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The Spitzer Debacle: Standing By Your Spouse Doesn't Need to Be a Public Act

by Nichola D. Gutgold

“She looked like she aged.” That’s what former New York mayor, Ed Koch, said about Silda Spitzer when he saw her standing by her husband, Elliot Spitzer, during his shameful admission that he had violated his obligations to his family and his “sense of right and wrong.” It seems to me, that while accompanying your political spouse to his swearing in and glitzy round of inaugural balls, this first lady ritual – the standing by your man silently while he apologizes for his mistakes—seems like a ritual worth abandoning. It is no wonder if Ed Koch is right and Silda Spitzer seemed to age overnight. I imagine that being internationally humiliated can take its toll. Maybe Ed Koch should put himself in Silda Spitzer’s shoes: trying to look together while your whole world is unraveling. To endure such a humiliation is first lady media waterboarding. And she did it again today when Governor Spitzer resigned. She didn’t say a word: so why was she there?

Why do these women allow themselves to appear in public when their husband announces his wrongdoing? It is becoming an all too familiar sight. By participating in these public spectacles, what do these women accomplish? Silda Spitzer, looking forlorn and all cried out, is as accomplished as her husband. A Harvard trained lawyer, she played the role of the political spouse to perfection and the media quickly showed the vignettes of happier times. Dressed up for the inauguration, beautiful family photos, swelling with pride at her husband’s inaugural swearing-in ceremony. And there she was on Monday at the press conference: perfectly groomed, gloomily enduring the public humiliation of the “I messed up” speech. Silda Spitzer brought back images of Dina McGreevey, the ex-wife of former New Jersey Governor James McGreevey who resigned in 2004 over a gay affair with a man. As McGreevey announced to the world, “I am a gay American,” Dina McGreevy stood there, with a forced, partial smile, but saying nothing. It begs the question: “Why are they there?” I want to say, “Go home.” Even if her goal is to keep the family together, this seems like one outing she could skip and still fulfill her goal. America doesn’t need the wronged woman visual. We’ve come too far. Stay with him if you choose, for your own, very personal and private reasons, whether they are religious or political, but save the public and yourself the sad replay of the painful event. This isn’t your wrongdoing, so why participate?

Despite the rich first lady tradition in our country and the visual of looking supportive is an important one as first lady, this is where first ladies should draw the line. Why don’t these women say, “We can deal with this in private. Go make your speech. I’m sitting this one out”? She could save herself the international humiliation since she is only standing there, and she isn’t speaking. When Hillary Clinton appeared on 60 Minutes in 1992 and defended her husband, she spoke, like Wendy Vitter did when she commented on her conservative husband’s name appearing on the client list of a D.C. madam. Though she previously criticized Hillary Clinton for staying with Bill Clinton through his infidelities, she commented that, "To forgive is not only always the easy choice, but it was the right choice for me.” Forgiving is divine, but must it include standing in public while your spouse makes his speech of mea culpa? As the role of the political spouse continues to evolve with some spouses who are as qualified to be president as the one who is elected, it makes sense that future spouses would refuse the public humiliation of standing by her spouse in a public speech that declares his wrongdoing.

It begs the question: Would a male political spouse stand next to his wife in such a situation?

NICHOLA D. GUTGOLD is associate professor of communication arts and sciences at Penn State University, Lehigh Valley Campus and is author of Paving the Way for Madam President (Lexington Books, 2006) and Seen and Heard: The Women of Television News (Lexington Books, forthcoming, March 2008)

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