The days when women in political marriages stood stoically by their man have given way to a new paradigm of the wife as validator, a cover for her husband. The new twist on an old story is playing out in two very different locales: the governor’s mansion in Virginia and the mayor’s race in New York. Maureen McDonnell, wife of Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, and Huma Abedin, wife of mayoral candidate and former Democratic congressman Anthony Weiner are both emerging as central players in their husbands’ unfolding electoral dramas.
In Virginia, where a wave of petty scandal over unreported gifts threatens McDonnell’s ambition to be a national candidate, his wife is in the crosshairs for presenting her husband with a $6,500 Rolex watch procured from a donor with interests before the state. “Nobody forced him to take that Rolex watch,” says Larry Sabato, who directs the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, or to let the same donor pay for his daughter’s wedding, along with countless vacation trips and the use of a sports car, all the while claiming innocence of his wife’s and other transactions.
“He knew all about it, I’ll swear to it on a stack of Bibles. They’re very close as a married couple,” says Sabato. “I’m not going to blame her more than him—he’s the governor—but she was willing to take lots of things.” The FBI is investigating, and the drip, drip of new revelations, including claims by the former executive chef of the governor’s mansion that the first family used staff for inappropriate personal errands, have Virginians wondering how much longer the governor can make his wife the fall gal.
In New York, a similar dynamic is playing out in a very different way as Huma Abedin works feverishly behind the scenes and at times in front of them (she played a starring part in Weiner’s video announcing his run) to assure voters that she fully backs her husband even though she’s not with him on the campaign trail. “Huma is working overtime to let people know she’s not holding her nose. She’s really put the wood to a lot of Clinton donors,” says a Democratic donor. “The word is out that this is as much Huma’s race as it is Anthony’s.” On Tuesday, Politico reported that Abedin, a longtime Clinton aide, sent a fundraising appeal that morning to a few hundred people on her personal e-mail list, signing it, “Fondly, Huma.”
“Maybe things haven’t changed so much since the days of Mad Men,” says Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. “Women have taken a lot more bullets for men than the other way around.” If Abedin hadn’t stayed in her marriage with Weiner, he’d probably be finished as a politician. He’s now leading in the polls in a five-way primary. Name ID and sassiness count in New York politics.
McDonnell has a tougher sell: he’s asking the voters (and the FBI) to believe that the pricey watch was a gift from his wife, which is why he ignored Virginia’s financial disclosure laws, and he’s letting the assumption stand that it’s the wife who runs the mansion. “Men conveniently take the excuse that women run the household and they don’t know what’s going on,” says Pitney. “Women still pay the price when men screw up.”
McDonnell’s silence speaks volumes. “If he were a gentleman, he would say, ‘I’m the elected official, come after me.’ On the other hand, she’s used his position,” says a Virginia Republican who did not wish to be quoted. “If he’s not careful, he’s going to be facing a grand-jury inquiry instead of New Hampshire primary voters.”
Hiding behind his wife is “a whole role reversal,” says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. “Voters have always assumed pillow talk means the woman knows what’s going on.” Does it work the other way—do voters assume the husband is in the know? “I haven’t tested that,” says Lake, “I don’t know.”
At the very least, McDonnell is guilty of lack of chivalry, a refusal to man-up and take the heat, leaving his wife out there to take the slings and arrows. “He wouldn’t blame her without her being part of it,” says Lake. “They’ve clearly decided as a team this is the best or only path open to them.” Lake calls it “the validator role,” and she sees it as part of the evolution that began with the stand-by-your-man phase where Hillary Clinton among others said, “I love my husband; leave us alone.” That strategy exhausted itself when women voters couldn’t stand seeing another spouse suffering through a photo op looking sad.
This is an old story with a new wrinkle. Some things have changed since the Mad Men era, but some things are the same. Men in power think the rules don’t apply to them, and when they mess up, they look for validation. And that’s what women have been taught through generations to give them. It’s not any more complicated than that.