Saturday, June 27, 2009

A Political Wife’s Tough Stance Strikes a Chord

Dina Matos McGreevey, left, and Silda Wall Spitzer, right, stood beside their husbands as they admitted marital infidelity during news conferences. Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, center, faced the cameras alone.

When Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina gave what has become a ritualistically familiar part of American politics — the news conference on marital infidelity — there was no dutiful political wife to share the spotlight and, by her very presence, imply forgiveness.

The juxtaposition of the wifes in this picture and the absence of Jenny Sanford is stark.

Jenny Sanford, the first lady of South Carolina, left her husband alone to burble at length about his yearlong affair with a woman from Argentina. Instead Mrs. Sanford released a statement that was hard hitting and to the point: she said she wanted her marriage to continue but demanded nothing less, as her price, than her husband’s “repentance.” On Friday, she told reporters she had known of the affair since January but had waited for her children’s school year to end before separating from him.

O, and did he burble.

For thousands of women, responding on the Internet and Twitter, Mrs. Sanford’s decision to hold her husband accountable provided a catharsis, a kind of public exorcism of the ghosts of political wives past.

Meryl B. Koopersmith, a couples therapist with the Ackerman Institute for the Family in Manhattan, felt similarly pleased with Mrs. Sanford. “You see all kinds of reactions to affairs in families,” Ms. Koopersmith said, “but very few who stand there stoically. Then these political wives, they are a different breed, almost semiconscious. I am all for the wife who doesn’t stand there like some puppet.”

It's unfathomable to me that a woman would stand next to such a creep, in public, and absorb the humiliation.

Few could forget Hillary Rodham Clinton’s sitting next to her husband, Bill Clinton, as he acknowledged to “60 Minutes” that he had caused pain in his marriage; or Dina Matos McGreevey, looking half dazed as Jim McGreevey detailed a homosexual affair and resigned the governorship of New Jersey; or Silda Wall Spitzer, posing just behind Gov. Eliot Spitzer of New York as he discussed hiring expensive call girls, her jaws clenched so tight that she could have cracked steel bars.

Great expression; a look at the picture confirms it.

Of course, Mrs. Sanford is hardly throwing the governor out for good. She has said she is open to reconciliation.

Still, for many women, this apparent softening did nothing to diminish her dignity. Cristina Nehring, the author of “A Vindication of Love,” a new book that argues that cynicism and pragmatism have corrupted American marriages — which, she says, should be more about true passionate love — called Mrs. Sanford’s performance “impressive” all the way around.

Speaking to the same issue, Stephanie Coontz, a professor of family studies and author of “Marriage: A History,” said she found Mrs. Sanford’s reaction “more authentic” than that of most other political wives. “She is saying she wants the marriage to survive but I am not coming out to humiliate myself in public for it,” Ms. Coontz said.

Indeed. And, in this case, the schmuck asked for permission to see his mistress again.

“If we assume the relationship is genuine on Sanford’s part, that is much more threatening to a marriage than just sex,” said Catherine J. Ross, a law professor at George Washington University and co-author of a textbook on contemporary family law.

He certainly seemed to be; he said he'd been crying for 5 days. And he missed Father's Day.

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