In most political sex scandals, there is a wronged wife, usually conveying a mixture of dignity and pain.
Sometimes when the time comes for the admission of guilt, the wife is standing by her husband’s side. Sometimes she is nowhere to be seen. Sometimes the marriage survives, and sometimes it doesn’t. Ditto the husband’s career.
In the case of Huma Abedin, the woman married to Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner not even a year, the story has an added dimension. She is expecting their first child, a fact that came to light a few days after the New York congressman admitted to sending lewd photos of himself to women and carrying on long-distance, sexually charged relationships with them.
But in many other ways, Ms. Abedin is the classic political wife, “caught between a rock and a hard place,” says Myra Gutin, a communications professor and expert on first ladies at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J. “There’s the whole issue of being supportive of your spouse, a la Hillary Clinton in '98, standing by her man. Then there’s the heinousness of whatever your spouse has done, and how to address that in private.”
Abedin did not stand dutifully by her husband at his tearful press conference in New York on Monday. Though reportedly in the city, she chose to stay out of the spotlight. But by many accounts, that is not to be read as a sign that she is anything less than committed to her marriage. Representative Weiner said on Monday that he and Abedin love each other and intend to stay together.
Abedin has no more formidable a source for advice to turn to than Secretary of State Clinton, whom she has known since her days as a White House intern in 1996 and with whom she has a close relationship. Abedin is now an aide to Clinton at the State Department, and is accompanying her on a weeklong trip to Africa. Last July, former President Clinton performed Weiner and Abedin’s wedding.
Ironies aside, Abedin’s role in the Weiner saga is quiet but powerful. If he manages to survive the scandal, despite the calls from within his own party to resign and a looming ethics investigation, he may well have her to thank.
Political analysts suggest that in some cases where a wronged political wife displays solidarity with her husband, that has helped him maintain some level of public support and political viability. Ex-President Clinton is Exhibit A. So is Sen. David Vitter (R) of Louisiana, who was caught in 2007 on a prostitution ring’s client list. Senator Vitter’s wife stuck with him, and he was reelected last November. (Vitter, too, can probably thank the passage of time and an electorate accustomed to scandal.)
“The image of the loyal wife conveys to the public that the person he has hurt the most has forgiven him first, and you should too,” says Kellyanne Conway, a Republican strategist. “It all depends on the circumstance, really. Unfortunately people have become inured to the cheating political man story.”
The role of social media in the Weiner scandal – and the fact that the congressman had no physical contact with any of his paramours – adds a new twist to an old sin. In fact, on Monday he seemed to suggest that because he had not had a physical relationship with the women involved, his actions weren’t as bad as if he had. The political world has reacted otherwise. And he and Abedin find themselves the latest in a long line of adulterous politicians and their aggrieved wives.
Standing by a scandal-consumed husband “has to help the offending husband on the margin, but it certainly doesn’t guarantee survival,” says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “And the psychic costs are so high.”
Consider the case of Jenny Sanford. She didn’t do the “stand by your man” routine when her husband, then-Gov. Mark Sanford (R) of South Carolina, admitted to an affair with a woman in Argentina. The Sanfords are now divorced.
“I think it’s much easier for Jenny to move through her normal life than if she had stuck by him,” says Mr. Jillson.
Governor Sanford resisted calls to resign and survived moves toward impeachment, limping to the end of his term.
Weiner rationalizes his decision not to resign by citing the support of his constituents. But it’s an open question whether he can resist the calls to resign from within the Democratic Party, where he faces ostracism if he stays.
One off-shoot of the Weiner scandal, and others that have preceded it, may be a renewed push by both parties to encourage more women to run for office. It’s probably no coincidence that in the case of New York’s 26th Congressional District, both major parties selected women to run last month in the special election for the seat vacated by Rep. Christopher Lee (R). The married Mr. Lee resigned abruptly in February after he was caught sending a shirtless photo of himself to a woman he met online on Craigslist.
IN PICTURES: Ethically challenged congressmen