Like Jenny Sanford, Elizabeth Edwards and Silda Spitzer, we've all been seduced and deceived by political scoundrels. Lee Siegel on the fall and rise of America’s First Victims. Plus, our speed read of Jenny Sanford’s new memoir.
We are all betrayed political wives now. Watching Jenny Sanford pour her heart out to Barbara Walters on 20/20 Friday night, you realized why we are so transfixed by the public humiliation of her and of other scorned political spouses: Elizabeth Edwards and Silda Spitzer most recently. Wherever you are on the ideological spectrum, you feel deceived, used and betrayed by our elected officials.
Though Walters was sympathetic to Jenny Sanford, she also asked her unsparing questions, as if she felt she had to satisfy a national audience worn out by power’s transgressions.
Just as an earlier era’s “fallen woman” became a social type with distinct subcategories—the good wife fallen to adulterous temptation, the young girl fallen to heartless seduction, the poor waif fallen to the desperation of selling her body— so our humiliated political wives have acquired the status of a cultural trope. They comprise a new social type with its own vivid variations: The wife who stands silently by her man (Silda Spitzer); the wife who stands by her man until the betrayal becomes so outrageous and painful that she turns on him with mythical fury (Elizabeth Edwards); the wife who silently refuses to stand by her man and then speaks out to recover her dignity (Jenny Sanford).
• Speed Read: Jenny Sanford's New Memoir These women’s betrayal embodies our own feeling of being sold out by the people we send to Washington to represent our interests. The politicians court us, charm us, inspire our hopes, instill in us the expectation that they will be loyal to us in the years ahead. Finally, we surrender and give ourselves to them at the polls. Then we learn that, all along, they made promises only to win our affection, cooed sweetly into our ear when they were casting an interested glance elsewhere, made a mockery of our loyalty and support by secretly refusing to commit to us. And like the humiliated political wives, we have to suffer the anguish of seeing the politicians we stuck with and supported dally with other women—i.e. special interests—in full public view. Sometimes they rush into the arms of the rival they once forswore and belittled to win our confidence—the Other Side—all the while promising us that their betrayal will be over soon, assuring us that they just have to “get it out of their system” (i.e. do the expedient thing under the circumstances). But one day, sure enough, we find that text or email that proves they have never stopped sleeping with the enemy.
So we, as voters or supporters of one political figure or another, have strategies for dealing with them once they’ve betrayed us that are not so different from those of the scorned political wives. We can stand silently and sullenly beside them since, ideologically speaking, there is nowhere else to go. Or we can make excuses for them, twist ourselves into contortions of illogic finding arguments to justify their behavior, and then—satisfied that we have done all we can—go “independent” and murder them at the ballot box. Or we could, like Jenny Sanford, quietly withdraw our support but contain our rage and try to proceed rationally before severing long-held attachments.
Still, there remains a popular disgust with all three figures. Silda is considered a cowardly rube for sticking with Spitzer; Elizabeth is treated as a monstrous harridan both for lying for her husband and for turning against him; and Jenny is regarded with mild disdain for giving Mark chance after chance to redeem himself. They are still “fallen” because they are, in contemporary terms, failures.
For all our enlightened ways of thinking about men and women, many of us still do not tolerate the failures of powerful women as much as we do the failures of powerful men. Mark Sanford is still governor. Spitzer is slowly mounting a comeback; thanks to his friendship with Cliff Sloan, the former publisher of Slate, he has a political column there. Edwards seems to have flamed out beyond repair—but just you wait. These politicians failed as testosterone-driven men, not as politicians. In the crazy vortices of American power, they could still maintain their status as politicians. But the women failed—in the general perception—as testosterone-challenged women. They remain women. As such, they are as “fallen” as Tess, Anna Karenina, or Sister Carrie.
In this chilling political and economic climate, the public’s empathy only goes so far. Though ABC’s Walters was obviously sympathetic to Jenny Sanford, Walters also asked her unsparing questions, as if she felt she had to satisfy a national audience worn out by power’s transgressions. Why, Walters wanted to know, did you not feel alarmed when Mark refused to commit to fidelity in his wedding vows? When Jenny replied with almost a shrug—explaining in effect that, well, we were young—she betrayed a cold, heartless goal-oriented mentality that, ironically, her husband had abandoned in his mad affair with his Argentine girlfriend. At that moment, for all of Jenny’s dignity and self-possession, you recoiled at the fact that she was trashing her husband for all the world to see in front of her four sons, who were right there on 20/20, whether they liked being there or not.
In that sense, for all their heartache and grief, these fallen women—like the “fallen” bankers, and the “fallen” auto executives, and the “fallen” politicians—fall into blue skies: bestselling books, high-profile television appearances, and increased wealth. No one, not even their children, is allowed to stand in the way of their continued progress. The only truly injured spouse, it seems, is us.
Lee Siegel is The Daily Beast's senior columnist. He publishes widely on culture and politics and is the author of three books: Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently, Against the Machine: How the Web Is Reshaping Culture And Commerce—And Why It Matters. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.