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It Wasn't Her Place
The Spotlight Spitzer Should Have Faced Alone

By Eugene Robinson
Friday, March 14, 2008

"What was he thinking?" is the question everyone's asking, but I believe we can confidently imagine what was on New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's mind as he allegedly booked "dates" with $1,000-an-hour prostitutes: I'm entitled. I'm above the law. I'm so smart that I'll never be caught. Nobody gets hurt if nobody ever finds out.

But what was she thinking?

Why did Silda Wall Spitzer literally stand by her man, not once but twice? What compelled or inspired her to accompany Spitzer on Monday as he responded to the breaking story with a terse apology, and then again on Wednesday, when he announced his resignation?

CNN's resident curmudgeon, Jack Cafferty, put the question best: "The other thing I don't understand about this story is how these guys always get their wives to go stand on the podium with them when they cop to this stuff. I remember during the Monica Lewinsky thing, some member of Congress -- I don't remember who it was -- said, you know, if that was my wife, she'd be standing over my bleeding body in the kitchen saying, 'How do you reload this thing?' "

You don't have to be in favor of manslaughter to wonder what force on earth could lead a woman to appear beside her husband, in front of the television cameras, on a day when his extramarital sexual escapades have been splashed all over the front pages. Yet that is what powerful politicians' wives find it within themselves to do.

To cite a few recent examples: When Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) had to explain why his phone number turned up in the records of a call-girl ring, his wife, Wendy, was by his side. When Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick (D) was interviewed about text messages indicating he had conducted a steamy affair with his chief of staff, his wife, Carlita, faced the cameras with him. When Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho) answered questions about being arrested in an airport men's room, declaring that "I am not gay," his wife, Suzanne, was there. When former New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey (D) declared that he was gay, his wife, Dina, stood with him.

Hillary Clinton, at least, wasn't there with her husband on Aug. 17, 1998, when he gave a speech to the nation admitting that he had been lying for months and that he did, in fact, "have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate."

Ultimately, of course, Hillary decided to stay with Bill and save the marriage. But that's a different question. All marriages are different, all are complicated and many survive the revelation that a spouse has been unfaithful. It is nobody's business why couples decide to stay together, just as it is nobody's business why couples decide to split.

What I'm trying to understand is why a woman like Silda Wall Spitzer would subject herself to such searing public scrutiny -- and, by her presence, make what could only be seen as a statement of unconditional support -- at a time when a part of her must have wanted to wring her husband's neck.

By all accounts, she's as smart and accomplished as her husband. A fellow Harvard Law graduate, she worked as a high-powered corporate attorney before giving up her career so that Spitzer could make his first run for state attorney general.

Standing next to him at those two appearances this week, she looked as if she was in shock. The strain of crisis is always painfully visible on the spouse's face in these I-have-sinned news conferences. The intent may be to minimize the infidelity by showing that the wife is still there, that she continues to play her public role, that she still believes in her husband. But the effect is the opposite. You look at her lifeless eyes and her expressionless mouth, and you think: Look what he's done to that poor woman.

According to various public accounts, hers was the loudest voice in Spitzer's inner circle urging him not to resign. It would be understandable if she drew a distinction between her husband's public and private conduct, as Hillary Clinton certainly did. It must have been galling to see how gleeful her husband's political enemies were at his comeuppance, and perhaps she felt determined not to let "them" bring him down.

But, of course, Eliot Spitzer brought himself down. No one deserves the kind of public humiliation that Silda Wall Spitzer had to endure. The governor says he wants to regain his family's trust and respect. He should have begun that process by facing the cameras alone.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com

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