Huma Abedin became the latest in a growing list of politicians’ wives to stand by her man, when she held a joint press conference with her husband, Anthony Weiner, a candidate for mayor of New York City.
Weiner, a former congressman, is currently in the middle of a sexting scandal. Weiner and Abedin addressed the media when revelations surfaced that Weiner’s sexting continued even after the scandal that caused him to resign from Congress in 2011.
Abedin’s words of support and solidarity stand in stark contrast to some other political wives, such as Silda Spitzer, wife of former New York Mayor Eliot Spitzer, who resigned in 2008 amid a prostitution scandal, but is currently running for comptroller in New York. Silda Spitzer has not made public appearances on behalf of her husband during his current campaign.
So why do some wives of cheating husbands resolutely line up with their spouses, while others quickly fade from public view?
Political scientists and professional therapists are considering the Weiner situation to determine what drove him to act out, and just how critical Abedin’s support will be to Weiner’s campaign.
“If Huma Abedin hadn’t come out and at least stood by Anthony Weiner I think his campaign would have been over,” said Jeanne Zaino, Ph.D.,a professor of political science at Iona College who teaches campaign communication strategy at New York University.
“She threw him a lifeline, because I don’t think voters are prepared for another round of forgiveness and redemption if she’s not forgiving him.”
In light of a string of politician’s scandals over the past few years, the role of the political spouse has become increasingly important, Zaino said. “The spouse who chooses not to stand with her husband is really making a statement that the candidate doesn’t have her endorsement."
“Ironically, the spouse who does make the choice to stand with her husband is then in a position of power," she said, "because once you’re there, should you choose to remove that support, it has a huge impact on the campaign. There is a public perception sometimes of weakness when the wife stands by the candidate, but really it is just the opposite.”
Some politicians’ spouses have chosen not to assume “the good wife” role, including Silda Spitzer and Jenny Sanford, the now ex-wife of former North Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, who had a highly publicized affair in 2009.
“The role of the political wife is still critical,” Zaino said. “Look at the Obamas. We look at these people as a unit, and voters want to see how the politician treats his spouse. If the candidate mistreats the spouse it makes the voter wonder, ‘How is he going to treat me?’”
Meanwhile, voters in New York are left to wonder what motivated Weiner to behave badly.
“I understand the cynicism out there, and we all look at this as a moral issue because our moral values are important,” said Dr. Fred Berlin, director of the Sexual Behaviors Consultation Unit at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
“But just as we’ve gotten beyond the idea that alcoholics are bums in the gutter, we do need to be willing to step back and understand that sex touches all of our lives and for some people it becomes more of a struggle than it does for others. People are trying to integrate their sexual needs into an otherwise productive lifestyle and that does not mean they are essentially bad people.”
Although not associated with Weiner, Berlin made the general observation that people deal with sexual temptations in varying degrees of intensity and desire.
“With the advent of the Internet and electronic media people who may have avoided temptation now just have to click a mouse in their own bedroom where it seems anonymous and disinhibiting,” Berlin said. "This is not something that just affects people of prominence. It crosses all socio-economic groups and people in various occupations.”
Meanwhile, the political wife is often left to pick up the pieces.
“Huma will have to be front and center in the campaign from this point forward,” Zaino said. “She has to demonstrate that what he did is forgivable and that she has forgiven him. In a way she’s in the driver’s seat in this campaign now, even though that is going to be taxing to her from a media scrutiny point of view.”