In the annals of political history, there are plenty of wronged wives who have taken one for the team, stood by their husbands, and asked forgiveness on their behalves. Melania Trump did her part Monday, sitting for an interview with Anderson Cooper to answer questions about a video of her husband talking about forcibly groping and kissing women and accusations of the same from at least nine women.
There is a script for these things, literally and figuratively. “The Good Wife” is a figure so familiar and interesting in American life that she has her own popular network TV series starring Juliana Marguiles in the titular role. Melania, a poised Slovenian-American former model and mother to Trump’s 10-year-old son, sought to downplay the tape, calling its contents “boy talk,” and joking that she has two boys at home — her son and her husband. She called the accusations against Trump unfair, untrue, and the result of coordination between Hillary Clinton and her liberal cheerleaders in the media. This defense is familiar, right down to the “vast conspiracy.”
Some object to political wives being used in this way, suggesting they should not have to answer for the sins of their husbands. But a) they have agency and often ambitions of their own we should not ignore. And b) the truth is they’re not at the press conference or the awkward interview to stand in for the sinner, but to stand in for the forgiver. Voters look for cues from the wives of politicians to determine whether they should go Old or New Testament on these men. If the wronged party can give the accused grace, then perhaps the voter should, goes the theory.
Tuesday’s write-up at Vox.com of Melania’s interview called it “cringe-worthy” and listed some of the bipartisan cast of women who have sat through similar moments — Huma Abedin, Hillary Clinton, Silda Spitzer, and Jenny Sanford.
Watching a wife defend her husband’s infidelity, or worse, was cringeworthy when Silda Wall Spitzer did it for Eliot Spitzer, when Huma Abedin did it for Anthony Weiner, when Jenny Sanford did it for Mark Sanford, even when Julianna Margulies did it in character as Alicia Florrick, the star of The Good Wife. And it’s equally painful when it’s Melania Trump.
A primetime CNN package also highlighted Clinton, Spitzer, Abedin, and again, Sanford.
But wait just a second. Jenny Sanford didn’t “stand by her man.” When that cast of political wives went New Testament, she went Old. Jenny Sanford was the wife and longtime campaign manager of Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina when he infamously went missing from the state while serving as governor. His aides claimed he was out of touch because he was “hiking the Appalachian Trail,” which became a euphemism unworthy of the dignity of one of America’s greatest natural wonders when it was discovered he was actually with his Argentinian mistress.
Jenny Sanford declined to appear at her husband’s requisite groveling press conference to give him the political cover so many wives do, instead leaving him to endure his self-inflicted humiliation himself. And, boy was it humiliating. His press conference, flailing about with declarations of love and apology all over the place, was one of politics’ more bizarre self-immolations.
Jenny released a dignified statement, in which she said she loved her husband, and was more than happy to give consideration to repairing their marriage if he was willing to recommit to it and their four sons without the involvement of other women. The pretty clear subtext was: “I’m here for our marriage and our family, not for your career.” The two were on a trial separation several weeks before the story broke. Jenny had asked him to leave their home because of the affair.
It was refreshing. I’m always one to root for marriages, so I don’t begrudge women the decisions they make to try to save them. But something in Sanford’s reaction was different, real, and yes, empowering. Upon release of explicit emails between her husband and his mistress, she left him and later filed for divorce. A couple years later, she slapped Sanford with a trespassing complaint when she found him leaving their former home. Their divorce terms said he shouldn’t be there without permission.
At the time, some wondered if her behavior would set a new, more detached standard for the wronged wives of American politics, but Abedin went back to the Clinton standard in 2013, staying with Weiner through his public misdeeds until 2016.
Jenny Sanford was only perhaps too merciful in declining to finish Mark off by running against him for his congressional seat (which speaks to her original decision being personal, not political), and Mark Sanford now sits in Congress after winning a special election in 2013. She also refused to be his campaign manager when he, incredibly, came asking. There was also this: damn.
I’m not sure what this means, politically. At the very least, it means a man who has ruined his career with a mess entirely of his own making can be left to resurrect it alone, and probably should be. I hope it means Jenny Sanford has enjoyed the last six years of her life avoiding the continued soap opera of being married to Sanford.
In the revolving cast of narcissists with bad behavior that is American politics, it was nice to see one woman flip the script, and we shouldn’t forget about it.