Scorned but Not Forgotten: Political Wives Speaking Out

Jenny Sanford, Elizabeth Edwards, Darlene Ensign. They may not all be from the same political party, but they are the latest members of the Scorned Political Wives Club—that unwilling sorority of ladies whose political husbands confess extramarital indiscretions to a flabbergasted public.

Except these days, the old, stoic, stand-by-your-man stance has evolved into media-circuit confessionals and book deals. Jenny Sanford, who received a glowing portraiture in Vogue, sat down with Barbara Walters to discuss her trying times in the ABC special, “The 10 Most Fascinating People of 2009.”

Sanford’s memoir publishes in next May, and doubtless she will do the rounds much like Elizabeth Edwards. That Democratic candidate wife’s 2009 book tour for her tell-all, “Resilience,” included an “Oprah” chat.

Darlene Ensign, the wife of Nevada Sen. John Ensign, hasn’t done much more than release the requisite statement that she and her husband had reconciled in 2008, and their “marriage has become stronger.” Still, Mrs. Ensign was nowhere to be seen when the senator, a 2012 hopeful, held a solo press conference in June and said he was “truly sorry” to many, especially his wife.

A Stand-Up Act
Much has changed since last year, when Silda Wall Spitzer stood in silence by her husband, then-New York governor Eliot Spitzer, who copped to unusual expenses at the Emperors Club VIP. Fox News best described the look worn at public apologies: “Pearls, power ties and powder-blue designer suits.”

Flash back to the March 10, 2008, Spitzer press conference


That achingly humiliating act of loyalty has won spectator sympathy. Mrs. Spitzer looked so pained, radio-show host Rush Limbaugh later opined, “I think political wives ought to get a prenup in the future [that warns their husbands]: ‘If you get yourself in this kind of public humiliation trouble, I am not going on stage with you.'”

Recently, though, taking that position seems more doomed-if-you-do than doomed-if-you-don’t. Spitzer’s noble stance invited criticism about an “outmoded tradition.” Speaking out can have its drawbacks, too: Elizabeth Edwards’ image as a heroic cancer survivor and later a maligned victim got a mixed reception, with some accusing her of having a “personal agenda.”

Hear Her Roar
More often, however, the plaudits for a “new breed of political wife” have grown louder. When Mark Sanford took his famous detour from the Appalachians to Argentina over Father’s Day weekend, Mrs. Sanford chose to resist speculation and replied obliquely that she—the mother of their four boys—hadn’t heard from him. With the skill of a trapeze artist, she got more public opinion after releasing her forgiving, pragmatic statement, which seemed especially composed and elegant after her husband’s meandering press conference.

Even divorcées get interviews, as in the Reno Gazette-Journal’s interview with Dawn Gibbons, a three-time state assemblywoman who was “evicted” from the governor’s mansion after 23 years of marriage to Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons. The scandal echoes that of Donna Hanover, second wife of then-NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani. Although those circumstances happened in 2002, reporters revived this sordid case that made headline news.

Her Own Woman
What’s different about this generation of political wives—scorned or not—isn’t their attachment or their pedigree, but their own independent accomplishments. Mrs. Spitzer graduated summa cum laude from Harvard Law School before landing jobs at high-profile law firms. Jenny Sanford worked as an investment-banking vice president during the height of the greed-is-good ’80s, then helped her husband launch his career. What they sacrificed for the political marriage is much clearer.

The public forum is just one outlet for political wives to tell their side of the story in their own terms, in a media that still, according to one Newsweek column, “condescends to” political wives. It may also help when they seek their own path. Political wives going into politics for themselves is an old story: After all, 6 of the first 14 women elected to Congress were widows of politicians. That path has become more traveled in the last few years, what with notable figures like Elizabeth Dole.

The ultimate example of a spurned political wife who reinvented herself? Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She famously stood by Bill Clinton through the Arkansas rumors and the White House intern affair, then years later forged ahead on her own presidential quest. Sticking with her husband garnered criticism, which accused her of everything from being a faux feminist to harboring underhanded political cunning. Back in 2007, New York Magazine credited her with changing “the game forever” for political wives by being an “ordinary woman” stuck in a situation not of her making. And that assessment was before she made those 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling.

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