Wronged Wives

What is it with the wives? Silda Spitzer took her turn yesterday, standing grim and wounded as her husband, New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, acknowledged conduct "that violates my obligations to my family." We've been through enough of these drills now to wonder: why do they stand there, heads tilted in that First Lady-like way, positioned just to the side and a few inches behind their philandering husbands as Gov. A or Sen. B—and, of course, President C—takes his turn squirming before the cameras, trying to explain? Whether the dalliance is with an undercover cop in the men's airport restroom, an intern—or, in Spitzer's case, allegedly a prostitution ring under federal surveillance, the men inevitably end these tortured appearances with a nod to the wife. She is thanked for her loyalty, commended for her service to the city, state or nation and asked for forgiveness. Privacy is called for. The loutish husband is nothing less than chivalrous as he guides his wife from the stage, away from the baying reporters.

Why stand there in the first place? Is it force of habit from a lifetime of being there for the big moments? Do otherwise strong women turn to putty in these awful moments and allow themselves to be pushed onstage by political handlers—or yanked by desperate husbands? What does a woman have to gain by letting the whole world watch what would be hard enough to bear even behind a locked bathroom door with the shower on full blast? "In a better world," writes no less an authority than Hillary Clinton in her memoir "Living History," "this sort of conversation between a husband and a wife would be no one's business but our own."

No such luck. Of course, it's easier when the accused claims he's the victim—as Idaho Sen. Larry Craig did last summer, after news emerged that he'd been arrested in an airport sex sting operation, allegedly propositioning a male undercover officer. With his wife Suzanne at his side—looking grim but supportive behind a pair of large sunglasses—Craig blasted his state's largest newspaper, the Idaho Statesman, for conducting a "witch hunt" with its investigation into rumors he had long led a gay double life.

Then there's the nobody's-business-but-our-own model. When Louisiana Sen. David Vitter confessed his involvement in a call girl scandal last summer, his wife Wendy came to the podium and said that forgiveness "is the right choice for me." (Oddly enough, years earlier, in an interview about the strains of political careers and marriage, Wendy Vitter, when asked if she could be as forgiving as Hillary Clinton said this: "I'm a lot more like Lorena Bobbitt than Hillary. If he does something like that, I'm walking away with one thing, and it's not alimony, trust me.") When Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick appeared with his wife Carlita recently to apologize for sending sexually explicit text messages to an aide, she saved him: "Yes, I am angry, I am hurt, and I am disappointed. But there is no question I love my husband."

Denial, too, is a powerful weapon. Who can forget Lee Hart telling reporters after her husband Gary, then the front runner for the 1988 Democratic nomination, was linked to Donna Rice: "When Gary says nothing happened, nothing happened." Clinton, of course, retires the trophy for pushing back with her appearance on the "Today" show shortly after the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, in January 1998, warning of a "vast right-wing conspiracy" bent on destroying the Clinton presidency. In her memoir "Living History," Clinton writes that she was not told of the facts until Bill woke her on the morning of Aug. 15, two days before he was scheduled to give a deposition to special prosecutor Ken Starr. Confronted with the truth, she wrote, "I could hardly breathe. Gulping for air, I started crying and yelling at him, 'What do you mean? What are you saying? Why did you lie to me?'" Is it her less than authentic-sounding gullibility that makes the scandal seem almost as much hers and his? Google "Hillary Clinton, humiliation," and you get 172,000 hits, only slightly fewer than "Bill Clinton" followed by the same noun, which comes in at 183,000.)

Silda Wall Spitzer, a Harvard-educated lawyer, mother of the couple's three teenage daughters, is no Tammy Wynette. If she ever wants to tell us what she was thinking Monday when she appeared with Eliot on Monday in Manhattan, presumably she will. (Asked Monday during a campaign stop in Pennsylvania whether Spitzer should resign, Clinton sidestepped. "Let's wait and see what comes out of the next few days," she said. "Right now I don't have any comment. I think it's appropriate to wish his family well and see how things develop.")

The scene of the Spitzers was slightly reminiscent of the one four years ago, next door in New Jersey, when Dina McGreevey stood, with what looked like a frozen smile, next to her man, as then-Gov. James McGreevey, tangled in a blackmail case involving a former aide, announced that he was a "gay American." Unlike most political couples, who either hold their marriages together or quietly disintegrate, the McGreeveys went on to a spectacular divorce and custody battle, and published dueling memoirs of their ordeal.

The McGreevey's public feud afforded one of those rare journalistic opportunities to ask direct questions. Just what, I asked Dina Matos McGreevey, was she thinking as the shutters clicked? "Well, you know, it wasn't a smile," she said. "It was my attempt to keep it together and not fall apart in front of the cameras." Right up until the couple walked out onstage, McGreevey told me, her husband had given her the news of his affair with a male aide "in installments," and she hadn't had time to absorb the information. "I was literally in shock and in a fog. I had had less than three days to process what was happening." Looking back, McGreevey said, "I'm surprised I was able to stand there and not show any emotion, to keep it together. I was really at war with myself, feeling pain and anger and also trying to figure out how to respond or how not to respond. I am frankly surprised I was able to stand there and not fall apart."

Days later, as a grieving McGreevey huddled in the lonely governor's mansion with her two-year-old daughter, trying to figure out what steps to take next, she received a comforting call from someone who knew what it was like to be in her shoes. Get your own advisers, the caller said. Don't rely on your husband's. Look out for yourself and your daughter, because no one else will. The words from Hillary Clinton got her through some of her darkest hours, McGreevey said. As the spurned first wives club expands, McGreevey will no doubt have plenty of opportunity to pay her painfully earned knowledge forward.