Victims of Politics: The Sad, Smiling Wives

Debbie Then started writing her new book Women Who Stay With Men Who Stray back in those forgotten days when Monica Lewinsky was just another star-struck young woman who went home at night wondering if her powerful, middle-aged, married boyfriend knew her name. And now Dr. Then, one of them there relationships experts, finds herself in the midst of a national debate she could hardly have imagined two years ago. Unless, of course, she has a particularly vivid imagination.

With a national election beckoning, the bookshelves are crowded with all sorts of made-for-campaign-season biographies, memoirs and policy analyses. But in the age of Bill Clinton, few books will seem as timely as Women Who Stay , for in part it examines not only why wives of wandering politicians stick around for all those great rubber-chicken fund-raisers, but explains the damage these self-absorbed hypocrites visit on their alleged loved ones. As the author points out, coverage of the President’s infidelities has “thrown back the curtains” on the troubled personal lives and reckless behavior of a great many of our allegedly great men. And the furor over Mr. Clinton’s behavior reminded us that we do, in fact, care about character, and that the Presidency is more than just another job filled by transient labor.

“In a way, it’s healthy that we cover the duplicity of our politicians,” she said in an interview. “If a male politician is campaigning on family values and he’s got a wife at home and a mistress stashed away somewhere, I wonder how forthright that person can be about other issues.”

Exactly the point. “In terms of covering that aspect of politics, I don’t think you stick a video camera in the window, but the business with Monica took place in the boardroom of America, and it should be covered,” Dr. Then said. “People say it’s personal. Yeah, it is, but it is also the business of every American citizen who cares. We’re not asking leaders to be priests, but we want them to be trustworthy.”

Similarly, politicians who hector us about our behavior had better be faithful to the virtues they espouse. Otherwise they’re fair game for the bedsheet patrol. That’s not to say that values aren’t important, and shouldn’t be discussed in public forums. But politicians generally are the least likely advocates of the virtues we associate with domesticity. And two case studies may yet compete for our affections here next year, if the nation’s most humiliated political wife, Hillary Clinton, chooses to run for the U.S. Senate against Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, whose own marriage has shown the strains that are endemic, it seems, to politics.

Indeed, as Ms. Then notes, the political culture is hardly the best place to examine traditional values at work. Politicians, male and female, are notoriously overscheduled and remarkably in demand. Eager to please, they invariably will choose a Boy Scout dinner or Rotary Club salute over an evening with their own children.

And then there’s the summer-camp aspect of capitals large and small, where middle-aged males get to strut the stuff they didn’t have when they were young. “These male politicians, let’s face it, are magnets for babes, regardless of what they look like,” she said. “There is this illusion of power, but it’s a false illusion. If you watched any of the impeachment debate, you know how boring their jobs are.” As anyone who has spent any time in Washington or Albany can tell you, more than a few male politicians are more than happy to have the help-the young, impressionable help-believe in the illusion of power.

Dr. Then has lots to say about all sorts of women and their unfaithful men, but it is her take on politicians that seems especially timely. “Even as they espouse ‘family values,’ many politicians are conducting illicit affairs that could jeopardize their marriage and career,” she writes. “Women married to politicians are usually photographed smiling and holding the hand of their powerful partner … Behind closed doors is another story, however, and many political wives are probably breaking the good china in fights over their man’s extramarital sexual affairs.”

The question, however, is why they are satisfied with turning a perfectly good plate into a thousand slivers. “So many women married to politicians have spent most of their lives being Mrs. Big Politician,” she said. “Politics is a two-person career, and even in these enlightened times, most political wives devote themselves to their husband’s career.” No wonder, she said, that “they pay emotional tolls-look at the number of political wives who are on antidepressants, who are alcoholics, or who have suffered a depression at some point.” In fact, Tipper Gore, the Vice President’s wife, recently discussed her bout with depression, and Mrs. Gore seems to have suffered none of the public shame and humiliation other political wives know all too well.

No wonder we have our doubts about our elected leaders. Who, after all, would want such work?