There are times when we must acknowledge that we are not just watching the news but witnessing history. This evening Huma Abedin, the longtime aide to former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, broke new ground in the “stand by your man” routine that has been imposed on the wives of sinning politicians. Previously, Silda Spitzer was widely thought to have given the most painful performance in this category as she stood by her husband Eliot with a stricken look on her face as he resigned in the wake of news about his patronage of prostitutes. But today, Abedin went far beyond the mark set by Spitzer as she accompanied her husband Anthony Weiner to a press conference at which he answered questions about the latest revelations of his bizarre Internet usage. Abedin not only stood by her man but actually spoke herself, issuing a statement which told of the “ups and downs” of her marriage and her struggle to decide whether or not leave Weiner when she found out about what he had done. Having chosen to “forgive” Weiner, the implication is that somehow that obligates New Yorkers to do the same and elect him mayor. Whether New Yorkers are prepared to accept this formulation remains to be seen.
Let’s state upfront that the mysteries of the Weiner-Abedin marriage or that of any other politician ought not to be treated as public property. But when these politicians use their wives as human shields against the brickbats coming their way as a result of their own misbehavior, such unions are revealed to be more political compacts than personal business. In acting in this manner, Abedin appears to be following in the footsteps of her mentor Hillary Clinton, whose willingness to stand by her man when he dallied with a White House intern saved President Bill Clinton’s bacon. But the public spectacle of the Weiner-Abedin press conference illustrates that this model of behavior reveals their pact to be based on a joint decision to pursue political power no matter what the costs to their privacy or how much shame they brought on their family. Given that her own need to enable his lust for power seems to have trumped every other natural instinct she might have had, it raises the question of how much credence voters will place in Abedin’s vouching for the would-be mayor.
While there are many questions still to be answered about Weiner, the one thing we know tonight is that he has no intention of dropping out of the race for mayor. Nothing, not even the news that he continued his bizarre behavior in which he sent women he didn’t know naked pictures of himself as well as sexually explicit texts even after he resigned from Congress and vowed to seek redemption via therapy and contrition, seems to be enough to make him leave the public square voluntarily. There is no reason, other than Weiner’s word, to believe that he has actually stopped acting in this manner or that he won’t revert to it in moments of stress if he were elected. But it is an open question as to whether his latest humiliation of his wife will serve to help or to hurt his candidacy.
It is also open to inquiry as to what the public will make of a family where ambition is the only operating principle. No one can tell anyone else when they ought to abandon a straying spouse, especially when children are involved. But anyone who watched this unusual performance live on television had to be asking themselves not how Abedin forgave Weiner but how she could believe him now despite the therapy she spoke about. Since Weiner continued his misconduct for many months after resigning from Congress it makes it hard to believe anyone could trust his judgment.
It may be that New Yorkers care about none of this or are so entranced by the Weiner circus that they will gratify his desire to be mayor. But no matter the outcome of this race, what Weiner and Abedin have done is to reinvent the notion of public redemption in such a way as to allow a transgressor to survive even if his misdeeds went on far longer than we thought or even if the steady drip of revelations of bad conduct never ended. If they succeed, it will set a precedent that will establish such a low standard of conduct that it will enable almost anyone to survive scandals. And that is not something that anyone should celebrate.