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Jenny and Silda's statements of strength

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, February 9, 2010

From time to time, I come across Silda and Eliot Spitzer. He is the former New York governor who had to leave office because of a sex scandal, and she is the wife who was roundly criticized at the time (2008) for publicly standing by her man after he was accused of seeing a prostitute in Washington. The Spitzers remain a couple.

In contrast -- in stark contrast -- we have the example of Jenny Sanford, whose husband, Mark, is the governor of South Carolina. When it was discovered that he had not been hiking the Appalachian Trail, as his office first said, but doing the tango in Buenos Aires with the proverbial other woman, he held his own news conference. To the cheers of many women, Jenny did not do a Silda and stand, literally, by her man. In fact, she was nowhere in sight.

The Sanford marriage is now kaput; the Spitzer marriage most definitely is not. Jenny, the feminist hero of yore, has published a book, "Staying True," in which she reveals that her husband was a bit of a boor, a bit of a loon, not frugal but just plain cheap (he went into a fury when she replaced his worn blazer with a new one) and, I would add, a right-wing crackpot. This book, published for the usual virtuous reasons, will do nothing to reconcile her children with their father.

From the start, both Silda and Jenny were being used as symbols in different ways. To some commentators, they were not real women with real and very painful dilemmas but symbols to be manipulated to make both a personal and general point: One was a weak enabler while the other was a proud and independent woman who did what all women should do when humiliated by a lout of a husband. Between the lines, although in screaming italic, was a warning to the men in their lives that Jenny was the role model: Pay heed, darling. I will do the same.

To me, Jenny was never a hero. It was clear that her husband was having a classic midlife crisis, so enthralled with another woman that he virtually drooled his confession. He called his inamorata his "soul mate" and, with Cupid's poison arrow in his Republican heart (an oxymoron?), he wept. Then, in further evidence of temporary insanity, he called Jenny after his news conference to ask her how he did.

This midlife crisis is no joke. It registers a 6 or 7 on the emotional Richter scale and has the power to topple carefully constructed facades, compromises and hypocrisies. Shrinks can't cure it, only time can. Jenny had already given her husband enough time. She had come to realize -- a tad late as these things go -- that she had married a very weird fellow.

Eliot Spitzer had a different ailment -- something about risk, something about arrogance, possibly something only Silda knew about. Whatever it was -- and despite what it was -- Silda recognized that her obligation was not to womankind or to women in a similar situation or as warning to potentially wayward men everywhere, but to her family, particularly her three kids. They were teenage girls. We cannot begin to imagine their confusion and their pain and their . . . who knows? Silda walked them through it.

This is not a brief in favor of giving men (or women) a pass for infidelity or holding women solely responsible for keeping the family intact. It is, though, a brief to appreciate that these women are not vessels for the problems and anxieties of others nor exemplars of how, in some sort of emotional vacuum, these scandals should be handled. If anything, they should evoke humility. Life overwhelms us all.

The Spitzers live not far from where I do, and during the scandal I would often walk by the media stakeout in front of their building, look up and wonder how things were going. I would wonder about what was being said and what was being felt and what was happening with the kids. There was school the next day. That was a fact. It is also a fact that the kids went.

Jenny Sanford handled things her way, ending a marriage that, emotionally, had already ended. I don't judge her. Silda Spitzer, like so many other political wives, stayed, standing next to her husband, saying nothing. Recently, I saw the Spitzers in a restaurant, looking like any other couple out for the night. That, to me, said plenty.

cohenr@washpost.com


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