Two cheers for the beleaguered Huma Abedin

July 24, 2013
Huma Abedin with her husband Anthony Weiner in 2011. (Charles Dharapak/The Washington Post)

I have always admired Huma Abedin.Yes, her — the one whom everyone gasped at Tuesday evening when, in her little chic black dress with the collar detail, she opened her mouth to speak.

Stealing the spotlight away from Britain’s royal baby, New York Mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner (until recently, we hope, aka Carlos Danger) got up at a hastily arranged news conference to acknowledgd that even more sexually explicit texts of his had surfaced. Then, to everyone’s shock, he turned the floor over to his wife Huma (Weiner Uses Huma Shield, said the New York Daily News).

Abedin said she was nervous about talking in public, and she defended her husband’s candidacy. Among other things, she said that “It took a lot of work and a whole lot of therapy … but I made the decision to stay in this marriage.” She certainly sounded uncomfortable, but I didn’t think she sounded weak or snookered. Was she saving his behind, right at the precipice? Of course she was! (Or trying to anyway. The New York Times’s  scathing editorial strongly suggests that Weiner’s days as a candidate are numbered.)

I was riveted. We were all riveted. Everyone thought Abedin was painful to watch, and I don’t disagree. Still,  I thought she sounded real, and plainspoken, and, even in that excruciatingly awkward situation, she retained the poise and dignity that I’ve always admired in her. No small feat.

Anthony Weiner and wife Huma Abedin speak at a news conference. (AP)
Anthony Weiner and wife Huma Abedin speak at a news conference on July 23. (AP)

If Weiner’s candidacy is doomed by these latest sex-texts (and they were recent — from summer 2012), then what I’m going to say now may be irrelevant, but I’ll say it anyway: In a weak mayoral field (and it is weak), if this hadn’t happened, I would have voted for Weiner, mainly because  I like his wife so much.

First of all, there’s the lady-crush aspect: She’s fabulous looking – the huge, wide-apart eyes, the semi-Modigliani-ish, outsized features. Then there’s her impeccable chic, which comes from her, not from a stylist, and which she carries off in the most natural way and always has.  But, beyond  these superficial reasons,  I’ve always admire Abedin’s utter professionalism.

During Hillary Clinton’s 2007 primary campaign against  Obama, she was there, as Hillary’s chief aide, like a rock. It takes a lot — smarts, strategy, humility, perspective, diplomacy, and omnibus emergency competence — to be the first aide, the “body person,” the chief assistant to a powerful, complicated, and large-ego’d eminence. You have to be ready to do everything, and find anything, including answers your boss routinely can’t find, 24/7. Through a family member, I’ve seen that kind of job up close. It takes a lot of character.

But what really nailed it for me with Abedin was when, smack in the middle of her husband’s sex-texting scandal Part I, two years ago, she came home from a long, multi-Mideast-country foreign trip with Secretary of State Clinton, three or four months pregnant. Clinton’s plane arrived at the D.C. airport at around 6 a.m. Jet-lagged, pregnant, scandal-beset, at the end of a gargantuan work trip and a very long plane ride, and with the paparazzi hounding her car, Abedin drove herself to home, right into her parking garage.

This wasn’t martyrdom to me (though I did feel sorry for her and wondered why her boss hadn’t seen fit to send a driver to the airport for her. It was too peripheral a gesture (people were angry at her husband, not her) to have been some damage control ploy. I saw it as steady, business-as-usual demeanor, even in the midst of bizarre crisis. Hats off to her.

Yes, I certainly joined the chorus of women (and men) loudly asking, “Why is she staying with him?” during Weinger-gate Part I. Now that chorus  is  deafening – and so is the contempt being shown to Abedin. I think the latter is wrong. He, not she, is the guilty party. Judging a woman for staying in a marital situation that to the outside world appears humiliating is a limited — one could even say boring – criterion. Why make the sole test of a woman’s complexity or depth her decision vis-a-vis a man, when we already know that she is a far better person than that man.

Who didn’t think Elizabeth Edwards was better than John? And who didn’t think she knew it, too? If every  wife had to leave every husband she was considered “better” than, almost no one would stay married.


Sandra Bullock and then-husband Jesse James, on Oscar night in 2010. (AP)

I’ll even go further. Some very accomplished women who make head-scratching marital choices may even be exhibiting a special kind of strength. About seven years ago, while getting an award for her enormous philanthropic efforts, the actress Sandra Bullock told an audience of women that her opera singer mother’s advice to her as a child was this: “Be original! Be original! Be original!”

I was in that audience. Later that evening I sat at a dinner table with Bullock and her then-husband, that creepy motorcycle guy Jesse James, whose arms and neck full of  tattoos were all covered up in a gray suit he seemed hugely discomfited to be wearing. Even though every “But she’s better than him!” buzzer went off in my body as I watched them make out, I had to give her credit for being as “original, original, original!” in her choice of husband as she was in the persona that had brought her fame and, probably, her sensitivity to human distress. And when that marriage stopped working, she got out of it fast.


Betty Ford, President Gerald Ford’s better half, in a portrait that was part of a museum exhibit. (Harry Benson / Newseum)

But back to the question I was mulling just before Weiner’s candidacy seemed near implosion: In a lackluster campaign field, is it tacky and silly to vote for a man because you like his wife so much? Isn’t it a little like Reese Witherspoon’s character Elle Woods in Legally Blond  — choosing her torts texts because their book covers matched her purse? Well, let’s flip the question: Haven’t there been elected officials who we liked more because we liked their wives? Gerald Ford was a genial doofus…who happened to have in his wife Betty a modern dancer, an early feminist, the woman who taught us all about breast cancer detection, through her own mastectomy, and, most enduringly, the most influential proponent of the then-new notion that addiction was a disease to be treated, not a shame to be borne.

Similarly, Michael Dukakis was a starchy literalist with a big presidential war chest, but his high-strung and complicated wife Kitty — who had a hint of that same New England mad housewife-ness as poet Anne Sexton — made him seem interesting.

And Rudy Giuliani always seemed more broad-minded than his Fordham grad tough-prosecutor self just for being married to Donna Hanover, a newscaster and actress who never ever took his last name (not on a single occasion) and who seemed comfortable living her own life.

I’m not sure I’ll get the chance to vote for Anthony Weiner on the basis of his status as the spouse of Huma Abedin  — things may already be too tainted; he may be forced to drop out; even if he doesn’t, I may wake up in the morning and see my contrarian advocacy of Abedin’s own virtues morph into the same What’s up with her?  that many others are feeling.

But I’ll be sorry if it happens. Abedin is such a graceful, competent woman, with a light-touch dignity. Her simple words about their marriage being no one else’s business but their own were, if not the most original in the world, at least delivered with a sincerity that resonated in her whole demeanor – especially startling given the shockingly awkward occasion. People seemed to look at her like a circus character. I saw her as a decent human holding her head up gently, with no defensiveness, in a ridicule-magnet of a situation.

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Sheila-Weller2
Sheila Weller is an award-winning magazine journalist and the author of six books, including 2008′s New York Times bestseller “Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon — And the Journey of a Generation.” She is currently working on “The News Sorority: Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, Christiane Amanpour — and the Triumph of Women in TV News.”

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Keli Goff | July 24, 2013