Can I give a little shout-out to Wills here? You know: William Wales, Duke of Cambridge, future heir to the British throne, who came off looking like a pretty good husband in his brief public appearance this week. He’s the kind of guy who will change his new baby’s soiled nappies, who plans to take a paternity leave, who keeps pointing out how good his wife looks.
But nobody was talking about Wills this week. They were all talking about Kate Middleton.
It goes to show how important the wives of public figures are, even today, even in England. Strictly speaking, Kate’s job is to produce a royal heir. But she has taken on an ancillary challenge: giving the British monarchy a much-needed publicity boost. And she either has the world’s best instincts, the world’s best staff, or both, because she did absolutely everything right in her motherhood debut.
There was the sweet maternal smile. The polka-dotted dress that evoked Princess Diana, yet showed her rounded belly — a clear rebuke to fitness-crazed celebrity moms (Kim Kardashian, you’re up). There was the way her hair swayed gently in the breeze (though if she really wanted to make moms feel good about themselves, she wouldn’t have summoned her hairdresser to the hospital). There’s nothing the public needs to know about William that isn’t wrapped up in his choice of a wife: glamorous and demure, proper and media-savvy, a partner who will help him become a beloved king.
Which brings us to Huma Abedin.
All week, people have been comparing the wife of Anthony “Carlos Danger” Weiner to Silda Spitzer and Jenny Sanford and Hillary Clinton, fellow members of the Scandal Dude’s Embarrassed Wife Club, who have taken strikingly different approaches to the confessional press conference and the years thereafter.
But it makes a lot more sense to compare Abedin to Kate. Granted, their husbands’ PR woes stem from different sources; William has had to pay for his family’s general ineptitude, while Weiner couldn’t stop himself from sending out pictures of his privates. But in both cases, the wives have been key to their husbands’ success, leveraging glamour and relatability, holding up adorable baby boys as props, playing smartly along at the family business.
Abedin’s public profile — her access to power, her ease among the fashion-mag set — have always helped her husband’s career, says Suzanne Leonard, who teaches feminist media studies at Simmons College and is working on a book about wives in popular culture. And Abedin was a crucial part of Weiner’s staged post-scandal political comeback. She was the one who allegedly suggested what turned out to be a glowing profile in People last July. She vouched for Weiner in The New York Times Magazine. She penned a first-person confessional in Harper’s Bazaar.
Then came the I’m-not-quitting press conference, the day after Kate’s new-motherhood appearance, which hinged entirely on the notion that Huma had forgiven. “I was really struck by how much they invoked their marriage as the reason to move forward,” Leonard said. “They’ve moved forward with their marriage, and we should, too.”
When I spoke to Leonard late last week, she agreed with me that Abedin was Weiner’s last, best hope: the only reason he could cling to his fantasy of running for mayor of New York. But it was still a long shot. The public has always been willing to look past certain bad behaviors (though a name like “Carlos Danger” might be too delicious to forget). Compulsory, serial lying is harder to take.
That’s why the pertinent question for Abedin, Leonard said, isn’t why she supports her husband, but when: how much she knew, and at one point in the public relations offensive. “To what extent did she participate in this mythology of the happy family knowing that it was a lie?” Leonard said. “If people stop believing their show as a collective show, then I think they’re sunk.”
That’s Abedin’s true value to her husband: Not as a wronged wife, willing to dole out forgiveness from the sidelines, but as a partner with a full sense of her own situational power.
The issue isn’t whether she stands by her man or stays in her marriage, but how effectively she plays the role she chose for herself. And wouldn’t that be a bitter irony — if her calculated efforts to be a good, smart, savvy political wife were precisely what finished off her husband in the end?Joanna Weiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.