by my man,” she famously told 60 Minutes. “I’m sitting here because I love him and respect him.” We’ve seen a parade of stoic women since, among them the harrowing image of lawyer Silda Wall Spitzer both devastated and furious at the side of her husband, Eliot Spitzer, the tough-on-crime New York governor, after he resigned from office in 2008 after dallying with prostitutes. Yet the retro supportive wife remains a key political accessory. The fact that Silda Spitzer, inspiration for Alicia Florrick on The Good Wife, has been absent from her husband’s current campaign for NYC comptroller has summoned speculation as to whether or not he can win without her.
By conferring her forgiveness, Abedin assumed the public would follow in lockstep, that it would be assumed that the wife knows best, that she’s the moral compass. But that’s not happening. Outlets from the New York Times to the Daily News are calling for Weiner to abandon his campaign. No one particularly cares about the fact Weiner did, well, whatever it is that he did. For all of its prudery, America has no problem with extramarital sex in its political class per se, Exhibit A being Bill Clinton. Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani also got a pass. Politicians don’t even need wifely backup to be reinstated post-philandering. Republican Mark Sanford, who dipped into public funds to visit his Brazilian mistress (now wife), was re-elected governor of South Carolina, even after public denunciation from his wife, Jenny Sanford.
Where Weiner miscalculated is in his failure to understand he violated public as well as marital trust and that the two are inextricably twinned. He apologized to his wife, and to the women he sent his skeezy “sexts” to. But he didn’t express contrition to the electorate that he has lied to not once, but twice. His online antics only showcase a toxic cocktail of arrogance and insecurity—he’s a guy desperate for affirmation who’s unable to receive a flattering Facebook message from a young woman without turning it into a clichéd porn script.
Dragging out the wife as a reputation prop looks equally clichéd. Yet marshalling Abedin as Weiner’s most valuable asset and cheerleader could bite them both. Yesterday it was announced that, long before the events of this week, Abedin wrote a homage to her husband to be published in the September Harper’s Bazaar, just in time for the primaries. In the piece, the woman who this week asked for parameters to be drawn around her marriage, speaks of her husband becoming “a better man.” It, like the People article, is a calculated sop to female voters. But it also highlights the paradox that has always existed in the wronged-wife defence: that having a wife who allegedly has the character and moxy required to convince people that her husband should be forgiven, only casts his behaviour in a far harsher light for betraying her. Now, with each sordid disclosure, Abedin’s own judgment in defending her husband is on the line. But one thing the ongoing sideshow does makes clear is that the wronged-wife spectacle has sputtered out of gas—and that just because a spouse claims to forgive a politician, doesn’t mean the electorate must.