Let's Spare Political Wives Their Awful Ordeals

Involving a spouse in a campaign is always manipulative, and it's especially awful after a sex scandal.
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In Slate, Katy Waldman notices that a certain male politician who left office in a sex scandal, but who is now attempting a comeback, is mostly campaigning without his wife by his side. A New York Times piece alerted her to that fact. "It's not just that she's not there to humanize her husband," she writes, "her absence keeps questions about their relationship and his transgressions front and center." This is why wronged wives end up standing next to their misbehaving husbands at press conferences: whether they are present or absent, the press treats it as a story, and the prevailing reaction suggests that "present" is politically better than "absent."

American voters ought to have the opposite reaction.

Campaigning beside one's wife, bringing her to press conferences, and especially involving her in public life after you get caught cheating on her ought to be seen for what it is: a transparent PR gambit. Politicians could stand on stage cradling adorable puppies in their arms, but they never do, because even people who love puppies would understand and react against the cartoonish manipulation. I want to live in a country where campaigning with one's wife is equally distrusted, because even if she's extremely intelligent, accomplished, and articulate, she's usually being used as little more than a cynical prop rather than a thinking human with distinct ideas or a willingness to reveal how she'll influence her spouse. 

It would be more appropriate to campaign with a puppy -- there wouldn't be any squashing of intellectual autonomy, or any attempt to hide the fact that staffers are leading it around on a leash. There are, of course, women like Callista Gingrich, who encourage the political ambitions of their husbands and appear to want to stand beside them on stage. I would like to live in a country where we are deeply suspicious of those wives (I might already live in that country).

I'd have the same objection to political husbands if they were used in this fashion. But from what I've observed, female politicians mostly don't use their husbands as props, don't get caught cheating, and don't have husbands who aspire to be "First Gentleman." We could learn from those women.

(Note: For all sorts of reasons, the Clintons are sui generis.)

The aversion to using political wives as props should be strongest in cases of sex scandals. Guys like Eliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner shouldn't have an incentive to persuade their spouses to publicly support them. They should be terrified of bringing their wives to a campaign stop, even if they want to be there, because of the perception that they're putting them in an awkward, unpleasant position to further personal ambition. If that were the operating assumption, the pressure on political wives to put an airbrushed version of themselves in the spotlight would wane, and the public would benefit, because a candidate's marriage is not a public concern whether or not the spouse wants to be in the spotlight. Campaigns should be focused elsewhere, and if they were, more people who don't run for office because they don't want to put their families through the process -- that is, normal people -- might put themselves forward.

Okay, now let's practice how things should go under the new norm:

TV Personality: I understand your wife will be sitting down with us for the second part of the interview.

Studio Audience: (scattered, incredulous gasps).

Viewer Watching at Home: That self-obsessed asshole.

TV Personality: Lots of people watching are probably wondering why you'd want to have your wife here. Most spouses find being in that role unpleasant, and it isn't like your marriage has anything to do with the office you're seeking. Should voters focus on your spouse or your qualifications?

Political Wife: If I might interject, I understand how unseemly this sort of thing often is, but in this case I really did want to be here.

TV Personality: I'll take you at your word. (Turning to politician.) Still, sir, even if she's here willingly, you're still trafficking in the illusion that we're getting some real window into your marriage, when of course no media appearance can afford anything of the sort. Have you no shame?

Politician: You're as implicated in the unseemly charade as I am. Your producer booked us, after all.

Studio Audience: (collectively) Ooohhhhh.

TV Personality: You've got a point. 

Can we at least take baby steps in that direction?

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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