They've Been Cheated, Now What?
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 19, 1998; Page D01
The tip-off was a stack of love letters she discovered. Her husband was having an affair with her social secretary, for goodness' sake. Devastated, she offered him a divorce. She felt unattractive, unwanted. But divorce would disgrace their children and ruin his political career, so it was not a good option. He promised to leave his mistress though he secretly reneged on that pledge and the couple stayed together.
He went on to become president of the United States. And she went on to become Eleanor Roosevelt, the Eleanor Roosevelt of enduring fascination, a model of the strong, independent, compassionate first lady.
Hillary Rodham Clinton has often cited her as the kind of first lady she hoped to become, though it is doubtful she was thinking of the bond they shared as embarrassed wives deceived by unfaithful husbands.
For the cheated-on public woman, there is an endless stream of analysis, bar-stool and beauty-parlor probing of her demeanor in the aftermath of the misdeed. The TV talking heads weigh in instantly. The columnists opine. The radio jocks stir up the masses: What would you do if you were Lee Hart? Effi Barry? Kathie Lee Gifford? Frances Swaggart? Camille Cosby? Eileen McGann?
So many names. So many questions. Did she throw plates at the louse or suppress her rage? Is she beaming for photographers on the lawn but crying in the bathroom? Why doesn't she leave and why should she stay? How did she react upon learning the news?
Once again Hillary Clinton finds herself in this familiar place the woman scorned, a public figure under the national spotlight being dissected like a lab frog.
"People are sort of impressed when they call, that she's doing well," says a White House official who is close to her. "They say she sets an example for the rest of us in tough times."
But what is that example? We can draw some tentative conclusions from her actions of the past 72 hours, though in some respects those actions only deepen the mystery about her inner core. She accompanied her husband to church on Sunday, holding his hand, smiling. She invited Jesse Jackson over to the residence that night, saying 18-year-old Chelsea wanted to talk. Jackson prayed with mother and daughter and later described the first lady as pained and humiliated, but not shocked by her husband's latest sexcapade.
She was not by the president's side for his televised confession Monday night, as she was for his vague admission of infidelity on "60 Minutes" during the 1992 campaign. But she did help write his speech and participated in strategy meetings preparing him for his grand jury testimony.
It's not clear when Hillary Clinton first suspected her husband was sneaking around with an intern half her age, but her spokeswoman Marsha Berry said yesterday that the first lady learned only this past weekend that her husband would testify to having an inappropriate relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
As the Clintons departed yesterday for a 10-day vacation on Martha's Vineyard, they presented a wholesome family tableau. Walking across the South Lawn toward the helicopter, Chelsea held hands with her parents, dog Buddy trotting alongside.
Just as she has done in other times of turmoil, Mrs. Clinton portrayed herself yesterday as the loyal, protective partner. Through Berry, she conveyed that she loves her husband, is committed to their marriage and forgives him.
So commonplace, this ritual.
Think Lee Hart, arm draped around her husband, smiling and throwing the crowd a wave as Gary Hart withdrew from the 1988 presidential campaign amid reports of liaisons with other women.
Think Bea Romer, who earlier this year stood next to her husband, Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, as he awkwardly explained a "very affectionate" 16-year relationship with a longtime aide.
Think Judy Crane, who campaigned for her husband, Illinois Rep. Dan Crane, after he was censured by the House for having an adulterous affair with a 17-year-old page. "I love my husband," she said on the 1984 campaign trail. "I've forgiven him. So I'm going to stand behind him and that means I'm going to do everything I have to do to get him reelected."
Sometimes, a simple loving appearance by the wife is enough to save the abusing husband though Crane lost his election. Sometimes, the aggrieved spouse cannot bear to speak before an audience or submit to media cross-examination Berry says the first lady has no plans to do interviews so a written statement must suffice. Think Camille Cosby, who released this terse declaration last year after allegations that hubby Bill was the father of a 22-year-old daughter out of wedlock: "All old personal negative issues between Bill and me were resolved years ago. We are a united couple."
But often emotions are uncontrollable. They build and ebb, burn and burn out. They change on you.
Think Eileen McGann. Two years ago, her husband, Dick Morris, was on top of the world as Clinton's chief campaign strategist. Suddenly he was forced to resign amid evidence that he had carried on a year-long affair with a prostitute. This would be followed by a tabloid report that he had fathered a child with another woman.
After the news of his adultery broke at the Democratic National Convention, McGann drove Morris home to Connecticut. She appeared at his press conference. She posed for a Time magazine cover photo with him. She hung in there, though she told Newsweek that sometimes "I think about dismembering him, and good friends have offered to help me dig up the back yard and bury him."
It wasn't long before McGann, a successful trial lawyer, bolted, with Morris in vigorous pursuit, trying to win his wife back. Eventually, they vacationed in France, and are now back together.
Effi Barry's experience was similar, except she didn't come back. She was a picture of regal resolve, sitting behind Mayor Marion Barry during his trial on drug charges, listening as details of his wild times of sex and cocaine bingeing were played out in court, never so much as flinching. But according to the book "Dream City," she once returned to her husband's office after some particularly steamy testimony, shut the door and let him have it: "I'm a person too!" aides heard her shout.
Two months after he was convicted and sent to jail, they separated. Later, she filed for divorce.
Many of these modern public men should be happy that their modern public wives were not like Florence Harding, who kept a diary on the early exploits of Warren Harding, filled with "very bitter, enrageful maxims and thoughts about the issue of adultery," says Carl Sferrazza Anthony, author of "Florence Harding: The First Lady, the Jazz Age and the Death of America's Most Scandalous President."
Imagine such writings today if they got into the wrong hands.
Peggy Vaughan has spent a lot of time talking and writing about extramarital affairs. She has penned books, formed support groups, appeared on Oprah Winfrey's talk show and has her own Web site. She got started in this business after her husband of 19 years, James, volunteered in 1974 that he had been cheating on her for some time. Maybe 15 or 16 different women. He jotted down some sentences on a legal pad on a flight home and "literally read from his notes," she recalls. "That's what really started me on this path."
In 1980, the couple published "Beyond Affairs," which detailed their own experience. In the process, she has learned something about women like Hillary Clinton, women like herself.
"When you share so many life goals like the Clintons, their sex life and marriage are only part of their partnership," Vaughan says. "There's a strength of togetherness that comes from having to withstand the public outcry."
But as Berry said yesterday of the first lady: "It's certainly not one of the happiest days of her life."
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