Politics & Policy

Don’t Stand By Your Man

What Barbara Mandel has to teach scorned political wives.

Frankly, it’s hard to feel sorry for Eliot Spitzer. He was, as Rep. Peter King (R., N.Y.) described him, “The most unforgiving man in New York politics.” We’re a Christian and forgiving nation, but it can take some time to wrap your head around “He who has never procured a woman over the Internet, reserved a room under an assumed name, and given a hooker an exorbitant amount of money for sex acts deemed ‘unsafe,’ let him cast the first stone.”

But schadenfreude is a capricious sprite. Somewhere between the time the news broke and the eleventy-millionth time that cable news mentioned his wife and three teenage daughters, I began to feel bad about the whole sordid affair.

His two press conferences were almost painful to watch, but not because Spitzer didn’t need to stand up and take responsibility for his crimes. They were painful because, yet again, a politician was admitting to a shameful sexual indiscretion and, yet again, his wife was standing next to him (while apparently, behind the scenes, urging him not to resign). It was an all too familiar scene. Why do we expect to see women “standing by their man,” even in circumstances when the husband doesn’t deserve his wife’s support? I doubt I’m alone in thinking that the next scorned woman would do herself and everyone else a favor by staying home when her husband holds a press conference to confess his depravity to the world.

Based on what little has been reported about Silda Wall Spitzer, she deserves better. A Harvard-educated lawyer certainly could have done other things with her life than play second fiddle to her megalomaniac husband. She’s very attractive and appears to be an excellent mother, and, as if to complete the near-parodic picture of the long-suffering politician’s wife, she spends most of her professional time and energy working for a charity called “Children for Children.”

There have, however, been exceptions to this pattern. However much we may admire Mrs. Spitzer’s dignity and strength, I suspect most people can more readily relate to what Barbara “Bootsie” Mandel did when she found out in 1973 that her husband of 32 years, Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel, had been cheating on her. Bootsie made national news by booting her husband out of the 54-room governor’s mansion. Marvin decamped to a hotel room in Annapolis for five months, enduring near-constant public humiliation, until arrangements to end the marriage began in earnest. At the time, Bootsie was publicly celebrated as a hero to aggrieved women everywhere.

Despite all this, Marvin Mandel was elected to a second full term. In 1977 he was convicted for accepting $357,000 in kickbacks relating to the illegal purchase of a racetrack by five “business associates” and then using his influence to pass a law that let the track open an additional 18 days a year. Mandel, the nation’s first governor convicted of a crime while in office since 1934, suffered a stroke during the legal proceedings. Amusingly, it was revealed during his trial that a significant amount of the money he had illegally received went to pay for his divorce settlement. Hell hath no fury like four years in federal prison.

Thus far, Silda Wall Spitzer has avoided taking Bootsie Mandel’s course. To ask why a woman of her apparent dignity would stand by her man during his fall from grace is not a criticism; far from it. But it does make one wonder: What’s gained by standing next to your husband at a press conference as he admits to hiring a prostitute in the past month?

The answer is as cynical as it is obvious. “If you don’t have the spouse with you, the signal sent is one of abject debauchery and guilt,” Eric Dezenhall, one of the best crisis-management PR men in the business, told the Washington Post Tuesday. “When the wife or the family is with you, that suggests, well, somebody close to this person loves them and thinks they’re worthwhile.”

The problem from his wife’s perspective is that Spitzer, like many politicians before him, is, in fact, guilty of abject debauchery. Having your wife next to you may aid in rehabilitating your reputation, but in the long term I don’t think it helps those close to you when you step up to the podium and say, in effect, “At this difficult time, I would ask that you please respect my wife and family more than I ever did.”

Just ask Dina McGreevey, née Matos, how well the loyal-but-long-suffering act has worked out for her. She stood by her man, New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey, in 2004 when he famously announced: “My truth is that I am a gay American.” Unfortunately for Dina and the citizens of New Jersey, “the” truth was that he was a serial adulterer who had put his manifestly unqualified boyfriend on the public payroll to the tune of six figures a year.

However, as Dina found out later, standing up publicly for her husband was just the beginning of her humiliation. In a book she wrote about surviving her marriage, she explained in extensive detail how the humiliations went far beyond anything related to their public life. She later found out that her husband had been engaging in anonymous trysts in parks, seedy bookstores, and Turnpike rest stops — and that he began an affair while she was in the hospital giving birth to their child. Matos’s husband rewarded her loyalty by insisting that she move out of the governor’s mansion before his official resignation, saying that if she remained, it would make her “look like white trash.”

“I was criticized for standing there. Hillary Clinton was criticized for standing there with her husband. We all do it for very personal reasons,” McGreevey said in a CNN interview the day the Spitzer scandal broke. “You don’t know what it’s like unless you’re in the person’s shoes.”

True enough — but the fact remains that she’s done an awful lot of second guessing since the day she stood up for her husband, long before she knew the full truth about his behavior. As Matos notes, standing by your husband through scandal is a difficult and personal decision that should not invite judgment from the public. Nonetheless, I’ll bet if she had it to do all over again, her approach would have been a lot more simpatico with Barbara Mandel’s. If Barbara Mandel teaches us anything, it’s that aggrieved wives of public figures are unlikely to suffer slings and arrows for letting their anger show. This doesn’t mean that Silda Wall Spitzer would have been thrown a parade if she had immediately filed for divorce or tossed Eliot’s things out on the lawn of New York’s executive mansion. But it’s hard to imagine anyone putting her down for refusing to stand next to her husband while he admitted his involvement with a prostitution ring.

Any woman who stands by her husband in such circumstances is seen as either a fool or a saint. As far as I can tell, Silda Wall Spitzer and Dina Matos, like the vast majority of the wives in their situation before them, as well as those inevitably to come, are neither. They’re just women who have been humiliated by their husbands, and in the long run they do no one any favors if they pretend to be anything different.

– Mark Hemingway is an NRO staff reporter.


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