Why do they stand?

The Baltimore Sun

In a doleful blue suit soberly embellished with a string of pearls, Silda Wall Spitzer took her turn at the dais, joining her famous husband in the denouement of his extramarital entanglement - as well as an ever-growing sorority of wronged political wives.

As New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer went before reporters Monday, after reports surfaced that he met with a high-priced prostitute, he apologetically alluded to "a private matter ... that violates my obligations to my family." His wife stood by, barely looking at him.

With her apparent, perhaps grudging support, Silda Spitzer has enlisted in the Stand-By-Your-Man club, a coterie of wives who share an uncomfortable bond built on betrayal, shame and political duty.

Dina McGreevey, Carlita Kilpatrick, Suzanne Craig, Wendy Vitter, Carolyn Condit, Lee Hart and Hillary Clinton - all standout club members.

By clinging faithfully to their matrimonial vows in the face of extraordinarily public humiliation, spouses like Spitzer are doing what people have come to expect, acting out their part in a tired plot line, some political watchers say.

"It's the standard," says Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "It's hackneyed. It's a standing joke in politics because we've seen so much of it."

Tom Fiedler, a lecturer at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, says the news conferences are designed to signal that the situation is personal, not a matter of state. It also says that forgiveness is possible.

"But how in the world these women can find it in their heart to do this kind of thing - I would tell you I am baffled by it," says Fiedler, a former executive editor of the Miami Herald. "I know my wife told me if I ever have to stand up in a situation like this, 'Don't expect to have me beside you.'"

A spouse's ambition is often part of the story, too, Sabato says. "Wives are often as ambitious as the elected officials," he says. "They don't want to lose the perks either."

"The 'Stand By Your Man' pantsuit should be hung in the closet alongside the Jackie O shift dress for Inauguration Day, the glamorous gown for the White House ball and the modest sarong for the customary photo shoot during the family vacation in Europe," wrote New York Daily News columnist Jane Ridley.

Paul Apostolidis, a political science professor at Whitman College and co-editor of the book Public Affairs: Politics in the Age of Sex Scandals, calls news conferences like Spitzer's "social productions."

The wrongdoer is, of course, the featured actor, but, the professor says, the cheating-elected-official show actually boasts quite a cast which includes the media, the constituents, the campaign donors and, of course, the family.

The purpose of the performance, Apostolidis says, is to reinforce stereotypes: The politician is a straight man with a good marriage - despite any transgressions that might suggest otherwise.

Often in the aftermath of these affairs, it's not just a matter of a scorned wife, but an entire mortified family. The Spitzers, for instance, have three teenage daughters.

The Spitzer girls were not present at Monday's news conference. Though children are usually trotted out for happier political moments - campaigning, inaugural addresses - they seem to be protected from the spotlight in troubled times.

"Even these extremely ambitious people do have some human emotions and they want to protect their children," Sabato says.

"They don't want to embarrass their kids. Though they're perfectly willing to embarrass the spouse - or maybe the spouse is willing to be embarrassed."

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

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