Dina Matos McGreevey is the latest political spouse to stand by her man, following the bracing, sisterly advice proffered by the Tammy Wynette ballad that has become the unofficial anthem of the American political wife. Sit by your man was the variant we observed during the Clinton years, when Hillary and Bill nestled side by side before the TV cameras to demonstrate their solidarity in the face of persistent accusations of marital infidelity.
Ten days ago, Mrs. McGreevey presented a perfect tableau of unshakable love and loyalty standing beside her husband throughout the televised news conference in which he declared, "My truth is that I'm a gay American." McGreevey confessed to a consensual extramarital affair and announced his intention to resign the governorship of New Jersey because, he said, the situation left him "vulnerable to rumors, false allegations and threats of disclosure" -- an apparent allusion to alleged threats from his former lover who, aides later said, was planning to sue him for sexual harassment.
Dressed in a feminine, sweetly stylish pastel blue suit, Mrs. McGreevey arranged her features in an expression so perfectly pleasant, impassive and unreadable as to make the Mona Lisa seem hysterically emotive. Nothing in her demeanor suggested that she was even considering any of the questions that naturally occurred to the viewer: How long had she known about this affair? Did it bother her that her husband termed himself gay and not bisexual? Was she doing the math, as we soon tried to do, to figure out whether her husband's affair with the man whom aides identified as former state employee Golan Cipel transpired during the time that she was pregnant with the couple's daughter, now 2 years old? How could the governor's wife not have noticed what the troopers who worked as her husband's bodyguards appear to have inferred? Had her husband never even hinted at the sexual identity problem he now says he'd been struggling with for most of his life? What, we found ourselves asking, would it have meant if she had refused to stand by her man in public? How much of her soul had she given over to his political handlers?
No one I've spoken to knows quite what to think. Surely, it's taking the moral high ground to be loyal, not simply to ditch a person you've loved enough to have a child with. It might be argued (and I would agree) that Dina McGreevey's most intimate feelings are not the public's business. And there's something admirable about remaining silent and displaying grace under pressure.
So perhaps what's troubling is the way that Dina McGreevey's sphinx-like presence at her husband's side seems like yet another aspect of the message we've been getting lately about the role of the wife, the political wife in particular, and, by extension, women. The stalwart, forgiving angel with endless patience and charity for the prodigal husband is the Victorian model, noble enough to be sure, but lacking certain qualities that we now recognize as fully human. What about pride and dignity, integrity, self-awareness?
Though this summer's remake of "The Stepford Wives" rapidly disappeared from the movie theaters, the robotic spouse remains alive and well in the American psyche. As our culture grows more conservative, men (and many women, too) have less trouble admitting that actually they prefer our women compliant, supportive, free of troubling personality quirks like outspokenness or ambition. Surely this is what commentators mean when they say that the reserved Laura Bush is more of a campaign asset than the high-spirited, multilingual Teresa Heinz Kerry. Though by all accounts Dina McGreevey was a busy woman (in addition to raising a toddler and performing her official duties, she was actively involved in numerous charities and foundations), when the moment of her husband's "truth" came, she smiled and nodded and looked blank.
If things had gone differently for her, she would have had a terrific future as a political wife, especially now that family values seem so important. We look so avidly, like hapless children, to Mom and Dad in the White House, or Mom and Dad in the governor's office, to provide an exemplary and perhaps unrealistic model for how to act like grown-ups.
Americans seem unwilling to admit what Europeans have long known -- that inspired and capable political leaders may well have problematic domestic lives. Never before have questions such as "What kind of husband is Candidate X?" or "Would we want to have tea with Candidate Y's wife?" worked so effectively to divert us from the real issues we should be addressing and that (unlike the topic of what our neighbor does in the bedroom) are nothing less than matters of life and death.
Not only do politicians' families often have trying private lives (even the most harmonious are subjected to the pressures of media scrutiny and long parental absences), but they function as distractions. Dina McGreevey's news conference appearance was a state government-level version, brightly lit by the garish glare of sexual scandal, of what happens every time we talk about a candidate's children and his religious values rather than about his economic policies or what is happening to our country. The real issues in this campaign year are neither the Bush twins nor the Kerry kids, but the future of Social Security and of our relations with the Muslim world.
By now, whenever I hear a politician speak about his or her private life, I look for what is being underemphasized. And in this case, I keep finding myself more concerned about the $110,000 annual salary that McGreevey paid his lover for a job as a homeland security adviser -- a position for which the aspiring Israeli poet apparently had few qualifications -- than I am about the governor's sexuality, or the fate of his marriage. And I am left wondering whether the governor may have been trying to use the American obsession with sex and celebrity gossip to his own advantage, hoping perhaps that the sympathy he would gain by declaring his lifelong identity crisis might outweigh the censure over the financial irregularities that were already beginning to blight his record.
Instead, like other political spouses and their squeaky-clean children, Dina McGreevey is being asked to play the shell game, to provide the sleight of hand that diverts our attention. As we speculate about the situation the governor created, about his spouse's passivity, her silence and about the shape of her future role as the wife of "a gay American," we forget another breach of promise -- the promise he made to his constituents. There are surely other people whom McGreevey should have invited to stand by him at that headline-grabbing news conference: a representative sampling of New Jersey taxpayers demonstrating their forgiveness, and their continued loyalty, love and support.