Once, I knew a powerful Louisiana state senator with a beautiful younger wife. They trolled the Louisiana social circuit and dined at fancy restaurants where the maitre d’s greeted them by name.
Then came an election in which he lost his seat. The next time I heard about him, his wife was gone. She didn’t want the marriage, it seemed, without the high-profile life it entailed.
I’m not suggesting that will happen with Anthony Weiner and Huma Abedin, the disgraced former congressman and the glamorous top aide to Hillary Clinton, who are profiled in a New York Times Magazine piece that has set the political and gossip scene abuzz. I don’t know them. I have no idea about the real state of their marriage. It’s certainly conceivable that they’re deeply in love.
But given that every marriage is, in some sense, a business partnership, the Times piece — an explicit trial balloon for a Weiner bid for New York mayor — provides some insight into why they’ve stayed together. How do you survive a sex scandal? With ambition.
Ambition, in the political realm, often comes hand in hand with embarrassment. Self-aware candidates understand that, fairly or not, a high-profile campaign will uncover your private life, dig up — or lay bare — whatever embarrassment might be there.
So it is with this long magazine story, which rehashes the 2011 scandal that cost Weiner his seat: the Twitter flirtations with women who weren’t his wife, the clumsy photos of his private parts, the late-night jokes that followed. (It has sparked a chain reaction; the New York Daily News has since reprinted some of its most gleeful bad-pun headlines.)
It also outlines Weiner’s quiet life since he resigned: changing diapers, eating at his brother’s restaurants, and doing unspecified work, barefoot, from his New York apartment. Also, spending $100,000 on polls to test support in a mayoral race. And talking to a reporter, as part of a brilliant publicity move: to make Weiner and Abedin look human and sympathetic, with an assist from some well-placed tears and a toddler son.
It’s highly calculated, but — here’s the brilliant part — Weiner freely admits to the calculation, so he wins back points for honesty. The only thing I didn’t buy was the notion that he still needs to convince his wife that he should run.
Please. This woman is smart, experienced, and politically savvy. She has, as a mentor, the ultimate example of a woman who who refused to let scandal stunt her ambitions — and who built a brilliant second act, not on sympathy, but on competence.
And what’s striking about the piece is the sense of dual ambition, the love both of them had for a high-powered life that included friends in the White House and dinners with the Queen of England. One telling fact: Abedin, in the early stages of pregnancy when the scandal broke, suddenly famous as a cuckolded wife, didn’t want her husband to resign.
It’s easy to imagine the advice Hillary Clinton might have given, but any of us who have lived through the last 20 or 30 years in pop culture could probably have said the same: This is survivable, now or later. People don’t like self-righteousness. People like contrition. People don’t forget sex scandals, but they often don’t especially care about them after awhile.
Nobody talks, any more, about whether David Letterman sexually harassed his staff. President Obama made the recent PR calcualtion that it was fine to go golfing with Tiger Woods. Mark Sanford, the former South Carolina governor who turned “Appalachian Trail” into a metaphor for an extramarital affair, seems likely to win a congressional seat. (Alone in permanent shame is John Edwards, perhaps because he wronged a loved, famous, dying wife, or because his trail of sleaze-and-coverup was especially long and twisted.)
The Weiner story is a slightly different model, and one that’s actually a little more heartening: the wife as co-star, player, strategist, partner. To suggest that Abedin isn’t in the driver’s seat — plotting the path to victory, rather than weighing the cost of a run — does her a disservice.
Of course, she’s on board, despite the short-term embarrassment. Anonymity would be a far worse fate.